Picture a “tomboy.” Maybe she lives for her weekend softball games, climbing trees, hanging at the skate park, tinkering with the family car, and geeking out over Star Wars trivia. She’s not afraid of bugs or skinned knees, and tends to be happiest in comfy jeans and her favorite tee. But if she identifies as a girl, isn’t it strange that we’d label her as a “boy” of any kind, even lovingly?
“The term tomboy is used as a shortcut to describe a girl’s interests and is often even thought of as a compliment of sorts,” says Girl Scouts’ developmental psychologist Dr. Andrea Bastiani Archibald, “but when we label sporty, adventurous girls as boyish, we’re reinforcing the idea that certain behaviors or interests are better suited to boys and men, while the rest are for girls. That’s limiting to children of both genders and not good for anyone.”
Although we know girls can do and be anything they put their minds to, these types of stereotypes about activities and jobs that are seen as more masculine or feminine continue to pigeonhole boys and girls, men and women—all of us!
Kids pick up on these stereotypes early. In a 2018 survey conducted in partnership with the BBC, children ages four to eight were asked to identify jobs that could be done by men and jobs that could be done by women. When it came to being an aerospace engineer, more than half the kids said it was a career men could succeed in, whereas only 15 percent identified it as a field for women. And as for hairdressing? More than 70 percent said it’s a job for a woman, where only 12 percent saw it as a career for men. Both boys and girls are growing up believing that there are whole fields that aren’t for them.
The perception that certain jobs aren’t for women, or even that women would be in the minority in their field, is daunting if not entirely off-putting to girls. In a Girl Scouts Research Institute study, nearly three out of five girls said they’d have to work harder in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) field than a man just to be taken seriously.
“The most effective way to broaden the possibilities a girl imagines for herself is for her to see women in leadership roles. She really needs to see it to be it,” says Dr. Bastiani Archibald. “Which is why having girls participate in all-girl, girl-led experiences—where every leadership role is filled by a girl or woman—is so crucial.”
What isn’t helpful? Labeling ambitious, adventurous, go-getters as “tomboys.” You might think it’s a term of endearment or that calling a little girl a tomboy won’t make any difference—after all, she’s just a kid and not thinking about these bigger issues of gender stereotypes, right? But the truth is, these gender labels can cause her to second guess her interests and what she opens herself up to in the near term—and what she sees as possible for herself in the future.
It’s time to stop calling girls tomboys and just let girls be girls—in all the wonderful, varied ways that’s possible.
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