Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook is quoted as saying, “I want every little girl who is told she is bossy to be told she has leadership skills!!” The fact that one of the most prominent business women in the United States must assert this in the year 2013 is a testament to the influence of society on inequality. Certainly, access to basic education is not the major issue in the United States. Public, private and even structured home educational programs are available to and required of all children. So, Western society offers education to girls. The question, however, is what do they actually learn?
Education begins with parents and early childhood education may also include child care and pre-school. So before children begin their formal education, experience, culture and expectation have molded them, gender roles established. Boys are expected to be rough and tough, play with cars, and be noisy; whereas, girls are expected to be nice and agreeable, play with dolls and keep quiet. If a child does not fit the mold through nature, nurture will steer him or her toward societal norms. Based on these norms, confidence and self-esteem is developed and pressure toward norms has the potential to devastate a child, boy or girl, who does not naturally fit that mold. Think about it, though. As a child you are socialized to be something you may NOT be…and, if you’re a girl, be quiet about it.
As girls get older, things don’t change much. Granted, on the surface, this is stereotypical but there is some basis in truth, so please bear with me. Studies have shown that the louder, tougher, more aggressive boys raise their hands more often to ask and answer questions. Receiving attention and praise, they continue this behavior, overshadowing the more agreeable and quieter girls. This type of interaction results in girls receiving less attention and praise, therefore, fewer opportunities to increase self-esteem. Because of this tendency and issues of attraction/distraction in pre-teens and teenagers, some studies show that girls perform better in school when they are educated in single-sex classes. The recent emphasis has been on increasing the number of girls pursuing an upper-level education in math and sciences, majors from which girls have been notoriously absent. I often wonder why this is suddenly news because this has been an issue since the inception of education, “explained” through any number of ignorant and erroneous theories. It is apparent, however, that the gap exists due to some level of psycho-social influence. As the extremely shy girl who knew the answers and rarely raised her hand, theoretically, I may have benefitted from a few single-sex classrooms.
Focusing on issues that uniquely affect the education of teenage girls, dating violence, pregnancy, bullying and rape stand out as just a few. According to The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, 22.4% of women first experienced some form of partner violence between 11 and 17 years of age. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the year 2010 alone, the number of live births to teenagers resulted in 350,000 live births to girls. The majority will suffer wide-ranging interruptions to their education.
Teenagers are increasingly affected by bullying and cyber bullying - the use of the internet and technology to deliberately and repeatedly harm others in a hostile manner - is fast becoming the preferred method. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, females are more often the victims of cyber bullying and are more likely to experience social or psychological bullying. Interference with education is just a small consequence as, all too often, cyber bullying elevates to a sexual nature. Alarming are the stories of teenage rape victims who discover videos of their rape shared across the internet resulting in extreme forms of harassment and worse. At least two girls in North America (that I know of) have committed suicide as they find little support from authorities. It is clear that the increasing incidents and cruelty of cyber bullying will have long-term effects on the education of girls in Western society.
The major barriers to the education of girls in all communities in the United States are directly related to society. Certainly, the barriers are not necessarily blatant, literal barriers to the education of girls. Unmistakably, however, the path toward equality is lined with deeply-rooted barriers, whether obvious or more subtle. The struggle continues for me and many others at a grassroots level through awareness and education; and at a higher level through action and legislation. For the sake of all, we must continue along the path and steadily break down each barrier to equality with full awareness of the next obstacle.
Take action! This post was submitted in response to Girls Transform the World 2013.