What is the dream gap – and what can we do about it?

(Photo: Getty Images)

As parents, we’re confident we love our sons and daughters equally, and that we want to encourage the same positive qualities in them, as well as instilling the belief that they can be anything, whatever their gender.

Unfortunately, parents don’t always treat girls and boys the same.

Girls are three times less likely to be given a science-themed toy than boys, according to the Institution of Engineering and Technology (STEM toys are also more likely to be marketed to boys than girls). This can impact their interest in pursuing STEM subjects and a STEM career in later years.

Parents are also less likely to think their girls are brilliant: in fact, they are two-and-a- half times as likely to Google “is my son gifted?” than “is my daughter gifted?”

As parents, we may not even be aware of these biases. Research has found our daughters are, however, and that from a very young age it impacts how they view themselves.

Research shows that girls as young as five are already less confident in their abilities than boys, and girls start to feel that their potential is limited: this is known as the Dream Gap – and we need to close it.

New Barbie Dolls released to celebrate Barbie’s 60th Anniversary and International Women’s Day at the Empire State Building on in New York City in 2019. (Photo: ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images)

Mattel and Barbie are doing their part to close the Dream Gap, by inspiring and educating girls, paving the way for their bright future careers in whatever fields they choose to enter. Proceeds from each doll sold in the U.S. during Barbie’s 60th anniversary celebrations this year will be donated to the Barbie Dream Gap Project Fund, which supports organisations seeking to empower girls and raise awareness of factors (subtle and more obvious) that make it difficult for girls to believe they can do, and be, anything. Barbie has even teamed up with NYU Associate professor Andrei Cimpian to conduct further research into the topic.

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So, what can we do as parents, relatives and educators of the next generation of women? Studies have shown, time and time again, that role models play a huge role in encouraging girls to pursue certain career paths, especially STEM-related ones. Role modelling for a young girl starts with the books she reads and the toys she plays with, including seeing girl-power dolls who are pilots, astronauts and robotics engineers.

The latest Barbie dolls are exactly the kinds of role models we want to be teaching our children about and include activists like Adwoah Aboah and Yara Shahidi, sportswomen like Nicola Adams, Naomi Osaka and Dipa Karmakar and scientists and mathematicians like Eleni Antoniadou and Katherine Johnson. These women, and their dolls, help to show young girls that their options are limitless by being role models who have broken the mould, overcome sexism and dominated in their respective fields, regardless of where they came from or what obstacles they had to face.

READ MORE: Female STEM role models to look up to

(Photo: Getty Images)

As parents, we also need to be aware that girls may be picking up on stereotypes from society at large and the media telling them they are “less than” (all the more ridiculous when girls tend to do better academically than their male counterparts). Everything from the language we use to speak to our daughters – we should be praising them for their efforts from a young age so that they learn accomplishment doesn’t come from attaining perfection, but from determination and perseverance – to seeking out female mentors for our children, can help start to change young girls’ perceptions of what they’re capable of.

Inspire your daughter or any other young women in your life by reading them books with fierce female characters, showing them videos of Michelle Obama and other fearless women on repeat (surely we’re not the only ones who watch her obsessively when we’re meant to be working?) and encouraging them to expand their play to include coding games and building toys, while also giving dolls to their brothers so they know they’re not just for girls.

Don’t forget: this doesn’t just benefit young girls. Even grown women, after exposure to strong female role models, have positive results. Research published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology has found that women who are shown images of powerful female leaders while performing a stressful leadership task perform better (it eliminates the gender performance gap) and self-evaluate better, too.

So go ahead and get yourself a fearless female mentor too.

Watch our video about Barbie’s recent Dream Gap Workshop and visit barbie.com/en-gb/dream-gap to learn more.