"You can be anything you want to be when you grow up!" At least that's what we tell our girls and boys from a very young age, right? But what does our culture tell them?
Despite “you can be anything” messages from parents, children are barraged with images that tell them otherwise. It’s part of a larger cultural phenomenon that leads to gender imbalances in fields from engineering to nursing. Now Clothes Without Limits, a consortium of independent childrenswear brands, is asserting that if we want to fix the imbalance in careers dominated by one gender, one of the first steps is to change what our children are wearing—and research backs their claim.
In the United States women make up only 11% of engineers and 6% of U.S. pilots, while men comprise only 8% of nurses and 16% of stay-at-home parents. The gender gap in many professions is wide, and researchers say that the messages we send children in their formative years, starting as early as two years old, shape kids’ ideas of what they can become.
“Children's clothing, toys, and media matter,” said Dr. Rebecca Hains, author, children’s media culture expert and the Assistant Director of the Center for Childhood and Youth Studies at Salem State University in Massachusetts. “Adults sometimes think 'kid stuff' is trivial, but actually, children's pop culture plays an important socializing function in children's lives. From an early age, children look to parents, peers, and products alike to help them discern their place in the world. Today's parents strive to raise well-rounded children, but their efforts are often contradicted by the clichés that dominate children's culture, which teach children that girls and boys are expected to behave in gender-stereotypical ways, with rigidly differentiated interests. This can circumscribe children's play patterns as well as their future aspirations, and unfortunately, as I explain in 'The Princess Problem,' it can be incredibly difficult for parents to compete with billion-dollar brands. For this reason, I advise seeking out alternatives whenever possible. Independent brands like those in the Clothes Without Limits consortium are a great choice.”
“Back to school season often means updating our children's wardrobes and is a perfect time to ask ourselves if their clothing represents their interests and dreams. We tell our children they can be anything they want to be when they grow up, but unfortunately children’s clothing choices don't always reflect that sentiment,” said Cindy Tank-Murphy, a spokesperson for Clothes Without Limits and co-founder of Clever Belle. “Do your daughter's clothes reassure her that it’s alright to love science? Is your son’s wardrobe encouraging him to develop his caring and loving heart? We launched the Futures Without Limits campaign to tell the world that children's clothes should keep all kinds of interests accessible to them so children will believe they truly can be anything when they grow up, regardless of gender."
Much attention has been given in particular to the gender gap in STEM fields – something that researchers have found has a lot to do with images and culture.
"Images of computer scientists, engineers, and physicists are often narrow and inaccurate, which can prevent many girls from feeling like they belong in these fields. Providing alternate images that increase girls' interest in STEM fields is a critical piece of the puzzle. Clothes Without Limits exposes girls to images of engineering, chemistry, and coding that are more inclusive than the images they often see in the world,” said Dr. Sapna Cheryan, a researcher at the University of Washington whose work focuses on the perception of stereotypes.
This Back to School season, the Future Without Limits Campaign gives parents a positive way to reinforce the “you can be anything” message – showing boys and girls that equal options are available to them. With positive options like this, our kids might just be the ones to change the equation.
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