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Your use of the Lean In Girls curriculum and any other materials that the Sandberg Goldberg Bernthal Family Foundation and its subsidiaries and affiliates including LeanIn.Org, LLC, and Lean In Girls, LLC (“SGB”) may make available to you on or through this website, including all related intellectual property and other proprietary rights of any kind (the “LIG Materials”) is subject to the terms below (the “LIG Terms”), in addition to the general terms available at leanin.org/terms (the “Terms of Service”). Capitalized terms used in these LIG Terms that are not otherwise defined have the meaning set forth in the Terms of Service. All of the provisions in the Terms of Service apply to the LIG Materials and are incorporated herein by reference. In the event of a conflict between the provisions in these LIG Terms and the Terms of Service, the provisions in these LIG Terms will control, but only with respect to the LIG Materials and not with respect to any other portion of Our Content. 


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Before you go, sign up to receive tips, advice and activities to help support girls in your life.

Getting real on stereotypes

Help girls identify stereotypes and shift their thinking about gender roles in a positive way

Picture this

A teacher observes his students working on a group project. He notices that some of the girls who take charge and delegate tasks are quickly labeled as “bossy” by their peers. But when a boy takes on a leadership role, his friends naturally follow along. Why such different responses? When girls take charge, that contradicts the stereotype that most girls are supposed to be collaborative and nurturing as opposed to assertive and confident—so they get bad reactions. On the other hand, our culture often assumes that boys will take the lead, generating a more positive response when they do.

Here’s what you need to know

Girls grow up surrounded by all kinds of stereotypes—or overly simplified beliefs about an entire group—that send the message that all girls should look or act a certain way. For example, people often focus on girls’ appearances, such as how they style their hair or what they choose to wear. We also tend to assume that boys are better natural leaders than girls. Girls take in these and other harmful messages from a young age, and they influence how girls see themselves. By middle school, girls have already internalized many of these unfair messages, such as how they look is more important than what they’re capable of and that traits like assertiveness are better received if you're a boy. 


The good news is that parents and caregivers have the power to shift the narrative and empower girls to be all that they can be. Although we can’t eliminate these stereotypes entirely (at least not right away), we can reduce the power they have over girls. Research shows that this level of awareness is good for girls. When girls know how to push back against unfair treatment, they are less likely to internalize negative messages or blame themselves when they experience bias. And when girls take positive risks and learn new skills, they can feel a powerful sense of agency and accomplishment.


Below you’ll find three things to help you challenge gender stereotypes:

  • An activity to help girls identify stereotypes 

  • A follow-on activity to highlight the complexity of stereotypes (you can use this with the first activity or at a later time)

  • Tips for how you can help shift girls thinking about gender roles in a positive way

Activity 1:

Help girls learn to call out stereotypes

Start off by explaining that a stereotype is an assumption about an entire group—for example, all tall people are good at basketball. Then, read the following list of phrases (the stereotypes are in bold). When she hears a word or phrase that sounds like an overly simplified belief about an entire group, tell her you want her to clap or raise her hand: 

  • All girls like the color pink

  • My sister likes the color pink

  • All girls are gossipy

  • My aunt is gossipy

  • Girls aren’t good at sports

  • Girls are too emotional

  • My mom loves shopping

  • Girls are bad at math

  • Girls like to wear dresses

  • Girls should be pretty


After you do the activity, have a discussion about it:

Do you have any additional examples of stereotypes about girls?

  • Some ideas to offer: Girls should care about their appearance, girls should not like watching sports, or girls should not enjoy STEM.


How do you think stereotypes affect girls and their leadership opportunities?

  • Some ideas to offer: When girls lead by taking charge, that contradicts the stereotype that most girls are supposed to be quiet and obedient—so they get bad reactions, like people calling them “mean” or “bossy.” On the other hand, when girls lead by being kind and cooperative, that’s not seen as “real” leadership, because leaders are stereotyped as being forceful and in charge. 


What’s one action you could take to challenge these stereotypes? 

  • Some ideas to offer: Try a new hobby that challenges gender stereotypes, point out unfair stereotypes in media, notice when there are unfair expectations put on girls and mention it to an adult (for example, tell your teacher you’ve noticed that only the girls stay behind to clean up).  

Activity 2:

Show girls that not all stereotypes are “bad”

Stereotypes about girls can also come off as compliments, but still have an acutely negative impact. For example, people often assume girls are helpful and generous. To be clear, those are good things to be! But there’s a harmful underlying message when it’s assumed that girls should always be those things. 


Choose a couple of the “positive” stereotypes below that you think will resonate with your girl. After naming the “positive” stereotype, help unpack the harmful message behind the stereotype with girls in a conversation:


Helpful 

  • The harmful message: If girls are expected to always be helpful, that may make them overextend themselves to fulfill others’ expectations. This can harm girls by making them feel as though they can’t create healthy boundaries, say no, or put themselves first when needed.


Sweet

  • The harmful message: If girls are expected to always be sweet, it may signal to them that they should prioritize being agreeable and accommodating at the expense of expressing their true feelings. This can lead girls to suppress their emotions and opinions in an effort to be seen as “sweet.”


Respectful

  • The harmful message: If girls are always expected to be respectful, it may make them think that they are inherently less valuable than others and that they should put others’ comfort ahead of their own. This can discourage girls from speaking up about their needs and opinions, reinforcing the idea that girls should take a passive role. 


Quiet

  • The harmful message: If girls are always expected to be quiet, it can discourage them from speaking up and signal their value lies in being compliant. This can make girls less likely to use their voice on topics that matter to them or take up space.


After you do the activity, have a discussion about it:

How do the harmful messages behind these stereotypes limit what girls are “supposed” to do or be like?

Some ideas to offer:

  • Stereotypes suggest that everyone in a group is alike, when really every individual has unique interests and talents.

  • Even when stereotypes sound positive, they are actually harmful because they can put unfair pressure on girls to act the way others expect.  

  • Stereotypes about what girls are capable of can make it hard for girls to be seen as leaders and to see themselves as leaders. 

  • When girls don’t fit or defy certain stereotypes, it can make them worry about not belonging or disappointing others. 

  • Many of the stereotypes about what girls are “supposed” to do or be like, actually benefit others. For example:

    • When people assume girls aren’t as capable as boys, boys benefit.

    • When people expect girls to be helpful and generous, other people benefit.

    • When people assume girls should look a certain way, fashion and beauty companies benefit.

Tips:

Shift girls thinking about gender roles in a positive way

Parents play a major role in influencing the way girls view themselves and choose to behave in social settings. And if not careful, they can inadvertently reinforce gender stereotypes and unintentionally dampen girls’ leadership aspirations, as well as their potential. Research finds that parents risk negatively influencing their daughters’ views on leadership by socializing them to take on more caregiving roles than their sons, encouraging them to focus more on their physical appearance, and role modeling traditional gender roles. It’s these subtle differences in parenting that feed childrens’ expectations that girls will be less assertive or have less interest in fields traditionally dominated by men. Actively challenging these stereotypical gender norms starts with:

  • Expanding her possibilities. Mix up toys, chores, and activities, and encourage girls to pursue stereotypical “boy things” like computer science or skateboarding. 

  • Watching what you say. Be intentional with the language you use to describe people: girls can be just as brave as boys, and men can be just as caring as women. 

  • Modeling the right behavior. When women advocate for themselves and take risks, girls are more likely to develop their own courage. And when men do their fair share of household work, girls learn equality and partnership.

  • Encouraging critical thinking. Talk about how stereotypes reinforce the things girls are “supposed” to be good at. Share how you’ve pushed back on these unfair expectations and encourage her to do the same.6 

  • Providing diverse role models. Offer examples of accomplished women who weren’t quiet or cooperative; and instead, were loud, emotional, or opinionated.7


If you found this article valuable, check out our “Challenging Stereotypes” session. In about an hour, you can take a small group of girls through a series of activities and discussions that go deeper on how to recognize, reframe and pushback against stereotypes and what girls can and can’t do. 

Footnotes

1

Kingsley M. Schroeder and Lynn S. Liben, "Felt Pressure to Conform to Cultural Gender Roles: Correlates and Consequences," Sex Roles 84, nos. 3–4 (2021)

2

Natasha Duell and Laurence Steinberg, “Adolescents take positive risks, too,” Developmental Review 62 (2021); Natasha Duell and Laurence Steinberg, “Positive Risk Taking in Adolescence,” Child Development Perspectives 13, no. 1 (2019): 48–52; Judit Alcalde et al., “Building Strong Girls Evaluation Report: Final Results,” Canadian Women’s Foundation (2017); Richard F. Catalano et al., “Positive Youth Development in the United States: Research Findings on Evaluations of Positive Youth Development Programs,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 591, no. 1 (2004): 98–124; Richard F. Catalano et al., "Positive Youth Development Programs in Low- and Middle-Income Countries: A Conceptual Framework and Systematic Review of Efficacy,” Journal of Adolescent Health 65, no. 1 (2019): 15–31.

3

D. Dinkel and K. Snyder, “Exploring gender differences in infant motor development related to parent’s promotion of play,” Infant Behavior and Development 59 (2020), doi:10.1016/j.infbeh.2020.10144; S. Eisen, S. E. Matthews, and J. Jirout, “Parents’ and children’s gendered beliefs about toys and screen media,” Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 74, 101276 (2021), doi:10.1016/j.appdev.2021.101276; Tania King et al., “Gender stereotypes and biases in early childhood: A systematic review,” Australasian Journal of Early Childhood 46, no. 2 (2021); Rachel Ann King et al., “Counterstereotyping can change children’s thinking about boys’ and girls’ toy preferences,” Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 191 (March 2020).

4

Natasha Duell and Laurence Steinberg, “Adolescents take positive risks, too,” Developmental Review 62 (2021); Maria Olsson and Sarah E. Martiny, “Does Exposure to Counterstereotypical Role Models Influence Girls’ and Women’s Gender Stereotypes and Career Choices? A Review of Social Psychological Research,” Frontiers in Psychology, Personality and Social Psychology Section 9 (2018), https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02264/full; Albert Bandura et al., “Self-efficacy beliefs as shapers of children’s aspirations and career trajectories,” Child Development 72 (2001), https://www.scinapse.io/papers/2097934799.

5

Alyssa Croft et al., “The Second Shift Reflected in the Second Generation: Do Parents’ Gender Roles at Home Predict Children’s Aspirations?” Psychological Science 25, no. 7 (2014).

6

“Girlhood Studies Volume 14 Issue 2: Call-And-Response: Looking Outward From/with IGSA@ND. Guest Editors: Angeletta KM Gourdine, Mary Celeste Kearney, and Shauna Pomerantz (2021).” n.d. Berghahn Journals

7

Morfett, E, and M Dacre. 2021. “Secondary School Girls Speaking out on Their Rights to Have a Say in Schools.” International Journal of Student Voice 6 (2). https://bpb-us-e1.wpmucdn.com/sites.psu.edu/dist/2/163206/files/2023/05/1.-Morfett-Dacre_Dec-2021.pdf.