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Thoughts on why we speak to young girls differently than boys

Why we need to talk to little girls like they're boys

Feyaza Khan
Authored by Feyaza Khan
Posted: Monday, September 20, 2021 - 17:39

I have two children, I’d like to tell you more about them and then I’d like you to decide what gender they are, from everything you've read.

Firstly, they are identical, in that they’re children and the world is new to them and they’re excited by it. But, they’re nothing like each other. Despite the fact they’re twins, they look very different,  dress differently, think differently and act differently in each situation, even their hair is dramatically different. One is neat and tidy and the other has a green mohican. They are both wild, strong, fit and mischievous. One is traditional yet artistic, and the other is studious and masculine. 

I want to know because studies show we use strong or dominant words to describe males and weaker words for females, a callback to the pre-suffragette era in the UK.

The sociologist Janet Holmes has been studying how our speech - specifically English, but a quick study will bring up almost every language doing the same - influences society, since the 80s. In her 2014 book Language and Gender in the workplace, she found that women (and men) are expected to conform to stereotypes of gendered norms in the workplace. Of course, these linguistic constructs - the way we speak - were created at a time when women were seen - at best - as the weaker sex and as caregivers within the home, with very little else to offer except a tool of inheritance if from a wealthy family.  But we haven’t changed much in the way we speak, or changed the words we use for things, so instead we must change the way we think. It certainly explains why we are still forced to accept the idea that there are still such things as male and female jobs, including  - especially - within the tech sector. 

More clues; both my children love football, climbing trees, running (everywhere) and as much as I have tried to shield them, not buy it for them, calmly discuss the use of guns, they love them. Mostly they both love running around the house pretending to be NYPD officers arresting ‘perps’; holsters, badges and everything.

So, can you tell what gender they are yet?

My artistic child loves racing cars, wants to be an engineer, and learning new scooter tricks. My studious child is an orator and debater, (so naturally wants to be a footballer, actor or lawyer) is sensitive to critique and has a brain sharp as a razor.

Maybe this will make it easier - they both have previously got into fights at school (occasionally!)  and I am called in when they win (they always win) because other kids - always boys - make the mistake of assuming they’re pushovers because they’re much smaller than average, but my kids have boxing lessons, so are quite familiar with a right hook. 

Well done, you guessed right, they’re both girls. The one who wants to be an engineer also wears her hair long, experiments with makeup, her favourite colour is pink and the kid loves a tutu, which she’ll wear to the skatepark, rolling down those ramps, without a care in the world.

My sensitive daughter, the one with the mohican, only ever wears trousers loves the colour black and all sorts of skeleton paraphernalia, even though she’s terrified of the dark and only pretends to love ghost stories. 

But, because of how they both look, they’re treated extremely differently; everyone mistakes my trouser-wearing daughter for a boy and she always gets called “mate” and told how cool and strong she is. My tutu wearing scooter fiend, however, despite being the braver and stronger one, gets told how pretty she is, gets called “lovely” and is generally patronised. It’s no surprise sometimes that she is frustrated into using her right hook.

All this makes me wonder, why do people see a dress and automatically assume weakness?

Research around language and identity became more important in the 70s when the creators of Neuro-linguistic Programming, Richard Bandler and John Grinder, found that using positive language around a certain subject with someone increases positivity towards that subject. Similarly, it’s no secret that our use of language is also affecting how girls see themselves - if we are telling girls they’re pretty and boys they’re strong and associating those messages with positivity (especially in 2021!) then those genders are going to continue to seek out those positive messages by either being strong or pretty - both of which are wrong and our dilemma of why there aren’t enough women in tech just gets harder to solve.

We talked about language’s effects on one of our podcasts this year with Nemo D’Qrill whose startup Sigma Polaris uses AI to ensure there are no biases during companies’ recruitment stages. They told us that the language used in recruitment adverts can discourage women and people from diverse backgrounds from applying. 

Dolly Gulliford who has a non-tech job at transport startup Passenger and was on our last Tech South West podcast, said one cure for this, is for women to be braver, take chances and apply for jobs that they want even if they don’t fit all the criteria - in fact, especially if they don’t fit the description. The Bournemouth-based software company, which creates apps for bus travellers, has a focus on hiring women in leadership roles. 

Dolly told the podcast: “Most men tend to apply for jobs when a minimum amount of criteria applies to them and women tend to not. We need to be a little bit braver about taking risks and going for stuff that we think might be slightly beyond us.”

In the podcast, we also mention the fantastic Cornwall-based TECGirls, run by exceptionally talented humans, who happen to be women. TECGirls has made it a mission to encourage young girls into software and coding and want to know why they aren't there already. Their preliminary studies have found that girls are influenced by how they are interacted with from a young age around STEM subjects. (Not to be confused with TechGirls which is based in London and equally impressive. With a woman director, it reaches out to schools to create an interest in STEM subjects within the classroom, as well to bridge the gender gap within tech careers) 

In the US, a growing number of fitness professionals attribute the fact that more girls than boys get sports knee injuries is due to cultural, not physiological, factors - even down to how girls get told to sit! (keep your legs closed, apparently a man spread is vulgar on a woman.)

This is a clear example of how we are actively harming young women because of our archaic attitudes.

So, the next time we ask ourselves where the women in tech are at, we should look at the language we use with little girls and if in doubt, pretend they’re little boys.

Feyaza Khan is a social media and communications consultant, mainly for tech startups, She has worked as a broadcast journalist for networks in the UK, Middle East and Africa, including the BBC, SABC and ARN. She also presents the Tech South West podcast.

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