Verizon's powerful new ad, Inspire Her Mind, shows what a little girl hears when you tell her she's pretty. The offenders I want to look at? Mothers and female teachers. Statistics show we're having a hard time keeping girls in STEM-based careers. Maybe the problem — and the solution — lies with us.
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Sixty-six percent of 4th grade girls say they like science and math, but only 18 percent of all college engineering majors are female. These statistics are disheartening, if not unfamiliar. But the new Verizon ad, Inspire Her Mind, highlights something uncomfortably new: We deter our naturally curious girls away from science and math. And by "we" I mean moms and female teachers. Could understanding this connection be the key we've been waiting for to unlocking the issue of gender bias?

Ingrained messages

Gender bias in the classroom was extensively studied by Myra and David Sadker in the 1990s. The couple directed their life's work to creating equality in classrooms by highlighting the inequalities inherent within them. The Sadkers pointed to their then-staggering study results: Boys are called on, asked more follow-up questions and allowed to share their opinions out of turn all more often than girls. The Sadkers wrote, "Although probably not intentional... these behaviors send a very negative message about the importance of girls’ contributions to class discussions."

Shannon Duffy is a former teacher, a current writer and a mother of two teens and a tween. Duffy says, "[It's] not a conscious action, to say these words, but something is so ingrained that the words slip out without a second thought. That's why [gender bias] is so hard to combat, because it requires a second thought. And a third. And a fourth. It requires a trained consciousness."

Gender bias: An old problem

The statistics about our girls — remains the same: They're not sticking with math- and science-based studies.

Two decades later, not much has changed since the Sadkers first shared their study results. Teachers are more aware of gender bias, as are the rest of us, but what's important — the statistics about our girls — remains the same: They're not sticking with math- and science-based studies.

We can all agree that the second, third and fourth looks that Duffy speaks to are, indeed, required but I wonder if where we need to be looking is directly at moms and female teachers. The National Center for Education Statistics says that as many as 76 percent of school teachers are female and most households have at least one female parent inside them. That means that some — if not a lot — of gender bias is coming from women.

Mothering words

Verizon's new ad, Inspire Her Mind, highlights the social cues that push girls away from math and science in childhood. What struck me in the ad wasn't the message itself. As a former teacher, mother and feminist, I'm aware of the gender stereotyping that the Sadkers first revealed. What I heard loud and clear were the women's voices sending the messages. What I heard was myself.

Shannan Ball Younger is the writer behind Mom Factually and the Tween Us blog on ChicagoNow. She says, "This ad nicely illustrates that the messages we send to kids at any age matter, and that the message given when they're in late elementary and middle school can be even more powerful than we realize. Tweens may not seem like they're listening to parents, but they are. What parents say becomes their inner voice."

Be uncomfortable, create awareness

This finger-pointing is uncomfortable, and not everyone likes it. Margery Leveen Sher is a humorous motivational speaker and writer who focuses on helping people learn to notice the little things that give life meaning and laughter. Sher says, "I don't know how accurate this video is. I bet some parents will take offense that they're being blamed for girls' lack of STEM involvement." But as Younger says, "Parents definitely need to be aware of the messages they're sending, even those messages that they don't intend."

Even the Sadkers were sure to say that teachers don't purposefully treat girls inequitably, but that doesn't diminish the fact that the inequity is there and it might be time to shift the conversation from "we're all doing our best" to "what can we be doing differently?"

Best advice: Stop stifling girls

I watch the [Verizon] video and know that I've said some of these words to my daughters, perhaps to some of my former female students as well

The good news about the discomfort moms and teachers might feel within this conversation, is that with it we can create change. Duffy says, "I watch the [Verizon] video and know that I've said some of these words to my daughters, perhaps to some of my former female students as well." I feel the exact same way, and I bet that with an honest look, many mothers and female teachers relate.

Younger confirms, "I don't think parents actively think, 'I want to discourage my daughter from science,' but they also may not ask themselves, 'What can I do to promote and encourage my daughter's interest in science, engineering, etc.' This ad will prompt that thinking, which is great." And Farrah Parker, the executive director for the City of Los Angeles Commission on the Status of Women, says, "Anyone who interacts with a child must be careful to avoid stifling scientific creativity based simply on gender. Before you attempt to redirect a child's interest, ask, 'Is there a valid, life-altering reason why my child should not do this?'"

Moms, it's time to change the script

They’re exactly the same... Girls are capable of anything they want to do, and they need to know that.

This shift, while seemingly subtle, has the potential to be the change our girls need. When shown the Verizon ad, 11-year-old Megan seemed really moved and saddened when the girl walked away from the science fair poster. When she talked about it with her mother, she said, "I think that girls are just as powerful as boys and they should not be considered worse at anything, or be expected to be not as good. They’re exactly the same... Girls are capable of anything they want to do, and they need to know that."

This is a message most of us are comfortable hearing, and repeating. But what Megan said next is equally important, "I don't know why her parents would say those things."

Duffy says, "We can't expect perfection of ourselves in the ways that we speak to our girls (or our boys). We can become more aware and more conscious of our messages, and maybe something new and better will become ingrained."

Positive might not get the job done

There's a big call for refocusing the gender bias conversation to the positive. Sher says, "I think a more positive ad campaign might be to show women scientists talking to girls about how much fun their jobs are and how important to society their work is." Younger agrees, explaining, "There are examples of women in science and we need to make our daughters aware of them. Stephanie Kwolek, scientist and the inventor of Kevlar, recently passed away and that was covered in the news. I made sure to talk about her with my girl, how her interest in science has saved so many thousands of lives."

And these are, indeed, important conversations to have. But they're also the easy ones. Younger says, "We fall into what we know, especially as parents... But allowing the status quo to dictate our thinking about gender roles ignores the potential in our daughters."

Part of the solution

To solve this seemingly defeated problem, we have to circle all the way back to what Duffy called the second (and third and fourth) looks at our own thoughts, words and reactions to our girls.

Megan says it best, "Who cares if [a girl's] parents aren't good about it, if it's something you love, go for it." Shifting the conversation to changing the harmful words that, like it or not we are using, can move mothers and female teachers from the "who cares if" part of the problem, to the "because of" part of the solution. And I think that's worth any discomfort we might feel in the process.

share with us!^What do you think of the Verizon ad? Do mothers and female teachers play a role in deterring girls from STEM-based careers and, if so, how can we solve this problem?