Complex state of girls’ lives
Harmful gendered social norms and stereotypes
Social norms are rules and expectations of behaviour that are culturally constructed and accepted as the norm, and may vary depending on the cultural context. A stereotype is a form of representation that generalizes an entire group of people based on a few, often negative, traits and/or behaviours widely thought to be characteristic of that group. In Canadian society, some examples of gendered social norms and stereotypes include harmful expectations about girls’ and women’s physical appearance and sexuality, as well as attitudes about what constitutes an appropriately feminine occupation or activity – all of which can be multi-layered and mutually reinforcing. When looked at systemically, these norms and stereotypes can limit opportunities for girls and women, as well as present barriers to accessing financial resources and positions of power.
While research suggests that pre-adolescent girls tend to be optimistic and driven,5 sexual objectification and negative body image is internalized by girls as young as age 3 who already associate “fat” with “stupid, ugly, sloppy, loud, and friendless”, and 80% of whom have tried dieting by age 10.6 This worsens during adolescence, when the existence of harmful gender disparities in both expectations and opportunities for girls becomes particularly pronounced.7
For teenage girls, unrealistic beauty ideals, stereotypes, and gendered social norms are deeply embedded within Canadian society. Girls themselves have identified how these social norms are gendered, stereotypical, unrealistic, and often ambiguous, and therefore restrictive and harmful. For example, girls have repeatedly said that they feel pressure from society to act and look a certain way, and meet certain expectations of what it means to be a girl. According to a nationwide Ipsos survey of girls aged 15 to 17 in September 2017, 59% of teenage girls in Canada feel pressure from society to conform to unrealistic expectations of what it means to be a girl, not only in terms of how they should look and dress, but also in terms of how they should act or which interests they should pursue.8 This is not surprising, considering that some girls reported being treated differently because of their gender; this includes experiences such as being treated differently by teachers in class (19%, rising to 33% for girls who identified as Asian), or being excluded from joining a club or team (12%, rising to 22% among girls who identified as Asian).9
These experiences may be negatively influencing how girls view their potential and participate in society. For example, 30% of girls have avoided or considered stopping an activity or sport they like because not many other girls participate. Some girls also said they feel unmotivated to pursue their dream career because they are worried they will be paid less than male counterparts (24%), or be treated worse than men because of their gender (19%).10 This data provides a glimpse into how intersectionality – the idea that one’s varying identities, including gender, race, class, ability, etc. overlay and interact with each other – manifests itself in girls’ lives today. Girls who self-identify as a visible minority were more likely to avoid an activity or sport because not many other girls participate (average 40%, highest among girls who identify as Indigenous at 45%), or feel unmotivated to pursue their dream career because of the gender pay gap (average 33%, rising to 36% among girls who identify as Asian and Indigenous). The realities of girls’ intersectional lives mean we cannot consider their gendered experiences in a vacuum, without considering their other identities and positions in society.
These harmful social rules and expectations of behaviour in Canadian society perpetuate a reality in which girls and women have less access to resources and power, and in which girls specifically may not have access to supports to assist them in these situations. As a result, girls have noted how these norms and stereotypes contribute to the persistence of inequalities today: for example, they are aware of how gender inequality is a human rights and global issue, and how gendered violence is a consequence of inequality. Needless to say, girls face numerous gendered norms and stereotypes which impact their lives in four key ways:
Girls recognize how harmful gendered norms and stereotypes are significantly impacting how they perceive and value themselves. The notion of self-worth refers to how girls see and value themselves, and more importantly how society imposes standards on girls, which affects their perceptions of themselves. Girls have expressed the idea of self-worth in multiple ways: low self-esteem, lack of self-confidence, poor body image, and never feeling good enough.11
“I think one of the biggest issues impacting girls is self-image, and confidence in themselves, and their abilities. There are too many girls with low self-esteem. I always hear girls saying things they don’t like about themselves, and sadly I am guilty of this as well.” – Girl Guides of Canada Conference Participant12
The overwhelming majority of teenage girls (80%) think that the beauty standards for girls they see on social media are unrealistic, yet 60% say they feel pressure from social media to conform to these unrealistic standards.13 In fact, one in four girls say they feel pressure to post sexy or provocative things about themselves on social media, and this number doubles among prolific social media users who regularly use six or more platforms (rising from 25% to 53%).14 Without a doubt, social media plays a role in perpetuating harmful gendered norms and stereotypes, given that 93% of teenage girls are using more than one social media platform on a regular basis.15 The constant flow of images of how girls and women should look, act, and behave sets a standard for girls to live up to. In other words, the messages girls receive become normalized as the expectation.
The pressure to conform to unrealistic beauty standards has real consequences. More than half of girls (55%) report that trying to meet social expectations on how they should look or act has negatively impacted their self-esteem. Significantly, the connection between meeting social expectations and lowered self-esteem was felt more strongly among girls who self-identify as belonging to a visible minority group (Asian, Indigenous or Black, combined average of 64%).16 Again, this data showcases how intersectionality affects girls today: those whose experiences cross over multiple disadvantaged or minority identities are impacted more notably.
Girls have frequently noted the influence of social media on their notion of self, especially when it comes to body image and girl-appropriate behaviour. Girls who are heavy users of social media are most likely to say that trying to meet unrealistic expectations diminishes their self-esteem (71%). To further complicate matters, more than half of girls (56%) said they receive mixed messages about how they should look and dress, as well as how they should act and behave. For example, they feel pressure to dress more feminine (36%) or provocatively (26%) on the one hand, but to dress more modestly so as not to tempt boys on the other hand (36%).17
Girls are also aware of how inequity – in access to power and resources, in the workplace, and in leadership roles – continues to be an issue for women. They are most concerned with lack of opportunities for women and lack of women role models, and are discouraged by the fact that men are paid more than women for the same work – evidenced in the persistence of a gender wage gap.
“It’s hard to strive for excellence if you know that no matter how much work and effort you put in and how great you are, a man will always be paid more.” – Girl Guides of Canada Conference Participant18
Women still earn less than men for the same work: in 2014, women working fulltime earned 74.2 cents for every dollar that full-time male workers made19 – and the gap is even wider for women of colour, women with disabilities and trans women. For example, in 2005, racialized women in Canada earned 55.6 cents for every dollar white men earned and 88.2 cents for every dollar that white women earned.20 University-educated women make 80 cents on the dollar, whereas low-income women (who make up 60% of minimum wage workers in Canada) make as little as 72 cents on the dollar.21 Moreover, Canada ranks 15th out of 29 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries based on the hourly wage gap.22
While it’s clear how this issue impacts women in the workforce, GGC has found that the realities of unequal pay and messages about women’s economic worth in the professional world impact teenage girls before they even enter the workforce. Our Ipsos survey revealed that one in four (24%) girls aged 15-17 do not feel motivated to pursue their dream career because they are concerned they will be compensated less than their male counterparts.23
“As a student in the throws [sic] of university and program selection it is very important to me to ensure that my career choices remain open and fair and that compensation upon graduation is reasonable and fair.” – Girl Guides of Canada Conference Participant24
Interestingly, girls as young as 15 years old are already making less than boys across most industries and jobs, in some cases as much as $3.00/hour less.25 While there is little research on the gender wage gap among working teens in Canada, a recent study in the United States indicates that the gender earnings gap starts by age 14 or 15.26
While more women are graduating from university than men,27 and although 82% of women aged 25 to 54 participate in Canada’s workforce, they are still underrepresented in certain industries including politics, STEM and academic faculty.
Women remain outnumbered in STEM fields: in 2015 only 24% of those employed in professional scientific occupations were women.28 The limited representation of women in fields such as STEM impacts the motivation and behaviour of girls to pursue such career paths. One conference participant expressed: “As a confident girl who is very interested in all aspects of STEM, I still walk into coding events and science and math events and find myself intimidated by the lack of people like me in a room.”29
As well, women are still underrepresented in leadership roles: women hold only 25% of vice-president positions, 15% of CEO positions, and 27% of the seats in the House of Commons.30 These numbers are even lower among women of colour: 4% of MPs are women who belong to visible minority groups and less than 1% are Indigenous women,31 and studies have found visible minority women to be significantly less represented among corporate leadership than white women.32 The fact that 50% of the population is underrepresented in leadership positions in Canadian society is not something that has gone unnoticed by teenage girls. As one GGC conference participant astutely noted: “Without female leaders in our government, girls do not have a role model to look up to, which leads to fewer girls attempting to gain a position within our government.”33 More broadly, one in four (25%) girls aged 15 to 17 in Canada report that they do not know any female role models who have their dream job.34 This leadership gap can have serious ramifications, as decision-makers and those in positions of power may not reflect the interests and experiences of girls and women.
Discrimination is an ongoing concern. According to A Portrait of Canadian Youth published in 2018 by Statistics Canada, 20% of female youth aged 15 to 24 reported experiencing discrimination in the past five years.35 Girls have also called out sexism more generally, and recognize the power imbalances that exist beyond the workplace. This is consistent with the opinion of the general public. According to a nationwide public opinion poll conducted by Abacus Data in February 2018, almost all Canadians believe girls experience sexism at least occasionally (92%), with 52% believing they experience sexism regularly or all the time.36
Girls are acutely aware that the harmful gendered norms and stereotypes that society creates and perpetuates are the underlying causes of sexism, and in turn inequity, particularly at school – the key arena in which their social lives and relationships take shape.37 The Ipsos survey revealed that two in ten girls (19%) agree that their teachers treat them differently in class because they’re a girl. Girls who identify as Asian are significantly more likely to say this has happened to them (33%).38 This is especially poignant in subject areas that are traditionally more male, such as STEM. One GGC conference participant explained: “[In my coding class where I was the only girl], over and over again they were suggesting, and my teacher was agreeing with them, that the only reason I was able to be successful was because of the guys I was sitting next to, and every time I asked a question they assumed that meant I didn't know what I was doing and not that I was inherently curious.”39
Gender-based discrimination extends beyond the classroom. One in ten girls (12%) surveyed agree that an adult – whether it’s a coach, teacher or parent – has excluded or prevented them from joining a club or team specifically because they’re a girl.40 A conference participant shared this experience of trying to organize a girls’ basketball team at her school: “I went to the coach and I said ‘we have nine girls, that's good’ and he said ‘well I don't know how committed you are,’ and I said ‘well the boys have six guys, why can they have a team and we can’t?’ and he said ‘well the boys, they can commit. Girls – you have other stuff, you like to do other stuff.’ And so we didn't end up having a basketball team.”41
These experiences may be negatively influencing how girls view their potential and how they participate in society. As described above, many girls have avoided or considered stopping an activity or sport they like because not many girls participate, and this is especially the case for girls who identify as Asian, Indigenous, or Black. Regarding their professional pursuits, two in ten (19%) teenage girls report that they are not motivated to pursue their dream career over concerns they will be treated worse, simply because of their gender.42
Even more daunting are the statistics about incidences of harassment and racism among girls in Canada. Four in ten girls (40%) who self-identify as a visible minority say they have experienced acts of racism. While not as prevalent, it is important to note that girls also report experiencing acts of homophobia (7%), transphobia (4%) and ableism (4%).43 For racialized girls, LGBTQ+ youth, and girls with disabilities, the differing forms of discrimination they experience overlay and intersect with, and cannot be separated from, the sexism they also experience.
Violence against girls and women
“My friends would report a serious crime that happened to them or a sexual assault and people would say, ‘Oh, you’re just making that up for attention.’” – Girl Guide of Canada Conference Participant44
As the #MeToo movement has revealed, sexual harassment and violence are critical issues facing women, and it is worth noting that this continues to be an issue among teenage girls with 41% saying that they know a girl who reported being touched or harassed in an unwanted way and was not believed.45 This number rises to 53% among Indigenous girls,46 which is consistent with Statistics Canada’s overview of First Nations, Métis and Inuit Women which indicates that Aboriginal women in Canada are at a higher risk of experiencing violence than non-Aboriginal women, and that a disproportionately high number of Aboriginal women have also been murdered or have gone missing.47 Forty-six percent of high school girls have been sexually harassed, with sexual assault being eight times higher for girls than for boys,48 and in 2012, 81% of sexual offences against children and youth were directed at girls, especially those between 12 and 17.49
Beyond and alongside sexual violence, girls also experience other intersecting forms of gender-based violence, such as intimate partner violence, family violence, and criminal harassment. Because of the lesser power and resources available to girls and women, their vulnerability to violence is increased.50 Every six days a woman in Canada dies after facing violence by an intimate partner,51 an issue that affects girls as well: prevalence of dating violence for teens ranges from 9% to 45%, and girls' vulnerability to abuse in relationships can be attributed to gender socialization.52 Girls are also more vulnerable to online forms of gender-based violence; for instance, 14% of girls and young women age 15 to 24 report being cyberstalked in the previous five years.53
Moreover, age is a significant risk factor for experiencing violence. Girls and young women between 15 and 24 experience the highest rates of police-reported violent crime with rates for women declining as age increases,54 and young women age 15 to 24 have the highest rate of spousal homicide.55 As Lori Michau et al. write, “to be born a girl in a patriarchal society is a fundamental risk factor for various types of gender-based violence.”56