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Learning to fly: meet the teen girls battling a culture of bias

teens school 3.jpg

Cast your mind back to being 13 years old. What did you want to be when you grew up? And did you ever feel like there were things you couldn’t do simply because you were a girl?

If the answer is yes, then you’re not alone. The frustrating career issues that affect us as adults, including pregnancy discrimination and the gender pay gap, don’t spring out of nowhere: the bias against girls appears to weave itself into the foundations of our social structure well before we finish secondary school.

New research from Accenture released this week suggests gender prejudice is imposed on girls from a young age, with over half of teachers (54%) admitting they have seen girls dropping subjects that relate to male-dominated STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers due to pressure from their parents.

So just how strongly do teen schoolgirls feel this undercurrent of sexism, even now in 2017? And what hope is there for change? Here, Stylist.co.uk talks to 10 teenage girls about what they want to do with their future careers – and whether they think following their dreams will be harder simply because of their gender.


“Sometimes I think, ha – I can be better than the boys”
Akira, 13

1

Favourite subjects: Design Technology, Resistant Materials and fashion

Dream career: An international charity worker

I like doing stuff where I get to use my hands and think outside of the box. Maths and English are fun too but you don’t really have your own opinion - one plus one will always equal two. But with subjects like DT, you can really use your imagination.

I don’t feel like there’s anything boys can do better than girls but sometimes I feel like people put that stereotype on me. If I talk to the boys I’m friends with outside of school and tell them about working with wood and stuff in DT, they will say something like, “shouldn’t you just be doing fashion?” So I’ll tell them how good I am to show them they’re wrong.

People imagine girls just sewing and cooking and it’s not that we don’t like that, it’s just that we love other things as well. So I love sports but boys will think, “oh she must be horrible at sports”. Sometimes I play football outside of school and they always pick the girl last, which I think is unfair. Then when I prove that I’m quite good at it they get surprised which I think is really rude but also just how society is. It feels great when I beat boys at sport. Sometimes I think, ha – I can be better than the boys.

When I grow up I want to do something with travelling and also something that helps people. My auntie does a job that I’m really into – she travels to places with lots of refugees and helps them. I’ve never gone with her but I’ve helped with some things. I wrote letters to some of the names that she had written on the sheet of people she was meeting. I knew they were going through difficult times so I got to say some words from my heart to them. It made me feel better about myself to think that I was putting a smile on someone’s face.


“As a feminist, I really don’t believe there are different jobs for different genders” 
Aurora, 12

aurora

Favourite subjects: Design Technology, Science, English

Dream career: Something in fashion and STEM

At first I wanted to be a fashion designer, as I make most of my own clothes and have a sewing room at the top of my house – I’m always sewing. But then I went to secondary school and learnt about science and did more complicated maths, so now I want to do something that combines STEM with fashion design. Maybe designing more advanced sewing machines or combining fabrics to make wearable technology, like clothes that can pick up on your mood and change colour.

I’ve been coding for about two years, and I started coding my sewing machine to make different stitches and things. I unravelled it and typed code into the machine and then I made a leaf stitch and a heart stitch. I made myself a skirt.

As a feminist I really don’t believe there are different jobs for different genders. I’ve never been pressurised to go into a certain subject. I don’t see there being two different jobs that boys can have and girls can have.

Maybe society isn’t making things equal, but I definitely think it should be.


“Things are changing slightly now but not quickly enough”
Nyah, 13

nyah

Favourite subjects: Maths and science

Dream career: Pediatrician

I want to be a paediatrician as I like working with children and I love science. I’m always helping my little brother with his homework and my mum was a teacher, so I know a few of the basics.

At school I love PE and I feel like everyone can do it, but I’m also a member of a football club and they would never mix boys and girls. It’s probably because boys feel like it’s their kind of sport and they wouldn’t want to play with girls who are just doing it to have fun.  But girls have netball, which I play too.

I think the stereotype that boys are better than girls, and girls should be cleaning at home, comes from back in the day during the war. Girls weren’t allowed to fight so they had to stay home with the children and do all the housework while the men went out to do the actual hard work.

I think that’s changing slightly now but not quickly enough.

My mum wants me to have an education. She always says, if I don’t have homework after school I should do extra work on my laptop. She wants me to go far. I listen to what she says and try my hardest but she doesn’t pressurise me, and I know she’s doing it for my benefit.


“I don’t think there’s anything I couldn’t do if I set my mind to it”
Alice, 13

2

Favourite subjects: History, Design Technology and Music

Dream career: Architectural historian

I used to want to be an interior designer but now I want to be an architectural historian. I was watching The Great Interior Design Show and the guy presenting it was an architectural historian so I thought, that’s what I’m going to do.

My mum and dad are musicians so they have high ambitions for my little brother to do music, but playing instruments has never been my favourite thing. They’ll support me in whatever I do, though.

I go to an all-girls school and the teachers are so good at helping us achieve whatever we want to do and making sure we don’t let things hold us back. But I always think of boys and men as having bigger muscles than us. My grandad was a car mechanic and he did a lot of work with lifting heavy things. My nan also wanted to be a car mechanic but she’s much more dainty and felt like she couldn’t do it physically.

But I don’t think there’s anything I couldn’t do if I set my mind to it.


“I gave up karate because it was boring watching the boys”
Lailanie, 12

5

Favourite subjects: Science, especially when we do experiments with chemicals

I want to be a chemist who makes medicine. I would rather have a job that I loved than one that paid lots of money: after all, money can’t buy everything.

People always say boys are strong and smart so when we’re doing sports I feel like I don’t have a chance. They always pick strong people to be on the team and it’s usually the boys.

I used to do karate after school but when they would do competitions it was always boys fighting against other boys. They wouldn’t mix boys and girls, I think because they thought girls are weaker. I gave up karate because it was boring watching the boys. My parents said I shouldn’t give up something I love just because I wasn’t allowed to join in, so maybe I’ll do karate somewhere else one day.

In the past they always thought boys were best. Even though girls now get to have jobs they still don’t get paid as much as men. I think it’s because they think women will leave once they’ve had a child, so maybe they think what’s the point. Hopefully that’s changing a little bit now.


“It’s really hard to speak in class because they don’t give us a chance, it’s usually the boys”
Mimi, 13

9

Favourite subjects: History and Music

Dream career: Probably a historian

I’m not exactly sure what I want to be when I grow up – maybe a historian. I think my parents will be really happy with that.

Some of the boys in my class are really smart, but not all of them. It’s really hard to speak in class because they don’t give us a chance, it’s usually the boys.

We’re not exactly equal to men yet. They have the advantage because they’ve been doing it for such a long time. Women have only recently been able to take part in subjects such as STEM. There’s more men from the start and we’ve just come in after them, so there’s less of us.

I think in the future it will be OK. I think we’ll be more equal then.


“We should put posters up everywhere saying it should be equal for anyone to do anything”
Aminato, 13

3

Favourite subjects: Science, especially when we make experiments and record the results

Dream career: Doctor

I want to be a doctor because I like helping people and I want to make them happier.

We need to work on equality a bit more. For example, footballers are always boys. Girls can do it too but they’re not really on the TV – it’s only really the men, which means they enjoy watching it more.

We should put posters up everywhere saying it should be equal for anyone to do anything. You just have to speak up in a crowd. If we don’t speak about it then we’ll always think men are better than women.


“At school I think boys are more confident than girls”
Dion, 12

6

Favourite subjects: Art, Maths, Science

Dream career: Either a doctor or a vet

I like subjects that make you think. I want to be a doctor or a vet when I grow up and I think my parents will be happy with either.

There are less women than men working as doctors and nurses: most people don’t want to see blood, it’s more of a manly job. But I think it will be easier for me to become a doctor because there are less women doing it already.

It’s all about me as well, though. I think if I study hard it’s going to be easy. If I put my head forward and ignore what other people say, then I’ll get to where I want to be.

I’m not sure men and women are equal. At school I think boys are more confident than girls. We do get shy boys too but it’s mainly the girls.


“When people think of doctors, they always think of a man”
Sadia, 12

sadia

Favourite subjects: Maths and creative stuff

Dream career: Not sure yet

I’m not sure what I want to be when I grow up. I’ve seen a lot of girls who want to be doctors but it will be hard because more men than women think they’ll be better at it. It’s more stereotypical for women to become nurses. That’s why when people think of doctors they always think of a man.

I think we need to work on that to make girls more confident and show them that they can achieve whatever they want. I think the girls at my school are generally less confident than the boys because they don’t think they can do anything better than them. Sometimes people say girls have more focus but when it comes to chances and opportunities, they won’t step forward because they think they won’t be able to do it properly.

I think we need to educate girls so they realise its OK if they’re the only girl doing something. They still have a chance to become something, they just need to focus.


“There are still some people out there who think men are more important than women”
Thuksana, 13

7

Favourite subjects: English and PE

Dream career: A lawyer (or plan B: an actress)

I read a lot of books and take one with me everywhere I go. If I’m bored or there’s no internet I’ll always read a book. Harry Potter’s my favourite - I’ve got the whole set of books and all the films.

I want to be a lawyer and if that doesn’t work out I want to be famous. I want to be an actress.

I asked my mum if she’d take me to LA and get me an agent and she said OK. My dad is in the middle about it though.

I feel like things are easier for women now. Back in the olden days they didn’t have any choice and had to be stuck at the house, cleaning and looking after children. Nowadays there is more of a variety of jobs for them to do.

I don’t think we’re treated completely equally to men and there are still some people out there who think men are more important than women. But I think in 10 years, everyone will accept that all women should have an equal chance to do the same things as men.

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