It’s natural for parents to want the best for their children. More often than not, parents want their children to live in a world without limits, in which they know that everything is possible, and where they’re kept safe from harm.
Unfortunately, the reality is that children are not raised in a vacuum, and they have to participate in the big bad world. According to a research paper published by the Harvard School of Education, called Leaning Out: Teen Girls and Leadership Biases, despite the gains made in terms of women’s rights and gender equality, there is still a big gap in the number of women in leadership roles. And what’s really interesting, is that parents are sometimes the cause of this.
“Girls are bombarded with constricting, demeaning images and stereotypes of females both in their daily interactions and in the media and culture, which can erode their confidence in their leadership [abilities] and negatively affect every corner of their lives,” the report states.
This can be exacerbated by parents who, despite the best intentions, reinforce gender roles and stereotypes. Parents are likely to inadvertently reinforce gender bias by assigning caretaking roles to girls and by failing to confront and critique misogynistic and sexist behaviour.
By telling young girls not to be “bossy” and using words like “fireman”, instead of firefighter, parents send subliminal messages to their daughters about who is allowed to do what. Statements like “girls are not that good at maths”, or creating a binary between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ girls cultivates a narrow definition of what it means to be a woman, and a woman’s potential.
Doctor Tlaleng Mofokeng, gender activist and reproductive health doctor, says African religions and cultures are often used to maintain strict gender roles that discourage young girls from flourishing.
“In Africa, we are more religious and cultural. We use a lot of patriarchal messages to stop the advancement of women. We say: ‘this is how we have always done things’ and ‘this is how our ancestors have always done it,'” she says.
The need for women in leadership positions cannot be underestimated. A Forbes report revealed that the best-performing companies are those that have the greatest number of women in leadership roles.
So, how do you raise a daughter to be confident enough to take on a leadership role? The Harvard report has some ideas.
Constantly challenge sexism
Mothers often tell their daughters that when a boy is mean to her, it means he ‘likes’ her. The report suggests that adults need to find meaningful ways to challenge boys’ powerful tendencies to bond and prop each other up by sexualising, and in other ways demeaning girls. There is evidence that misogyny and sexual harassment is pervasive among teens.
Find good role models for your daughters
Representation matters. Showing young girls what is possible can help increase their self-esteem. Teaching your daughter about bold women in different industries, and inspiring historical figures, can boost her belief in her own abilities and give her courage to push for her dreams.
Avoid stereotyping different chores
Often parents will assign chores based on gender. The boys will be tasked with mowing the lawn while the girls will be the ones doing the laundry and helping with dinner. The report suggests creating a chore wheel that the children spin to see who does which family chores. This helps prevent boys and girls from falling into familiar gender-based family roles.
Find programs that nurture leadership in young girls
Look out for after-school programmes and activities that nurture your daughter’s talents and skills in various fields. These could be in areas of civil leadership, business or politics.
Challenge your bias
Dr Mofokeng says it’s important for older people and parents to work to dismantle their own stereotypes. The women who have always been told that they can only study Home Economics, or be nurses and teachers, are now expected to advise young women who want to be mechanical engineers, lawyers and doctors. These women will have to work hard to challenge what they have always been taught were womens’ limits.
Additional reporting: Forbes, Harvard School of Education