Isabela Caltabiano
Empowering Girls to Dream Big
5 mins
I have always felt lucky because I grew up thinking I was as good as anyone else. But as I have been reading so much research about children and girls, it has made me realise that we should be talking so much more about the alarming state of girls’ confidence today.

I always felt as if I was as good as the boys in my class, but it shocks me to read that girls as young as five are less likely than boys to view their gender as smart, thereby losing confidence in their own capability and competence. Even more disheartening is the fact that over half of ten/eleven year old girls do not believe that they are smart enough for their dream job, something which is referred to as the ‘dream gap’. Puberty marks the downfall of the care-free existence that boys experience much later into their childhoods, bringing about not only scary bodily changes, but also societal expectations of what womanhood should be like. As girls reach puberty around the age of 12, we see a plummet in confidence compared to boys (17% difference), with the confidence gap increasing to a staggering 24% by the time girls reach the age of 15.

 But how can we make girls feel as capable as boys, and challenge ingrained gender stereotypes which hold them back? Brands like LEGO have started participating in this movement, accepting the responsibility that brands have in shaping children’s and wider society’s perceptions of gender. LEGO has pledged to remove gender bias from all future toys, after research by the Geena Davis Institute found that parental and child attitudes to play spill into future gender and career expectations. The study found that parents are much more likely to encourage boys to engage with toys related to STEM, while being more likely to encourage girls to engage with dancing, dress up and baking. 

What is the issue with that? Well, children learn through play, which helps them model future behaviours; as put by Professor Gina Rippon, playing with toys offers ‘training opportunities’ for children, which helps them develop important skills for the future. Depriving girls from STEM-based toys such as LEGO may limit the development of important spatial and problem-solving skills, while discouraging boys from playing with dolls may hinder the development of empathy and nurturing abilities, which means that we may be inadvertently magnifying the differences between boys and girls from childhood. Labelling toy aisles as containing toys that are ‘for girls’ or ‘for boys’ exacerbates this difference as it teaches children that some toys are ‘not for them’, while also promoting negative perceptions around playing with toys ‘belonging’ to the opposite gender - just think about how many young boys would be mortified to be caught playing with dolls. Parents were found to be six times more likely to think of scientists as men (and eight times as likely to think of engineers as men), highlighting how gendering play patterns during development can influence future career expectations in society. It is therefore no surprise that girls feel like they are not smart enough for their dream jobs, given that they are not provided the chance to further develop essential skills for these roles during childhood, and are not supported by their parents and wider society to venture into these careers. 

We also cannot underestimate the power of strong female role models in shaping the future beliefs and aspirations of young girls, and the power of mothers. Ever since we are born, our mothers are the centre of our universe; babies intrinsically look up to their mothers as a source of safety and protection, and mothers serve as young girls’ first-ever female role models. Based on my experience, I do believe that strong female role models can have a protective effect on girls’ self-esteem and their own sense of perceived capability. As a child, I saw my mother as the most incredible and successful person in the world, regardless of gender, and it made me feel like I could be like that too when I grew up. 

The examples girls have while growing up can be powerful tools in deconstructing the limits society puts on their future aspirations and help bridge the ‘dream gap’. Growing up with mothers they look up to and being able to play with toys such as robotics engineer Barbie, as well as seeing themselves represented in the content they consume, shows girls that they can be whatever they want to be. Series and movies such as Pokemon, Doctor Who and Barbie have shown young girls that women can be the main characters in stories about winning, success and power, which were traditionally starred by men. I remember being 12 years old and being surprised (and impressed) when I first watched Princess Merida and Elsa defy what I believed was the fate for a Disney princess, who represented the epitome of my role models at the time. Others like Moana and Raya followed, showing a new generation of girls that brave and independent women can forge their own paths, regardless of what society expects them to be. 

Young girls look up to and wish to emulate these figures, which is why representation and positive female role models are so important - girls internalise what they see and what they deem to be possible or not for themselves in the future. New generations of girls can grow up listening to bedtime stories about how inspirational women like Malala changed the world, and believe that they are as strong and capable as the female leads they see on their televisions, tablets, mobile phones and even in their own homes. 

I hope that we can live in a future where girls never doubt their capabilities because they were never taught to do so by society, envisioning that they can achieve success in whatever field their hearts desire; I trust that the kids and family industry can play an important role in allowing girls to dream limitlessly. 

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