My five-year-old friend is planning to be Jane Goodall for Halloween. She has her khaki pants and miniature binoculars ready. She even requested that I make a chimpanzee suit for her favorite doll, so the doll could come along as part of the costume. How could I refuse?
Last year this same young girl, at four years old, dressed up as her favorite artist, Frieda Kahlo. How is it that a child so young would choose to dress as accomplished real-world women rather than superheroes or ghoulish creatures? One big reason is her enthusiasm for the book, Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, a collection of 100 short stories about women from around the world. The book is typically recommended for young people ages 6 and up, but it also can be fascinating for bright younger children, like my friend, who become entranced with biographies. You can hear a few of the stories on the Rebel Girls podcast page, along with links to their app.
Of course, there are many other biographies available. A Mighty Girl’s website is full of books and toys reflecting the lives of women. I enjoy browsing there, often wishing those materials had been available when I was younger. I’m sure I would have enjoyed them, but more importantly, such reading materials might have helped me grow up like my young friend, to whom it has never occurred that her gender might limit her career path. Such an idea would seem like crazy talk—if hundreds of women can do interesting and exciting things, why not her? Representation matters. It really does. In similar ways, it is essential that children of color hear stories of important works of people who look like them, along with the traditional cast of characters found in textbooks. It could be interesting to ask students who they’d choose if they had to dress as a real-world creator. Would they know who they’d choose?
I know that now that she is in school, my young friend may find that holding onto her confidence that girls and women can have many options is harder than it looks. There is certainly research suggesting that girls’ beliefs that “really hard” work is for boys can start early (see Bian et al, 2017, for example). But I must believe that when her earliest concepts of men and women include varied and exciting roles for everyone, it will make a difference. Time will tell. In the meantime, I have that chimp suit ready. For a day next week, my young scientist friend will become one of her heroes, while collecting miniature candy bars. One day, when she is doing her own creative science, I hope she remembers this little chimp and smiles.
Bain, L., Leslie, S., & Cimpian, A. (2017). Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge early and influence children’s interests. Science, 355, 389–391.