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We May Be Holding Our Daughters Back Without Even Realizing It

If someone asked you if you were a good parent, I bet you’d reply yes, or that you do your best, or [insert other positive remark here]. If you have a daughter and they asked if you ever held her back in a way, I’d warrant that once again you’d deny that. You give her every opportunity you can, right? But is that really the case?

A Verizon ad called “Inspire Her Mind,” which was made in conjunction with Makers, highlights how parents unintentionally discourage their daughters’ interests in science. Whether it’s telling your girl “You don’t want to mess with that” when she’s exploring and getting her hands dirty, or having her hand over a power tool so her brother can finish the project, aren’t we all guilty of defining gender-types and, in doing so, discouraging girls from their natural abilities?

I know I am. Over the weekend, my family and I went to play catch with my son’s new Nerf aero ball. My husband laughed at my attempts, joking that they were “girl throws.” My 8-year-old son laughed and imitated my poor throws. Thankfully, when my 3-year-old daughter Riley (yes, my girl has a boy’s name) took her turn, we all cheered at every attempt. The stereotyping was aimed at me, not her. Yet I still struggle with it. I have to be careful that when I tell her she’s beautiful, I also tell her she’s smart and that being smart is what’s most important. There is a part of me that delights in the fact that she refuses to wear dresses and only wears her hair in a simple ponytail, that she plays with LEGOs and toy cars and copies her older brother in all he does. I’m happy that she wants to find her own way, and I’m not going to force her into princess dresses and tiaras if she resolutely hates them. If she’s a tomboy, so what?

After all, isn’t childhood where the social conditioning begins? Boys get dirty, girls should be tidy. Boys look for adventure, girls should be careful. Boys fight and lead and are rowdy, girls should know better. Ultimately, the message we force home is simply this: girls shouldn’t take risks. The science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields are all about taking risks — exploring, discovering, processing, and developing. We need to be encouraging these traits on both boys and girls — not quelling them!

The Verizon video addresses this with some shocking stats: 66 percent of fourth-grade girls say they like science and math, but only 18 percent of all college engineering majors are female. So where does the decline in passion begin? According to Verizon, confidence drops from 72 percent to 55 percent between middle school and high school. Why is this? Are we parents to blame? After all, the ad doesn’t focus on the child and what she’s doing, but on how we react to it. Or is it school peer pressure to be pretty and popular? In a culture that values beauty and celebrities over brains and science, which way is any girl going to go?

What’s awful is that we women, mothers, friends all collude in this mindset. You think we don’t? Just take a look at this ad about what it means to do something “like a girl,” in effect making it an insult. Obviously this is nothing to be ashamed of, so why is the connotation out there? It’s not only worked its way into my Sunday afternoon of playing catch with my family but also into the greater workforce. Of the female workforce, only 24 percent have jobs in the STEM field.

So what can we do? The “Inspire Her Mind” video closes with a powerful quote by Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code. “Isn’t it time we told her she’s pretty brilliant, too?” she asks. That’s why today, when my daughter took a LEGO petrol pump piece and pretended it was a stethoscope to check to see if I was ill (don’t worry, she decided I’m fine!), I asked if she wanted to be a doctor when she grew up. She said yes, and I immediately bought her a toy doctor set online. Turns out “Inspire Her Mind” has inspired me, too. What about you?

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