Believing it to be true. Then making it so.

On average around the world today, one girl under fifteen years of age is married every seven seconds.

I’ll just give you a moment to ponder on that. Absorb it. Get a bit mad. Feel a bit crap. Whatever your reaction. Perhaps there’s no reaction because they are the kind of stats that are just too hard to deal with, or we’ve dealt with now too often. However, forcing children to marry should provoke a reaction in us.

So many things contribute to this statistic. One of those things comes from the gender stereotypes being internalised by the children themselves, at quite a young age. Save the Children did some research recently which demonstrated this very effect, where children (both in West Africa and the U.S) thought (incorrectly) that boys were smarter than girls, and (incorrectly) that girls needed less schooling than their male classmates. This effect was seen in kids as young as 8 years old (although I’d hazard a guess you’d see this even younger, but I’m not sure they surveyed children that young this time around). Children themselves were latching onto the beliefs that girls were just not worth the educational effort. The girls themselves thought they weren’t worth the effort. Yikes. And this finding was not just in countries where schooling was more hard to come by, but also in the U.S. of A. where you could argue, relatively speaking, that across that country more girls are already receiving decent (if not amazing) education in comparison to many remote towns in West Africa.

Studies elsewhere have found similar: 400 kids across eight different countries were interviewed and surveyed the previous year, and internalised gender stereotypes were demonstrably evident by age 10. And those children incorrectly saw girls as vulnerable or weak. Whilst the study also found that girls seemed more able to challenge gender norms in a number of the surveyed countries (i.e. pursue and demonstrate traits and interests historically labelled as ‘boyish/male’), boys who did the reverse and exhibited traits that are stereotypically labelled as ‘feminine’ suffered negative consequences for doing so. The idea of a ‘tomboy’ was still more socially acceptable than its flipside… further highlighting the inherent hierarchy of ‘male’ traits being more valued than ‘female’ traits.

It sucks. Because it means girls themselves don’t think they’re capable of things, they are capable of, and can therefore sabotage their own efforts (subconsciously, unconsciously or consciously). Couple that with some other significant structural and cultural barriers obstructing their access to education, and you can start to see where the child being made a bride every 7 seconds arises from.

For those girls living in countries and areas where marrying young is less culturally acceptable, these internalised stereotypes can still stifle their efforts and achievements,  in their careers and studies – and even moreso when they study subjects or undertake professions that have been historically more closely linked with, and occupied by, males. A study published earlier this year looked at women in Germany who are undertaking studies in STEM (science, tech, engineering and maths for those new to the term)… 296 women surveyed from a number of universities, all in STEM programs that had less than a third female students. So a clear social norm being placed in front of them there (“Hey there, minority lady! What brings you to this lab?).

The study looked at how their own individual stereotypes contributed to their self-concept in STEM, along with support they got in school and from their family. Did they see themselves linked to careers in STEM? No surprise – their own individual stereotypes played a negative role in terms of their self-concepts. Perhaps more interestingly was that so too did the family influence… in fact, families and parents who gave direct support to their girls tended to make the stereotype more explicit, and therefore became a negative influence in terms of their self-concept in STEM. The cheer squad on the STEM sidelines backfired. As a young woman who has worked and studied in STEM herself, and who is now raising a super young female (I’ll let you interpret that as either ‘super-young’ or ‘super, young’) it concerns me that by encouraging and directly supporting any interests in STEM, I can actually negatively reinforce the stereotype in my child… I guess when you make a big fuss of a ‘GIRL ACTUALLY DOING THE SCIENCE AND MATHS THING’ then what is reinforced also is that ‘NOT MANY GIRLS ARE DOING THIS….’ and those girls will question why that is so…. (and if they’re embracing the scientific method, then they will almost certainly ask this of themselves)… and possibly come to a conclusion that their sex or gender makes them unsuited to the career.

Even though the students participating in the study presumably had good grades in STEM, stereotypes still corrupted their self-concept. One of the reasons for this might lie in stereotypes that attribute girls’ achievements to diligence instead of talent.” Or, in other words, us ‘sciencey-girls’ have had to work really, mega-hard to achieve in these fields, because we’re overcoming a ‘natural ineptness at all things numbers’.

It isn’t all crap news though… there are ways to overcome these pesky and stinky stereotypes (HOORAY FOR SCIENCE!!). In the case of the younger kiddlywinks, the parental and adult influencers are pretty darned important because they role-model what is expected for the various genders (or not, as the case may be). Kids will also closely look at other kids and a lot of their sense of self is affected by seeing kids they identify with, doing those things. So is their efficacy in learning and picking up different skills and tasks – with Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory emphasising how important observational learning is for children, i.e. kids being able to see other kids doing something, in order to expect to be good at it themselves and try it. It makes it suddenly seem within the realms of possibility to a child. So ensuring that kids more organically come into contact with examples of women and men doing less old-school-stereotyped behaviours will help (and ‘old school’ in this context does not mean ‘retro cool’, like an oversized Hypercolour t’shirt or an original vinyl copy of the White Album… it means, ditch the mini-disc player, you fool – NOBODY cares about it anymore).

Having kids see other kids challenging those stereotypes and being effective at skills not always associated historically with their gender, is also enormously helpful. Gender is one of the early labels they learn to categorise their world, and (being the social species we are) they want to be like those in their group… which is often those of the same gender. The more kids in ‘their group’ who challenging the old school stereotypes, the more they’ll see it is possible and perhaps get less attached to the pink frilly doll…. or anything remotely Elsa-esque (but that is a rant for another day).

The German study highlighted the importance of role models in the schooling system and having positive experiences that indirectly support girls’ interest in STEM through socialization. Meeting role models who are enthusiastic about their own STEM professions helped. The profession and subject matter perhaps sells itself a little more and spurs a female student’s interest in the topics themselves… rather than stressing too much about the gender imbalance currently present in it, and in turn highlighting how RARE it is for her to be interested in this.

We have a fair way to go, before we make a significant dent in that 7 second statistic, but at least we already know some of the ways to lessen those internalised stereotypes – and perhaps begin to remove the unconscious self-sabotage.


And just to bring it home, here’s Beyonce lending her voice to addressing this statistic on International Day of the Girl last week… because….well… BEYONCE and some fierce movement from these young kids.


Silver lining on a storm cloud.

The last few weeks have seen some devastating natural hazards become enormous and compounding disasters. Three hurricanes came in quick succession – Harvey, Irma and Maria – through central America and the Caribbean islands. Hideous flooding throughout parts of Asia saw whole cities there under water too. Three earthquakes in Mexico city reduced buildings and people’s lives to rubble. And two volcanoes – one on Vanuatu, and another in Bali – are still ready to fire at any moment. Without even considering any of the human-originating hazards (like the threat of nuclear warfare happening in the north of the Pacific, or the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing conflicts in multiple countries) there’s certainly been a lot requiring the attention, support and funds from so many governments and aid organisations. I have been paying very close to attention to all of these, as they have enormous relevance to my current work for a major international NGO. I’ve spent the majority of this year ensconced in the world of emergency preparation and disaster risk reduction, trying to find ways for communities to better prepare themselves and reduce their own sources of risk – all with the aim of stopping a natural hazard from becoming a humanitarian disaster.

Many studies and reports have been done over the years highlighting just how many millions of lives and livelihoods could have been spared through better preparation and risk reduction, not to mention the billions of dollars spent in recovery and response. Hazards have been occurring for far longer than we have been around as a species (in fact, we can thank their presence for many awesome things we love and rely upon – volcanic soils, islands, reefs, etc) … why is it that humans (with all our complex brain-bits) are still not preparing for these events?

Well, it gets a little tricky to pin down one or two reasons. With all those complex brain-bits, we can thank multiple biases and habits (often interacting together) for establishing this recurring pattern of human history.

Recently, some smart peeps put their heads together and looked at some of the more commonly occurring cognitive biases we have, and how they have played roles in some of history’s biggest disasters – noting that many of these interact and overlap with each other. Six of the more common biases were outlined in a book published late last year called “The Ostrich Paradox” by Robert Meyer and Howard Kunreuther. If we are to help communities get better prepared, then we have to look at many of these biases at once, and across different segments of the public, to give ourselves the best shot at improving the track record here. Interestingly, they named the book after ostriches because, despite the Hollywood cartoon versions of ostriches we are accustomed to, ostriches don’t REALLY stick their heads in the sand (SPOILER ALERT). In fact, ostriches are a flightless bird – and they’ve evolved some really neat ways to avoid danger that don’t involve merely flying away. They argue we should be more like the ostrich – i.e. be aware of our cognitive biases and limitations and evolve some tricks to overcome them.

If this sounds of interest, then I highly recommend you buying/reading the whole book (and also because I endorse people supporting good science literature like this, and this one has real-world application) – however this might give you a taste of what they covered…

The six biases they discuss are:

  1. Myopia bias
  2. Inertia bias
  3. Simplification bias
  4. Herding bias
  5. Amnesia bias
  6. Optimism bias

Myopia refers to us thinking more in the short-term when it comes to planning. We know we should invest in longer term strategies to reduce impacts or mitigate risk, but more often we tend not to adopt them… we like living in the present. But it means we can ignore potential longer term futures and the less-than-great outcomes that may come with them…

Inertia… the classic bias that keeps us doing the default, the status quo, for as long as possible. This raises its head in a few ways – because the defaults we tend to stick to can vary immensely. Sometimes you might take action as a default, but in an emergency where it’s better to hang tight where you are, that can lead to serious outcomes. Sometimes you might not take action where you should  – because the action was new to you, or perhaps meant you having to consider lots of options…

Simplification bias plays quite a role in emergency preparedness, because of lot of preparing for emergencies involves us considering risk and the likelihood of things occurring. Humans are not great at computing and understanding probabilities – especially small ones – and so we group things into categories. Categories like ‘no chance of it occurring’ to ‘small chance of it occurring’. This can get vague quickly. It also means that we overestimate the impact of taking some small preventative actions to prepare, because similarly we tend to categorise that too… We can get our assessment of risk wrong in the first place; and then overestimate the impact of anything we did to reduce it.

“I’ll have what she’s having…” – whether it be a breakfast dish at a cafe or looking to our neighbours for their emergency planning. We are a social species and herding bias is a big one in emergencies. We look to others for cues on what is appropriate for us to do. Is everyone else doing it? Well then, I’m on board! We like to be similar… even if that means we all similarly do something really unhelpful to ALL of our situations. This bias means often humans hesitate for too long in a disaster situation – looking to others for the cue of what to do, and how to behave.

Amnesia bias is probably one of the more depressing biases for me. We have an enormous capacity to learn, but we often learn best from making mistakes and improving upon our performance. But if we do something right the first time, the experience may not actually be as impactful upon us. Planning for an emergency is a bit like this, because if you get it right, then logically you won’t experience quite as bad an outcome in the emergency itself, but then you don’t necessarily remember it as well either… because, well, it all kind of went ok. It doesn’t actually get as reinforced in our minds, as if we hadn’t prepared and perhaps lost all of our possessions. Coupled with this, as time goes on we also tend to forget details and our emotional memories can become a little dulled. Memories do fade… even for those who’ve experience major disasters, and memories of emotions fade even more. Despite our incredible capacity to learn, the way in which we learn does not always help us in situations like these.

And finally, the optimism bias… which links quite a bit to simplification and amnesia too… because we tend to think that, even if a disaster is likely, WE won’t be nearly as affected as others. A good example of this is knowing the high divorce rates in Western developed countries – but never ever considering that the statistics really ever apply to you… because somehow you’ll overcome those statistics. Your relationship will be FINE and continue on FOR EVER AND EVER AND EVER…. but those stats have gotta come from somewhere, eh? In fact there’s a couple of things at play in our heads here – thinking we’re more immune to the bad things happening is just one of them. We also have a tendency to focus on the low probability of an event occurring on any given day, rather than consider the probability over our lifetimes (a much longer time period). AND we also think something is more likely to occur if we can more easily imagine it. This all leads to a mindset of ‘well, it’s so unlikely it’s probably not worth worrying about… and even if something did happen, I’m sure we’ll be fine.’

Knowing that these biases (and others) are having these effects on our minds means we can get better at building in ways to overcome them in our emergency education or planning programs. The book outlines many ways we can start to overcome them, but I’ll leave it there for now. It is great to see more and more research being shared, and an emphasis on involving psychology more when it comes to helping communities reduce their disaster risks and impacts  – such as this recent piece in The Conversation this week.    The more we do this, the more effective we’ll be, and perhaps the more lives will be saved.

Despite being delightfully complex people we don’t always do what is best for us. Even I, who have been working on this area for almost a year now – still haven’t been able to ‘formalise’ my emergency preparation plan. I’m still patting myself on the back for purchasing a small ‘in-car first aid kit’ when I first started this job. It’s a start. But it is also a glaring case of optimism bias in action. That kit is not going to do much when the real crap hits the fan.