The gender bias children are exposed to from a young age is extremely damaging. For girls in particular, stereotypes, and a lack of role models and opportunities are limiting their futures, confidence, and general happiness. With Covid-19 and the cost of living crisis accelerating gender inequalities, the pace of change is slowing, and girls face a future where they remain undervalued and overlooked.
Creating long-term access to spaces where all girls and young women are free to be themselves, and can feel proud of who they are, is the key to breaking this cycle. Through early intervention, our groups prevent the degradation of self-esteem and confidence that girls commonly start to experience around the age of 11. They are a place where girls build the foundations they need to prepare them for the unique challenges they will face as women.
By the time girls are five, they start to see themselves and what they can achieve differently from boys. Our volunteers report girls as young as seven worry about how people view them because of their gender, using words like “bossy”, “ugly”, and “sassy”. And these are not isolated cases:
- 67% of girls aged 11-21 think that women do not have the same chances as men – Gender Equality at Every Stage: a roadmap for change
- By the age of six, girls avoid subjects they view as requiring them to be “really, really smart” because they believe men are smarter than women – The Fawcett Society, Unlimited Potential
- Girls increasingly fear being criticised for how they look and are changing their behaviour. 31% of girls aged 11-21 say it stops them from speaking up in class – Girlguiding UK, Girls Attitudes Survey
Without support in place to interrupt these beliefs, they manifest, leading to reduced confidence, aspirations, and wellbeing. They alter girls’ personal, and educational development, limiting their potential and continuing a cycle of inequality that is harmful to everyone.
These influences at an early age are the reason that:
- the UN estimates we are currently 40 years away from equal gender representation in politics.
- the Gender Pay Gap in 2020 stood at 15.5% and on average, women enter the labour market with higher qualifications than men, but earn less per hour from the start.
- 68% of women have experienced sexual harassment since the age of 15
Accessible provision for girls
Research demonstrates that it is easier to sustain foundations of self-esteem, resilience, and ambition built in childhood than it is to start the conversation later in life. To build these, girls need early access to non-competitive environments where they are supported and valued equally, reducing comparison against other girls and feelings of unworthiness.
Despite evidence of the need for this kind of support, YMCA revealed that in the past 10 years there has been a £1.1bn cut in youth services funding in England, a decline of 74%. Recreational youth provision is rarely available where it is most needed.
This shortfall has been particularly damaging to girls in areas of economic disadvantage, and stands to worsen in the face of the cost of living crisis. Alternative activities are typically inaccessible, with uniform/kits, travel costs, and upfront termly fees making them unaffordable. One mum from GFS Mile End told us that until she found GFS, she “had been looking for something for my daughter to do after school, especially in wet winter but couldn’t find anything within my budget”.
Without vital access to non-competitive, recreational opportunities, girls are left bored, frustrated, isolated and without a safe space to explore their potential. School alone cannot support the social and soft skills development they need to thrive.
The impact of this varies per girl, but we see it manifest as:
- A lack of confidence
- Reduced independence
- Poor behaviour
- The inability to properly engage with others
Without provision for these girls, they will remain more likely to be drawn into antisocial behaviour, away from education, and develop poor mental health; all of which are more prevalent in areas of deprivation.
The impact of COVID
The pandemic has deepened the challenges already experienced by girls. Staff and volunteers in our communities report that, more than ever, parents are concerned that their daughters have been unable to form friendships and are lonely. Our recent survey reflected this, with only 36% of girls agreeing that they always feel able to talk about their feelings, and 12% saying they can never talk about their feelings.
Volunteers have noticed a significant drop in communication and social skills among the youngest girls who were at an important developmental age during lockdowns. STEER Education recently highlighted that girls’ ability to self-regulate (the healthy ability to adjust how we respond in different social-emotional situations) has declined by 33% since the first lockdown. We are already seeing the impact of this at GFS, resulting in more safeguarding concerns and requests for mental health training since returning to face-to-face delivery.