Stereotypes are the characters that provide our world with background noise, in that we take them for granted as true unless they’re brought to our conscious attention. I’ve encountered my fair share of gender-based discriminatory language, and it’s always difficult to find a way to address it without being written off as overreacting or hypersensitive.
I’ve been involved with drumline in Minnesota for eight years, and nation-wide it’s a male-dominated activity. That scene is where I’ve heard most stereotypical language being used, but also where I’ve seen stereotypes being actively broken. I play with both girls and boys, with more or less experience than I do, but a boy still might get told they’re playing “like a girl” if they’re not playing confidently – when I’m right next to him playing with more confidence than he is.
To give my instructors credit, they’ll usually catch themselves on this, but often can’t seem to find a better way to say it. Concrete instances like these, when stereotypes are used but are clearly nonsensical, are cropping up more and more in patriarchal societies around the world. We need to get the cycle moving faster, though – even if some young girls around the world don’t accept stereotypical language, that background noise is still bound to be limiting.
Girl Scouts of America is launching campaigns called “Year of the Girl” and “To Get Her There,” which are geared toward providing more opportunities for girls to excel in fields that they might not have many role models in (i.e. politics, math, science, etc. – all areas that the United States is lagging in internationally). Girls need to be able find and see these women acting out non-traditional roles – change doesn’t need to wait a generation.
Women in leadership positions today are sometimes a chicken-and-egg conundrum – which needs to come first, the role model or the barrier-busting pioneer? And where are girls looking to now to learn about influential women? National Public Radio recently feature a book series for ages 9-13 called The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Dastardly Dames, which highlights historical female rulers such as Cleopatra or Mary Tudor (known respectively as “The Serpent of the Nile” and “Bloody Mary”).
The series challenges young readers to think critically about female leaders and why they aren’t profiled more often, as well as why they get violent nicknames for doing the same things that many male rulers did in obscurity. Children’s nonfiction is a genre that needs to capture interest, since it doesn’t have the luxury of creating the story. Featuring women in history and encouraging conversation is another valuable step in showing both girls and boys today that there are women who deserve to talked about, admired, and critiqued on the same level as men.
So here we have a smattering of personal evidence of the stereotype problem, and several pieces of action that are happening to boost the position of women in the United States. As the Girl Scouts “Year of The Girl” campaign states, the US Congress is only 17% women, and women make up 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs (which means women are in charge of less money than men – which indeed translates into power). Many “developing” countries have more female representation, which I would say makes them more developed in that respect. The women for the jobs are out there in every country, and it’s far past the time to recognize the language we hear in everyday life that convinces us of gender stereotypes.
April DeJarlais is a Communications Intern with The White House Project