Girls Can Be Anything: Pushing Girls to the Centre of Development
"To all the little girls who are watching, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams." —Hillary Clinton in her 2016 concession speech.
In sixth grade, my physical education teacher once told a girl in my class, “You are too strong for a girl”. Her face suddenly turned crimson with embarrassment. Not because of the boys who were boisterously laughing at her, but because she felt deeply disgraced. A girl was supposed to be soft and graceful, not athletic. From that moment, her confidence began to wane. She became less active and the strong, happy girl who loved to run, fight and throw things with unabating vigour suddenly disappeared.
At a young age, people are told how they should act, what they should like and who they can become based on their gender. These culturally-ingrained ideas teach children that women are supposed to be shy, passive and submissive whilst men are expected to be tough, aggressive, dominant and self-confident, that the mom stays home to clean the house, cook, and take care of the children while the dad goes off to work to make money and provide for the family.
While these stereotypes and ideal roles may seem innocent and harmless, they have long-lasting negative effects on both genders.
Gender stereotypes particularly create impediments for girls and women worldwide in terms of access to education, the topics they choose to study, and their career choices. For many years, academic performance has been inclined towards gender orientation. Boys have performed impressively in mathematics and sciences while girls have done quite well in the arts.
Although boys and girls start out performing similarly in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)-related school subjects, the gap between them widens as they mature, leading to the under-representation of women in STEM fields at the college level and in the workforce. One explanation for this phenomenon is that females are intimidated by the persistent negative stereotypes about women in STEM fields These stereotypes also result in large and inequitable disparities in women’s pay, promotion, and career advancement opportunities.
For my EW Championship project, I embarked on a project titled Girls Can Be Anything, a personal development programme I designed with a focus on career development to help girls, in junior high schools in Ghana, to assess their skills, talents and qualities, consider their aims in life and challenge stereotypes in order to achieve and maximise their potentials.
The main aim of the project was to facilitate girls' development and enhance their ability to make optimal choices regarding their roles in occupational and social structures. Specifically, the project aimed to help girls to:
- Understand the diversity of women and encourage them to challenge gender stereotypes.
- Enhance girls' career knowledge by exposing them to various different industries with special emphasis on careers in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields.
The project was phased into two schools namely Maranatha Preparatory School and Bediako Memorial Institute both located at Kasoa in the Central Region of Ghana. All in all, 48 girls from Maranatha Preparatory School and 46 girls from Bediako Memorial Institute participated in the project, giving a total number of 94 girls. The ages of the girls ranged from 11 years to 16 years. 15% of the girls were 11 years old, 16% were 12 years old, 39% were 13 years old, 15% were 14 years old, 10% were 15 years old and 5% were 16 years old.
The project was supported by Cheerful Hearts Foundation, a grassroots organisation in the Central Region of Ghana who provided logistical support and Introductory letters to be given to the participating schools.
The intervention was a 2-hour programme that comprised a 10-minute Pre-questionnaire administration, a 1-hour power point presentation, a 20-minute discussion session, 20 minutes of fun activities comprising a Confidence Test and a poetry competition and a 10-minute Post-questionnaire administration.
At the beginning of the programme, the girls were asked to complete a questionnaire which tested their knowledge concerning gender stereotypes. The questionnaire was followed by a 1-hour power point presentation which covered topics such as Understanding gender stereotypes, Examples of gender stereotypes according to personality traits, Domestic behaviours, Occupations and Physical Appearance, Why Gender Stereotypes are destructive and examples of Women who broke gender stereotypes in Africa.
The presentation was followed by a 20 minute discussion about why women were underrepresented in the STEM fields and the various prospects and opportunities the STEM fields had to offer. This was followed by a Confidence Test that examined how much the girls loved themselves and appreciated their talents and backgrounds and their relationship with their family, friends and communities. The Confidence Test was followed by a poetry competition where the girls were asked to write a short poem with the title, “Just because I am a girl”. This was the most fun part of the programme as the girls cracked their brains and churned out creative poems in a span of 10 minutes. The programme ended with a Post-questionnaire where the girls were examined on what they had learnt from the presentation and how they planned to use this knowledge in future.
For the Pre-questionnaire, 85% of the girls didn’t answer anything all. They explained they knew nothing about Gender Stereotypes. The remaining 25% seemed to have an idea of what gender stereotypes were but they didn’t know the right words to use to describe them. In the Confidence Test, 40% of the girls scored 80% and above which indicated an excellent level of confidence, 55% scored between 60% and 79% which indicated a good level of confidence and 5% scored between 50% and 59% which indicated an average level of Confidence. None of the girls scored below 50%. For the Post-questionnaire, all the girls provided the right answers to all the questions.
It was observed through the project that all the girls were heavily influenced by gender stereotypes which negatively affected their views about the roles of women in society and their own aspirations in life. A possible explanation for this may be the fact that all the girls had been socialised through Ghanaian culture which strongly perpetuates stereotypes and inequalities towards women. During the discussion about why women were under-represented in the STEM fields, most of the girls admitted that they weren’t interested in Science and Mathematics because of the negative stereotypes about women in STEM and also the fact that they hadn’t seen enough female role models particularly in the hard-core sciences. One girl commented, “ When I look at the road and building engineers, I don’t see any women working with the men”. Another girl commented, “I have never seen a female car mechanic before or a female carpenter so I really believe certain jobs are not for women”. They however changed their minds when they were exposed to how important and lucrative the STEM fields were and the myriad opportunities available to them.
When the girls were exposed to some African women who broke gender stereotypes like The President of Liberia, Ellen Sirleaf Johnson and the first female Chief Justice of Ghana, Justice Georgina Theodora wood, they expressed admiration for their achievements and declared they were inspired to believe in themselves. In the Post-questionnaire, when asked what they had learnt from the presentation, most of the girls said they used to believe that gender roles were an important part of culture which they had to conform to but after the presentation, they realised that they didn’t have to restrict themselves because of their gender and that they could become anything they wanted if they worked hard.
Women make up more than half the world's population and yet represent a staggering 70% of the world's poor. Women also make up 70% of the world's working hours and earn only 10% of the world's income and half of what men earn. This leads to greater poverty, slower economic growth and a lower standard of living.
It is therefore fundamental to nurture their self confidence and empower girls and young women to make informed choices about their own lives. By empowering girls to break stereotypes and fight inequalities, the world will allow them to be equal participants, with an equal voice, with equal access to opportunities in society.