By Jess Goulart
All photos courtesy of Rosie’s Girls on Facebook.
Saws slice through massive blocks of wood, wrenches bang against the underbelly of rusty autos, and blowtorches bind sheets of hot metal. No, it’s not a trade show; it’s 6th, 7th, and 8th grade girls at summer camp.
In 2000, a group of educators at the Vermont Works For Women investigated an important dynamic of the classroom: How do students raise their hands to answer questions according to gender?
The educators noticed that elementary level students did so equally, but by middle school, girls were raising their hands much less frequently. Even if girls wanted to participate, they were almost apologetic about their opinions. To help empower young women to speak up and take risks, the educators founded a three-week day camp named Rosie’s Girls, after the American symbol for female power, Rosie the Riveter.
“They decided to connect the program to trades in male dominated fields and to highlight the opportunities for girls and women in these careers,” Kelly Walsh, the Director of Girls Programs at Vermont Works for Women, tells BTR. “The idea was to build confidence in girls by having them try out these activities that are usually associated with boys and men.”
Rosie’s Girls is not alone in their quest to break down gender stereotypes that limit girls’ perceived capabilities.
The National Union of Teachers recently worked with five elementary schools over the course of two years developing a project called “Breaking the Mould,” with the objective of creating “practical strategies for challenging gender stereotypical choices and behaviors in primary schools.”
Teachers hypothesized that gender stereotypes were originally enforced to control behavior, and later sexuality, by playing down male/female similarities and highlighting differences. As a result, they saw children abstaining from activates they clearly wanted to participate in if they intuitively felt the activity was not gender appropriate. For example, one little girl said she wanted to ride bikes one day but couldn’t because “there were no pink” ones.
Over the course of the project teachers found that children broke down gender stereotypes most when taught to examine them critically for themselves. Rather than simply proposing, “girls can do construction too,” the teacher would ask the students to list the reasons why people say girls can’t do construction, then examine them as false.
Thinking for yourself is a central theme at Rosie’s Girls, too. Walsh explains they hope the exposure to additional career options gives girls a broadened sense of potential paths.
“We’re big believers in experiential education,” she says. “When you get an opportunity to learn how to do something safely and correctly there’s a lot to be gained from doing it for yourself and seeing what your body is capable of, and what you and your brain are capable of.”
She adds that such skills must be highlighted to impressionable girls, who are often taught that their appearance is their most important attribute.
Apart from classes like auto repair and welding, the camp offers physical activities like swimming and self-defense, plus important group sessions where girls discuss their insecurities and learn to bolster each other’s self esteem.
Walsh says the campers respond positively to environments that discourage relational and peer aggression. Many return for several years in a row, and families often send multiple female relatives.
“We always hear from campers ‘I wish school could be more like Rosie’s Girls,’ or, ‘I wish summer wasn’t ending,”’ she recalls.
Gender equality is also a recent focus of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
In 2012, the OECD released a comprehensive report showing that gender equality in education, employment, and entrepreneurship became more important in the aftermath of the recession than ever before. They claim that equality will help re-shape the labor market by opening up more opportunities for both men and women, leading to a decrease in unemployment.
Programs like Breaking the Mould and Rosie’s Girls seem to be effective. Studies show that females now comprise almost 50 percent of the country’s workforce. Also, millennial women are significantly less likely to experience sexism at their jobs, and are quickly closing the salary gap between men and women.
As traditional gender roles gradually disintegrate, young girls become increasingly empowered to become catalysts. Seven-year-old Charlotte Benjamin, for instance, recently made national news when she wrote to Lego asking why there were so many boy figures and so few girl ones. Lego responded by releasing their first female scientist mini-fig.
“It’s important we recognize all kids can be interested in all things, so really, little coloring blocks should be available to anyone,” Walsh says. “I think it’s awesome that that seven year old took the time to write the letter, was encouraged by the grown ups in her life to do it, and then Lego responded positively.”
Sometimes progress in large-scale societal issues shows through small changes.