The Importance of Rad Women
My six-year-old daughter got two interesting books as gifts recently. One is called Rad Women Worldwide by Kate Schatz (Ten Speed Press, 2016) and the other is Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls by Francesca Cavallo and Elena Favilli (Timbuktu, Inc., 2016). Both books are awesome and full of stories about women throughout history who did amazing things against incredible odds. My daughter is obsessed. I went into her room this morning and she was huddled over one of the books reading about this brave woman who resisted Mussolini. She asked me, “Papa, what does ‘tyrannical’ mean?”
I’ve been thinking a lot about gender lately. It can be a pretty overwhelming topic, especially when you try to root out your own gender biases. Most of us are pretty conscious of not pushing pink on girls and maybe even letting our boys paint their toenails, but is that enough? Is it natural that my son is stalking me through the house with an assault rifle style nerf gun while my daughter is making jewelry for herself and wearing her fourth dress of the day?
One thing I’ve realized is the crucial role that stories play in kids’ concept of gender. Stories are alive for kids – you can tell your daughter to “never give up” a hundred times, but she’s going to understand the concept more when you tell her the story of the tortoise and the hare. And, on the whole, our treasured stories are biased. They just are. They are full of adventurous, aggressive, confident boys and pretty girls who are dreamers that need to be saved. Our stories help our kids decide who they are and what they can be.
A 2017 study looking at 5- to 7-year-old boys and girls showed the potential influence of stories. (1) First researchers showed 5-year-olds a picture of a man and woman and then told a story about a person who was “really, really smart.” When asked to guess who the person was, the 5-year-olds chose the man and woman equally – mostly according to their own gender. But by ages six and seven something had changed. Girls were suddenly much less likely to guess that the female was the smart person in the story.
Why is that? What happens between 5 and 7? Kindergarten. In kindergarten, kids start to learn stories about famous people. They learn about famous scientists like Albert Einstein and Louis Pasteur. They learn about famous explorers and painters, who are all men. They learn that all of our presidents have been men. No one is telling them that boys are smarter than girls, or that boys are better at math than girls. But kids are smart, and they get that message from the stories they hear.
What about at home? We talk to our boys and girls similarly when it comes to things like math and science, right? Maybe not. A 2003 study looked at 52 young adolescents around ages 11-13 years old. (2) Parents engaged the kids in several teaching activities involving science topics. Even though the kids had similar interest in the topics beforehand (based on questionnaires that they filled out), parents tended to believe that science was less interesting and tougher for their daughters than their sons. Fathers used more in-depth and challenging language when talking to their sons about science versus their daughters. The kicker was that the parents’ beliefs about their kid’s interest predicted how interested their kids ended up after the lesson – sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy. How we parents talk to our daughters about math and science might also explain why only 29% of STEM (Science, Technology, Mathematics, and Engineering) jobs in our country are filled by women.
As parents trying to create confident kids, we need to think about the stories we tell them. It may be very true that a majority of the influential figures in history have been men. We don’t have to hide that. But we need to seek out stories about “rad, rebel” women and also be conscious about the language we use when talking about math and science. Other than the two books I already mentioned, try looking at the website www.amightygirl.com/books, for suggestions of over 2,000 books with strong women characters for boy and girl readers of all ages.
1. Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge early and influence children’s interests. Bian, Lin et al. Science. 27 Jan 2017; 355(6323). 389-391. doi: 10.1126/science.aah6524.
2. Parent-child conversations about science: the socialization of gender inequities? Tenenbaum HR, Leaper C. Developmental Psychology. 2003; 39(1):34-47.