Christia S. Brown Ph.D.

Beyond Pink and Blue

Girl Power is the New "It" Movement

Girl Power is great for girls, but boys could benefit from some equality too

Posted Jan 01, 2015

Girl Power is the new “It” movement. Last week, the story involved President Obama placing boys’ toys into the girls’ toy bin. But the movement extends much beyond that news story. The “A Mighty Girl” website has more than 860,000 Facebook likes, the popular Goldie Blox engineering toy for girls aired their catchy commercial during the Super Bowl, and the purple-boxed Lego Friends marketed to girls was one of the biggest successes in Lego’s history. Nerf followed suit by selling the Nerf Rebelle, a toy gun just for girls. Sports Illustrated got in on the movement by featuring the Little League power pitcher Mo’Ne Davis.  The mantra is clear: Let’s raise our daughters to achieve and be anything they can dream of.  As a developmental psychologist who studies gender stereotypes and a mother of two daughters, I chant the mantra daily.

This is a much-needed movement. Girls are still underrepresented in math and science careers. Only 18% of engineering majors and 16% of computer science majors are girls, despite outperforming boys in math and science throughout their school years. Girls are either excluded from sports or relegated to the back of the sports section, only getting coverage when their bodies are barely covered. Despite Sports llustrated’s brief dip into the Girl Power movement, female sports only get about 10% of their coverage. When they are covered, it is much more likely to be in a bikini than a uniform. Girls suffer body image problems, eating disorders, and depression at rates far exceeding boys. There is a commonplace, omnipresent sexualization and objectification of girls and women that feed into the gruesomely high rates of sexual assault on college campuses. It shouldn’t be surprising in a society where K-Mart sold thongs for 7-year-old girls (with “I heart rich boys” written on the front) that one in four girls are sexually assaulted in college.

This is a much-needed movement. Girls need more power. In the classroom, the dorm room, and the courtroom. Not coincidentally, all of these attempts at girl power want girls to be more like boys – more like boys in math and science, more like boys in sports, more like boys in assertiveness and boldness.

But, what about boys? There is no parallel movement for them. Yet, just as girls benefit by being a little more like boys, wouldn’t boys benefit from being a little more like girls? Research shows that boys who have more practice taking care of babies report being more satisfied when they become fathers. Wouldn’t boys grow up to be better and happier fathers if they practiced nurturing baby dolls or stuffed animals like girls do? We lament the high number of father-absent families (affecting one in three children), but there are no Super Bowl commercials marketing dolls to boys to try to reduce the “parenting gap.”

We bemoan and wring our hands when another boy engages in gun violence, but they are only doing what they have been well-socialized to do with every purchase of a Nerf gun and Grand Theft Auto V video game. Boys have much higher suicide rates than girls (81% of suicides are boys), but whenever they expressed sadness as toddlers they were told to “man up” because “boys don’t cry.” Research shows that, although parents talk to girls about their feelings, boys are encouraged to suppress their feelings. But, here’s another gun to play with.   

We are in need of a movement for boys. We need a movement that makes it trendy for boys to be nurturing, emotionally expressive, verbal, and non-violent. A movement that treats typically feminine traits and skills in as high regard as typically male traits and skills. When President Obama placed the boys’ toys into the girls’ pile, he ­wasn’t being controversial. We are, as a society, fine with that.  What we really needed was for him to place dolls and cooking toys into the boys’ pile. We need a cultural movement that treats nurturance and cooperation as skills that are just as important as engineering. These skills show as wide and damaging a gender gap as the STEM gap. We need a movement that markets these skills to boys with the same PR savvy and momentum that the Girl Power movement enjoys.  If we want girls to grow up to be engineers, then we need boys who can grow up to cook dinner. If we want girls to be successful as CEOs, we need boys to be successful as dads. Gender equality only works when it helps both boys and girls.