Playing Duplo trains with my three-year-old last week, we had a crisis. We couldn’t find the train driver. I picked up the girl who came with the set and put her in the driver’s seat. My little boy took her back out. “No, she is a girl – she can’t be the train driver. We need to find the driver,” he explained.
Now admittedly, he has never seen a female train driver in real life. But he has also never seen a male train driver – he has never been on a train. All of his assumptions about who can or can’t drive trains come from the make-believe world around him – the TV shows he watches, the books he reads, and his toys. In this case, a toy that came with a boy-driver and a girl-passenger.
Since they were able to talk, I’ve been having conversations with my three kids about jobs and careers and what they can do. I realised via a very early chat on the subject that they already had notions about who could do what – I had asked if there was any job girls can’t do, and they told me that girls can’t be footballers, builders or astronauts. I explained that that’s not the case, and I’ve kept the conversation going on and off ever since. But sometimes it feels like fighting a losing battle.
Like when I opened my daughter’s Irish book a few weeks ago, to find a photo-filled page about careers. There were two men on the page – one a doctor, one working in a bank. And there were two women – one working in an office and one a teacher. Would it have been so difficult to switch it up? Make the woman a doctor and the man a teacher? That one page is a small thing on its own, but when combined with similar messages in books, in ads, and on TV shows, it adds up to creating the idea that not all jobs are suitable for women.
And research shows that perceptions and gender stereotypes have a huge influence on career choices for girls, which in turn of course contributes towards the gender pay gap and the glass ceiling.
We know that convincing girls to try STEM subjects is a problem – Accenture produced an interesting report on this earlier this year. Their findings showed that while four out of five girls believe that studying STEM subjects creates career opportunities, 49% of them feel that STEM subjects match male career jobs and almost one-third believe they match boys’ brains, personalities and hobbies better.
So what’s causing this idea that girls are not suited to STEM careers? According to the report, a perception that the subjects are more difficult is the top reason girls give for steering clear. Girls also said that there’s not enough information around the subjects, and they see them as “more suited to boys.”
There is an age-old stereotype that says boys are better at maths, but a 2009 OECD report found that in 25 of 65 countries, there is no significant difference between the genders. In 35 of 65, boys outperformed girls, and in five countries, girls outperformed boys. What this suggests is that performance differences are linked to culture and national policy, not gender. In other words, there is something we can do to fix it.
Not every girl will want to go into a STEM career, nor should they feel they should. It’s just about keeping all the options open, and not avoiding particular subjects or careers, because of gender stereotyping, lack of information, and social conditioning.
And of course there’s no overnight solution – it’s a conversation we need to keep having with our children.
Earlier this year, my then seven-year-old caught me by surprise when she said something about women and work. She was surmising that a friend’s mum might be off work for the summer, “Because dads have harder jobs than mums.”
I was surprised and asked her about it.
“Because it’s easier for her mum to take holidays. I mean it must be easier, because mums take more days off, especially in summer. I think that even though dads really love their kids, they know that both parents can’t take time off work at the same time or there wouldn’t be enough money. So mums take holidays and dads go to work. That’s what I mean. So it’s a bit easier for the mums.”
This, in spite of the fact that she’d see seen me work full-time for most of her life, and almost all of her friends’ mums work too. But indeed, many of the mothers she sees around her take Fridays off, or weeks off during holidays, which she in turn assumes means we have easier jobs. Oh the irony. So in my house at least, this isn’t something I can say once and leave at that – I have to keep getting the message across.
Women can do anything they want. Even drive Duplo trains.
This was first published on HerFamily.ie