By preschool or early elementary school, girls and boys can be interested in very different activities—but could that be preventing our daughters from succeeding in the future? My two sons enjoy interests such as science, computers, and chess class, which are all excellent ways to expose children to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects. While these programs aren’t officially intended to be gender-specific, they are often largely, if not completely, comprised of boys.
Young girls may be exposed to far less math and technology than their male counterparts, even at home. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology finds that among preschool-aged children, “Parents speak to boys about number concepts twice as often as they do to girls.” And a report by the nonprofit organization Girls, Inc. reveals that while many girls ages six and under use computers on a daily basis, a higher percentage of boys in that age group use computers every day.
Does it really matter at such an early age? Yes. Alicia Chang, Ph.D., lead author of the study in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology, says, “Researchers have found that early experiences can impact later interest and perception of competence in fields such as math.”
Researchers acknowledge that the bias may be completely unintentional. Studies also show that girls enjoy math and science activities. “Seventy-four percent of girls do like these subjects,” says Kamla Modi, Ph.D., Research and Outreach Analyst at the Girl Scouts Research Institute and lead author of the study “Generation STEM.” Experts also state that a little conscious reinforcement can go a long way toward encouraging our daughters to pursue hobbies that will help develop STEM skills.
Suggested Activities and What Girls Can Learn from Them
Science: There are many opportunities for girls to learn about science, from nature camps and programs at zoos and planetariums to simple activities, such as counting bugs while on a walk. “They like problem solving, they like understanding how things work. They like hands-on science projects,” says Modi.
Chess: Playing chess can develop memory, concentration, logic and problem-solving skills. However, the game can be much more popular with boys than girls, even at the early elementary school level. Peggy Orenstein, author of “Cinderella Ate My Daughter,” recounts that her daughter, Daisy, wanted to attend chess camp, but had second thoughts when she realized all the other students were boys. Orenstein’s advice to her daughter, “If you had a friend and that friend was going to an activity that she really wanted to go to and there were all boys, would you let that stop her? Do you think the fact that she’s a girl should keep her from doing something she might love?”
Computers: A little more screen time for girls could be a good thing. According to clinical psychologist Susan Oh Cha, Ph.D., author of “Guest Pass: Access to Your Teen’s World,” playing video games could actually help girls. “This is one way in which they can work on increasing certain skills, such as hand-eye coordination and visual-spatial tasks,” Cha explains.
Sports: It’s not surprising that girls who play sports are more physically fit. Equally important, athletic girls also have healthier body images. And playing sports could develop skills necessary to succeed in the boardroom. According to a study by Girls, Inc., 82 percent of female executives reported having played organized sports during youth. Although you may want to avoid activities that emphasize physical appearance, athletics are not limited to team sports. Individual pursuits, such as yoga or biking, can also help girls become strong and confident.
What Parents Can Do
Encourage daughters to try things—even if their friends aren’t. Uma Subramian, an engineer and mother of two from San Jose, California, says that in the high-tech world, she is often the only woman in a meeting. She encourages her eight-year-old daughter, Maya, to be comfortable trying activities such as chess or baseball, even if she is the only girl in the group. “We point out to her that she has fun,” says Subramian. “It doesn’t matter if others don’t do it. If she’s having a good time and if she’s good at it, why wouldn’t she do it?”
Watch out for “pinking” of toys. Science or building kits that are specifically geared to girls may be enticing, but think about whether that sparkly exterior is necessary. “The toy culture profits a lot,” says Orenstein. “They have been making things that didn’t used to be sex-specific, like Legos.” One common pitfall is that toys aimed at girls can be overly prescriptive, encouraging girls to follow instructions or act out certain storylines. Instead, look for toys that encourage open-ended experimentation and play.
Talk about math and science concepts at home. As soon as kids can count, parents can encourage their daughters to use math in everyday life. “Learn how to measure ingredients to bake a cake, count the number of blocks, build, or create,” suggests Modi.
Be your daughter’s biggest influence. In the study of gender bias in number exposure to preschool-aged children, Chang acknowledges that the disparity between the way parents treat boys and girls is probably inadvertent. Awareness of these gender inequalities is key to change. With that in mind, parents can help shape and encourage their daughters to succeed in a variety of interests and future careers.