Gendered upbringing stifles female opportunity on campus

A New York Times opinion piece published late last month argues that girls are raised to be fearful and reserved. Ultimately, this trend culminates in an apprehension toward taking career risks or simply making everyday decisions. Moreover, academic studies demonstrate that young girls are socialized into becoming fearful and cautious women. This socialization, in turn, hinders their development of particular skills and qualities. On a college campus, it fails to prepare them for dealing with dilemmas, such as choosing majors and pursuing career opportunities. Such socialization should be fought in schools so that its effects are lessened in the workplace.

Professor Campbell Leaper of UC Santa Cruz conducted a 2013 study entitled  “Parents’ Socialization of Gender in Children,” in which he found that in Western societies, gender-specific activities separate the behavior of boys and girls as they grow up. A girl may be told she can play with dolls, but not with a soccer ball — and for a boy, vice versa. He also notes these structures are slowly disintegrating but are still pervasive today. Strict family roles and expectations for the children continues to separate boys and girls from a young age.

Girls are conditioned at a young age to avoid trying anything with a degree of risk. This fear takes a heavy toll on young women beginning to taste independence on a college campus, an environment that provides many opportunities to grow academically and socially. Not only may girls dress or behave in a way that they believe will help in securing a group of friends, but they may also shape their undergraduate experience according to activities that pose the least risk. For example, many freshmen may choose to confine themselves to greek life, which appears more familiar, rather than joining other types of organizations, like entrepreneurship clubs or professional development organizations.

Societal pressures surrounding appearance, behavior and personality further encourage women to be appeasers rather than stand up for themselves. Women are praised for politeness and a subdued demeanor, and chastised for being opinionated. Moreover, fear of criticism is the driving force behind this complacent and docile appearance. Despite the preference for “cute,” subdued women, this view fosters a lack of confidence that has long-lasting implications. It renders women increasingly vulnerable to gender discrimination and gender-based violence. Additionally, their fear of taking risks makes them unprepared for unforeseen challenges. More severely, women may fail to report cases of sexual assault out of desperation to fit into deeply ingrained roles. Women are socialized into prioritizing a docile comportment over protecting their own physical and emotional health.

Beyond the uncomfortable truth of the social demands women face in college, the fear of judgment they became acquainted with from early childhood can greatly affect future career opportunities. A lack of self-confidence, an apprehension toward competition and a longstanding fear of risk-taking hinder women’s abilities to secure high-level positions in nearly all sectors of the economy. In 2013, the online forum Lean In began a social media campaign that asked women what their fears were and the role those fears played in their lives. The campaign’s results confirmed the detrimental effects of teaching women to be fearful at a young age. The most common fears were owning their achievements, volunteering their ideas in the workplace, a fear of upsetting others, and a general fear of failing. Failure was viewed as the underlying fear motivating all other anxieties. Thus, as girls are discouraged from trying new risky activities, they become apprehensive toward taking initiatives. They would rather steer clear of precarious situations or uncertain career opportunities than experience setbacks.

There needs to be a greater consciousness about the discrimination toward women present in the workplace, notably regarding unequal pay, and a concerted effort to promote fairness. Using a similar framework to that used by Lean In —- which provides practical steps to confront injustices — for action, academic institutions ranging from elementary schools to colleges need to take the initiative to make women comfortable with leadership roles and traditionally male-dominated positions. Combating discrimination begins in schools, and institutions must encourage women to take risks and empower them to be individuals with the self-esteem to determine their own role in society. —