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.


An agenda with gender.

In 2010, I was living 100km north of Tokyo with my partner, and my mother-in-law sent us a care package from home. Included within this box of parochial delights and Australian paraphernalia was a book by Cordelia Fine, called ‘Delusions of Gender‘. It threw me for six.

156177_10150089481086405_2451210_nAs a zoologist who’d witnessed so many differences between males and females across hundreds of species, and who had assumed a huge amount of it was genetically determined or at least, significantly genetically influenced, this book challenged me. In a good way. It became one of the big defining steps in me wanting to further the feminist cause, and tackle the misconceptions that were continually being perpetuated by all sorts of people (myself included only days earlier).

It wasn’t that Fine argued that there were no differences at all between males and females. It was instead that she questioned the long-accepted and assumed reasons for why those differences have occurred, and interrogated the scientific literature behind them. It was brilliant, funny and yet confronting to see how much weak or even blatantly biased science had continued to occur in this area of psychology. She again touched on some of these major points in a more recent article in The Conversation, where she explained how scientific research itself can be ‘neurosexist’ – that is, subtly reinforcing and strengthening gender stereotypes in the experimental design and measurement – which then leads to researchers essentially getting the results they always expected to see, and often omitting key variables or influencers in their sample population. Not all of it is deliberate or malicious in intent but irrespective of intent, the fallout is significant.

For a female who works in science, and has to regularly encounter salient norms around the ‘female ability (or perhaps rather inability) to be a good scientist’ – strengthening these types of unhelpful stereotypes is both unethical and harmful, especially to the many who later fall victim to the prejudice and bias that can arise.

To illustrate this more explicitly – there is such a thing as ‘priming‘ gender in people. It could be done overtly or subtly, but priming makes people aware of their gender, and then aware of their gender’s stereotypical abilities or inabilities. It’s been demonstrated that people adjust their perception of themselves to better fit that stereotype, and subsequently adjust their performance in tests to then match that stereotype.

In the case of assessing emotions, the perpetuated myth is that women are better. In fact, there’s no differences between genders in how good we are at this. It gets more interesting though when you prime the subjects you’re testing (i.e. remind them of their biological sex and its associated stereotype) – and suddenly that’s when the differences start to show.

You can even go further than just making them aware of their gender:

  • Tell participants that ‘women generally perform better on these tasks’ – and they do.
  • Tell participants that there’s no difference between sexes, and then there isn’t. When you pay participants for every correct answer, men are curiously suddenly VERY good at being emotionally sensitive – and equal to women in their abilities.
  • Tell the male participants that emotional sensitivity makes them very attractive to women, and they do even better than the other conditions.

Similarly – for tasks that have been stereotypically associated with male skill (e.g. visual spatial rotation tasks) the same effect happens in the other direction. Tell men that this skill is linked more typically to ‘female/feminine’ jobs and their abilities decline. Ultimately I came away with a very healthy skepticism of terms like ‘hardwired differences’ especially when used in relation to differences in men and women (and even moreso when it is used in mass media reporting on such studies).

As a species we like to fit in. We behave in the way expected of us – to be normal or typical in our behaviour. Even if we think we are really independent in our thought, the results actually show otherwise – we’re hilariously fickle and ultimately like being part of the pack – however the pack is being defined in that period of history, or even in that minute as those studies showed. It amuses me that one of the most fixed things about us is our ability to be fickle and change. Whilst that might be frustrating at times – especially when you’re a female in a profession dominated by men, or suffering at the result of these stereotypes in any situation – it is also a liberating thought. We have a huge capacity to change, to adjust our thoughts and performance, and challenge those norms.