Cultivating a Confident STEM Girl

post by Synapse-


Innate biases.  Confidence issues.  Concern about being “smart”…. and pretty much everything that could happen during those teenage years.

Let’s just say, I’m a bit nervous about having a baby girl.

Yes, yes, I know.  She already has a head start given that her mother is the example of “scientist” in the parental unit.

But what I can control and what I can’t control is already a frustrating consideration.  This tiny stranger is going to be born in the next few days and my biggest concern revolves around her confidence as a woman.  It seems crazy but I have this overwhelming concern that I need to get off on the right foot – what if confidence issues begin the moment a baby is born with girl parts and dressed in pink?

As a new not-yet parent, my theory has always been that a link exists between innate biases and confidence issues.  Humans instinctively treat girls differently than boys.

How much more often are boys allowed to attempt to scale a fence, fall and learn from this mistake? How much more often do we jump to the aid of a little girl struggling with something? Or worse, ask a little boy to help her.  And are these the situations that set the stage for whether or not a girl/woman boldly goes out to conquer her dreams or slinks into the corner and waits for someone to help her or worse, opportunity to pass her by.

I have had the conversation with my husband about treating this baby girl exactly as he would treat a baby boy – let her explore, let her scrape her knees, let her fall off ladders (very very short ones, of course, and only onto very soft surfaces), let her try to figure something out on her own before assisting, let her help out the boys.  He gets it. He thinks I am a bit obsessed and borderline crazy about the issue, but he gets it.

But what about everyone else in this world that may come into contact with my baby girl?  Is the baby in pink treated differently than the baby in blue and does this actually matter later in life?

My grandparents have already declared that she is going to be the “prettiest baby” and to that I replied “and SMART!”

I have tried to limit the amount of pink in her wardrobe and replaced it with yellow, green, blue and one really awesome camouflage onesie, but the grandparents are pretty stoked about having a little girl grandbaby so she will still be rocking quite a bit of pink.

And then comes the world of branding and gender specific toys. I am not going to force her to play with trucks over dolls but why WHY does even the simplest toy have to have be gender specific or have some kind trademarked character associated with it?

I am not advocating for a culture shift towards complete gender neutrality.  This experiment is actually going on in Sweden and came up in conversation with a Swedish friend when I was going off about this issue. In Sweden, they traditionally use the feminine pronoun “hon” and the masculine pronoun is “han”.  Recently, they introduced a new gender neutral pronoun – “hen”.  And yes, this is actually used in Sweden.  My friend’s young nieces use it naturally because this is what they hear in school.

So what are my options?

Do I start building a confidence bubble for my baby girl now?

Or just find my own confidence that she will be able to see through all the bullshit and find her own way, raise her hand in math class, and proudly reply to her grandparents “and SMART!” when they tell her how pretty she is?

This entry was posted in Biology, Dad-in-science, Diversity, Girls in Science, Increasing Diversity in Science, Mentorship, Mom in Science, Parenthood, STEM, Synapse, Women in Science and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Cultivating a Confident STEM Girl

  1. I have a two year old daughter and I worry about the same things 🙂 Already I see her copying what she sees in real life when she plays. I just hope that having an engineer for a mum will help break down some of the stereotypes, and that parental influence will win in the end!

  2. Science mom says:

    Hear hear! And apparently, calling our girls smart isn’t productive either now. If we call them smart, and they fail at a task, they think they’re not smart. Instead, the focus is supposed to be on the process – working hard, etc. I’m exhausted thinking about it all, honestly!
    In solidarity.

  3. My girl is 4 now, and I continue to struggle with all these thoughts. In the beginning she was a little baldy (up to ~2yrs) and strangers often called her ‘he’. Sometimes I corrected them, sometimes not. But it bothered me that the automatic assumption was that if a kid isn’t wearing pink, they must be a boy. Although there always has been some pink and dresses in her wardrobe, we’ve tended towards the more neutral. Of course, right now, she says her favorite colours are pink and yellow. So then I wonder if my mostly non-pink policy is the right one. Who knows, I just don’t like the really girly pink stuff but of course she chooses it when shopping for socks or underwear…we’re getting to the point where I know she’d like to choose some of her own clothes but I’m also afraid to take her shopping. Another funny thing is that she says she wants to be a mama when she grows up–I of course say that she can be a mama and a X or Y or Z. But it is something I am conscious of and really try to enforce things like her smarts, her strength, etc.

    These musings have got me thinking that that maybe we should all talk to our mothers. I mean, we’re scientists, so something must have gone right. I wonder if my mother worried about my gender and expectations in the same way I do. Did she just lead by example of being a strong woman with a carrier of her own?

    Although I am happy to say there seems to be lots of gender neutrality in the daycares here in Sweden, most of the stores are still filled with girl/boy stuff. The two 5 year old girl birthday parties we’ve been to this fall also make me a bit scared to host one (pink, pink, pink). Not sure we’re getting away with that though–although it isn’t until Aug, my daughter is already discussing how she wants a birthday party when she turns 5 (including details like what kinds of balloons she wants). I’m just wondering if we can direct people towards lego gifts instead of barbies…and maybe it will help that her two closest playmates are boys.

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