5 Ways Parents Can Close the Dream Gap Between Girls and Boys

Young girl using headphones and tablet at home

In light of Women’s History Month, Melissa Duren Conner, the Partner and Managing Director at Jennifer Bett Communications, pens an op-ed to parents about the urgent need to close the Dream Gap.

Recently, in a “mom” Slack channel I’m a part of, one of my friends and fellow moms mentioned two words I can’t stop thinking about: “Dream Gap.” My colleague first learned of this so-called “Dream Gap” during  a conversation with Barbie, in which the representative mentioned that the company funds research to give girls the resources and support they need to continue to believe they can be anything. 

After all,  studies show that starting at age 5, girls are more likely to develop self-limiting beliefs and begin to think they’re not as smart and capable as boys. And according to a 2017 report conducted by NYU researchers, girls often stop believing they can do or be anything as early as six years old. In October 2019, Barbie even distributed its own Dream Gap Project Fund of $250,000 to three like-minded non-profit organizations — Step Up, She Should Run, and She’s the First — that have been working every day to remove barriers that prevent girls from reaching their limitless potential.

Women have been fighting for equality in all things for a while — equality in our independence, autonomy, and respect — and while we’ve come a long way, systemic sexism, just like systemic racism, is far from being eradicated. 

Women are, in fact, consistently held back by long-ingrained misconceptions about the ability to do anything based on their gender. As recently as 2018, women still held only 22.5% of Fortune 500 board seats, according to the Alliance for Board Diversity and Deloitte. I see a financial representation of this every day in my own professional life. I interview so many young women, and every time we get to the question of salary, their response frequently includes limiting language like “I’m hoping for” or “I’m flexible.” And every time, I give them the same response: “Do not hope and do not be flexible. Tell me, and any other opportunity, what you want and what you are worth.”

The Dream Gap is first about gender, but it is also about race — because when you take it one step further and consider the Black and Indigenous people of color who identify as female, the gap is likely even wider and more profound. At last year’s Oscars, English multi hyphenate Cynthia Erivo was the lone person of color nominated across 20 acting categories. Meanwhile, out of five directing nominations, all nominees were male. So, while we have a Black female CEO of a Fortune 500 by way of Roz Brewer, she is still the only Black female CEO of a Fortune 500 — in 2021. While we have a Black female Principal Dancer at American Ballet Theatre by way of Misty Copeland, she is the still the only Black female Principal Dancer at American Ballet Theatre — again, in 2021. And while the U.S. is now blessed with the impactful  Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Black and South Asian woman to hold this office, she is still the only woman — period — to hold this office.

My parents, Michael and Annie, made sure my sister and I knew we could do anything we wanted because the world didn’t let us know itself. They were what most would consider “young” parents, while also being a biracial couple at a time when it was still unjustifiably frowned upon. While I had plenty of “girly” toys, like my Barbie Jeep, for example, they worked hard to consciously balance stereotypically gendered aspects of my childhood with a rhetoric that made me feel limitless in my ambitions, no matter how big or small. Yes, I could play basketball with the boys in my neighborhood. Yes, I could be a doctor if I chose to. And yes, I could take up as many leadership roles at my school as I could. Lucky for me, I’m fortunate enough that I can’t remember a time during my childhood when I felt that I couldn’t do something because of the gender with which I was born and also identified.

Now 34 years later, I have two daughters of my own who are even more mixed than me. They are proudly Puerto Rican and Black, Eastern European and Guyanese, and they will grow up with even more faces to inspire them than I did.

While my girls are still teeny-tiny, just two years and eight months old, the work as a parent starts now. My husband (who is a spectacular #GirlDad) and I are deliberate in the books we read to them, the toys they play with, the movies and programs we let them watch (well, not our baby yet) — and perhaps most  importantly, the words they hear from our mouths. Some of our favorite activities include the book Think Big, Little One by bestselling author Vashti Harrison (and pretty much anything else she’s done!), playing with our Melissa & Doug Doctor Activity Set, and movies like Moana, Frozen (sisters!), Brave, and Akeelah and the Bee.

I have no specific ambition for my children — only that they know they can do whatever fills their hearts and minds with joy with no question as to their ability, especially based on their gender. Parents, families and the communities we build around our children have a responsibility to protect our girls from feeling limited in any way. Every day I’m thinking about the message I’m sending my daughters; it’s an active mission, but until it’s second nature for us all, it’s one of the most important for us as parents. I am not perfect by any means but I try every single day to be conscious of my responsibility to not my daughters and any other young girls I come across. See below for five starter-points that, I’ve found, help guide me in this lifelong commitment to close the Dream Gap for my girls, and, with ongoing care and attention, for all girls to come.

Do not subscribe to prescriptive gender roles.

There’s nothing wrong with a young girl wanting to be a princess, but let it be her choice. If she’s constantly called “princess,” given princess costumes and toys, or watches only princess movies, she’s subconsciously learning that’s what she should aspire to. This starts first with shifting your own mindset as the adult away from what historically has been prescribed as items and experiences for girls versus those for boys.

Expose young girls to more diverse activities and toys.

I’ll say it again: There’s nothing wrong with a young girl loving princesses, but make sure she isn’t only surrounded by princess goods. My oldest daughter loves cars and trucks, her musical instruments, painting, being physical, like jumping on her trampoline, and building things to climb up. We have a kitchen set because she loves to “cook” and a doctor set because she loves to fix boo-boos. And yes, my daughter also loves her princess and baby dolls.  

Tell your girls they’re just as smart as they are pretty.

When my oldest was a baby, I caught myself calling her pretty or beautiful a lot. I remember watching The Help…, and the scene where Viola Davis’ character poignantly tells little Mae Mobley that she “is smart…is kind….is important.” I came to understand just how crucial it is for me to tell my girls how smart and capable they are as it is to compliment their appearance.

Encourage your boys to be inclusive and encouraging of their female friends and schoolmates.

Raising emotionally intelligent boys is critical to shifting this narrative for girls. Boys will grow up benefiting from the same tips here as girls, and together, they can be the best version of us.They can reset the dynamic and show us what it means to simply be good humans to one another. 

Do as I say and as I do.

You are hands-down the most influential person in your child’s life. They will do what you do and say what you say. So unless you correct your own biases, conscious or subconscious, these aforementioned recommendations won’t take hold, leaving any lasting impact on your families and your children.

I’m certain there are other nuances to consider, other tips to live by, but this is a start. Here’s to ending the Dream Gap and giving our children a world deserving of them.