The Pink and Blue Predicament

SARA ENGRAM

August 08, 1993|By SARA ENGRAM

When Girls Inc., formerly known as Girls Clubs of America,asked girls how their lives would be different if they were boys, the answers illustrated the pervasiveness of sexual stereotypes -- and the price society pays for keeping them intact.

Ieasha, 8, said, "Boys think that just because you're a girl, you're not tough. They think we're all weak and that we don't know nothing."

Eleven-year-old Erin said, "There'd be different toys. Boys don't play with jump ropes. They play with footballs, basketballs and baseballs. They wouldn't want to play with silly putty, Chinese jump rope, or coloring because they think it's baby games."

Lily, 13, said, "You would have different jobs. Men can't have the same jobs as women. . . . Like policemen and carpenters -- there aren't too many women."

At 15, Jometa was fast leaving girlhood for a premature adulthood: "I think my life would be a lot different if I were a male, because my mother and father would let me do more things, and stay out later and go more places," she said. "Also I wouldn't be pregnant."

Jometa and girls like her generate a great deal of concern, and for good reason. Teen-aged mothers often end up losing life-long struggles against poverty. The Children's Defense Fund says that between 1973 and 1986 the median earnings of family heads younger than 25 with children fell from $15,049 to $6,000.

Couple that statistic with this one from a study by the Center for Population Options of the public costs and personal consequences of too-early childbearing: In 1990 the government spent more than $25 billion for social, health and welfare services to families begun by teen-age mothers, an increase of 16 percent or $3.5 billion over 1989.

A report from the Alan Guttmacher Institute suggests one reason for the high costs: Although more teen-age mothers are graduating from high school than ever, only half the women who have a child at age 17 or younger will have graduated from high school by age 30.

Even without the burdens of motherhood, women are likely to be steered toward lower-paying occupations. Even in better-paying, male-dominated jobs, from truck driving to lawyering, women on average earn less than men. Dropping out of high school, or even junior high school, tips the odds even more against the chances that a girls will grow into a woman with the resources to provide adequately for her children.

In economic development circles, there is a growing recognition that paying attention to girls in those crucial years after infancy and before motherhood can produce impressive dividends. Demographic experts are pointing to the education of girls and young women as the single most important factor in reducing rapid population growth and raising a family's living standards. Why? In many countries, it is the women who handle the economics that count -- procuring food, helping see that children get an education and generally making sure that the household meets the basic needs of its members.

Many details are different, of course. But the central point holds true in this country as well, especially for households headed by women.

For a stable and prosperous society, we need women who are prepared for adulthood, who can nurture and care for their children and earn a living when necessary. Girls who are raised to conform to traditional stereotypes are less likely to become the self-sufficient adults they need to be.

They are more likely to see themselves as victims and even to fall into that pattern of behavior by getting pregnant, by abusing drugs or simply by refusing to take responsibility for the conditions in which they live.

Strong, smart and bold -- those are the goals Girls, Inc. puts forth for the girls the organization serves in more than 300 centers around the country. Those same goals should be shared by the larger society.

Last year, Girls, Inc. published a study about the "pink and blue predicament," the mind set that encourages girls in subtle ways to conform to stereotypes and ways to get beyond those images.

Too often, the study pointed out, society encourages families to "rescue" girls by not allowing them to be as active or get as dirty or explore as widely as boys.

We still encourage dreams about the "Prince Charming" who will sweep them away, solving all their problems and meeting all their needs.

We idealize certain body types and stigmatize others and we're obsessed with sex appeal.

No wonder the Jometas of the world fall through the cracks, creating families they cannot care for. The tragedy is that as we blame them, we too often turn a deaf ear to Ieasha, Erin and Lily -- for whom the world can still have bright horizons.

Sara Engram is editorial page director of The Evening Sun.

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