Girls have been told they can be anything they want to be, and it shows. They are seizing opportunities closed to previous generations — in science, math, sports and leadership.
But they’re also getting another message: what they look like still matters more than any of that.
Boys seem to have been largely left out of the conversation about gender equality. Even as girls’ options have opened up, boys’ lives are still constricted by traditional gender norms: being strong, athletic and stoic.
These are findings from a new American representative poll of 1000 children and adolescents 10 to 19, along with other research on this age group, which is not surveyed often. They show gender attitudes of a generation on the verge of adulthood.
In the survey, conducted by PerryUndem, a research and polling firm, a majority of girls said sexism was still a problem — yet in many ways, they felt empowered. Girls were slightly more likely than boys to say being a leader was a very important life goal, evidence of a significant shift in gender expectations.
“I’m all in for leadership,” said Isabelle Reksopuro, 13, one of eight eighth graders at Happy Valley Middle School in Happy Valley, Oregon, we interviewed this week. She is captain of the debate team and a member of the student council, and wants to become a scientist. “In this school, girls and boys have equal opportunities; it just depends on your talent.”
When boys and girls were asked about their goals and aspirations, the responses were similar. Three-quarters said having a successful career was very important. A third of respondents or less, of either gender, said marrying or having children was a very important goal.
By far, they said society considered physical attractiveness to be the most important female trait.
Girls were as likely as boys to say math or science was their favourite subject, and to have considered running for office. They said they were mostly treated fairly compared with boys.
Yet when it came to their bodies, girls said they did not feel equal. About three-quarters of girls 14 to 19 in the survey said they felt judged as a sexual object or unsafe as a girl. By far, they said society considered physical attractiveness to be the most important female trait — a view that adult women share, surveys have found. Girls were also more likely than boys to say they felt a lot of pressure to put others’ feelings before their own.
About half said they hear boys making sexual comments or jokes about girls daily, including a quarter of girls 10 to 13. One-third of teenage girls have heard these comments from men in their families.
– Claire Cain Miller
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