If the notion of “girl power” is ever going to pack a convincing punch, then it’s critical that this generation of girls and boys grows up in an environment where gender parity is the norm, not the exception.
While women continue to make strides at the workplace, their paths remain rife with challenges, and research shows that girls can veer off track by their early teens. Furthermore, while boys and girls are on a level playing field in elementary school, by the time girls reach middle school, a sudden shift to body consciousness and social acceptance can pull focus from academics, causing girls to shelve their ambitions as well as undermining a meaningful career trajectory.
Consider this research conducted on behalf of Junior Achievement and EY in 2017 of one thousand 13- to 17-year-old students. The survey shows that career preferences remain deeply divided along gender lines, with 36 percent of boys indicating pursuit of careers in STEM vs. only 11 percent of girls.
When describing their dream jobs, the teens were asked why they were interested in those professions, and the top answers illustrate an interesting difference in focus. 28 percent of the boys “think it would be fun,” while 25 percent of the girls want “to help people.”
When it comes to the skills teens want to learn to prepare for their dream jobs, 27 percent of girls name technology skills, compared to 54 percent of their male counterparts.
These findings underscore the need to build an inclusive culture and experience for girls, and to eliminate preconceived notions of what girls can or cannot achieve. That means going beyond the broad notion of “girl power” by helping them explore a variety of careers in very specific ways.
While planning a career is probably not on the radar in elementary school, it’s the ideal time to lay the groundwork. Exposing girls to real-life female role models who are successful in a variety of business and industry fields helps make dreams tangible. As a youth career education advocate and author of girls’ books, I encourage girls to job shadow and conduct interviews with friends and family members to learn about jobs and careers. I also recommend participating in and discussing event-driven days such as International Women’s Day (March 8, 2018) and Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work® Day (April 26, 2018), or the meaning of Women’s History Monty (March). Such events may not budge the needle individually, but collectively, they serve as bold calls to action that send the right messages and evoke positive change.
Care should also be taken to expose girls to diverse female characters in books and media that portray women in leadership positions in the workplace. For instance, women continue to be underrepresented in all STEM fields of study (science, technology, engineering and math). Pat Woody Reeves, the former chief engineer of the U.S. Naval Surface Warfare Center in Philadelphia, was the inspiration behind one of the characters in my book Super Science Girls! According to Reeves, “Girls are as naturally inquisitive as boys, and if they are exposed to science at a young age, they are likely to embrace it.” Helping girls discover the relevance of STEM in everyday life stimulates curiosity and problem-solving skills and introduces a variety of career paths.
Parents and teachers play pivotal roles in providing rich age-appropriate learning opportunities to develop leadership tools such as clear, effective communication, resiliency, and conflict resolution skills. We want girls to know that with hard work, perseverance and passion, they can achieve anything to which they set their minds. Collectively, let’s redefine the notion of “girl power” for the next generation of young women. At an earlier age, let’s help girls visualize career opportunities and not only provide adequate access to the tools they need to become confident leaders, but an environment that enables them to put those skills and tools into practice.
Ellen Langas is a nationally recognized youth career education advocate and author of the award-winning Girls Know How® book series that inspires children to explore the careers of their dreams. Find free career development activities and more information at www.girlsknowhow.com.