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Where are we with female equality? Things parents can do to keep daughters happy, healthy

November 17, 2018

Women in record numbers will enter Congress next year, including at least 102 in the House.

Aside from what might be the political reasons, that milestone stands among other gains since the 1960s in equality for U.S. women in education, athletics and careers.

Generally, more girls today excel in academics. They’re entering studies in STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and math. More women have entered corporate executive ranks or previously male-dominated fields. But debate continues, have we reached gender equality?

That question is just one part of the equation, says Spokane family counselor and author Michael Gurian, who writes about ways to understand how girls and boys learn and emote.

Counselors are seeing more girls at a younger ages for anxiety and depression, he says. Tech corporations such as Google have spent billions on how to hire and retain more women, only to see them leave or move into administrative or communication roles, he said.

“There is still much work to do on behalf of girls, but the last few decades have brought amazing strides,” Gurian said in his book, “The Minds of Girls.” Beyond equality arguments, research on the brain and biochemistry give clues to help girls become more resilient and successful in life, he said.

That includes early work to develop stronger spatial-mechanical abilities, such as work with robotics.

“I’ve trained at Google, at Boeing, and other high-tech companies, and the people inside the corporations, including the women, they get as adults that there are differences between the male and female brain,” he said.

“I would beg people if they want to give their daughters more possibilities of a profession in engineering, or any of those fields we call STEM, that they pay really good attention to male and female brain differences.”

Girls also need to be encouraged to problem-solve and take on leadership roles, said Eva Dwight, a positive discipline coach in Arizona who worked in education. She still sees public perception issues.

“I know women politicians walk a fine line, while being forceful in their language, and to stand up for what they believe in,” Dwight said.

“When they are just as forceful and assertive as a male candidate, the woman can be perceived as unwomanly and bitchy. I think as someone who wants to raise strong women, we help girls develop confidence, recognize their strengths and their opportunity for leadership in school.”

Here are some other strategies to help girls become more resilient and achieve.

Different baselines

Brain science is at play, when it comes to educational, emotional and developmental needs for girls, Gurian said.

If you take preschool-age boys and girls, he said generally there are differences in normal behavior for them, showing affection, bonding and “what is normal for work acquisition, for reading and writing. The baselines are different.”

Dwight sees it as crucial to understand the girl’s early ability to connect words and emotions.

“When I’m working with girls, they tend to get more verbal, because girls have verbal centers on both sides of our brain, and we use more white matter connective tissue in our brains to operate from lots of different places in the brain all at once.

“When the girl gets that limbic system red flag that this causes her stress, she is more able to access verbal centers and talk about what’s going on.”

That tendency to have a verbal response to stress has a potential downside. “Because of a verbal response, sometimes it means saying something we regret later or didn’t mean.”

Social drama

Many girls can get into a mental loop replaying situations in the mind if something goes wrong, Dwight said. That’s tied into a part of the limbic system involved in processing emotions, which can put something into an instant replay mode.

“Girls in general can get into a rumination loop,” she said. “It keeps playing the scene over and over. A girl can get to where she just ruminates, worries about and constantly thinks about what causes her conflict. This causes what we all refer to as girl drama.”

Girls tend to do empathy nurturing, Dwight added, “which is understanding how someone else is feeling, and really identifying with other person’s feelings … What we do to nurture and connect often involves activities where we can talk, we hug, we touch, we make longer levels of eye contact.”

Dwight suggests that parents recognize girls’ friendships can run deep, sometimes intense. What happens when those relationships hit rocky times, or someone misinterprets? “Tears, rumors, anger.”

As long as the drama doesn’t turn into bullying, it can help girls learn to set personal boundaries and build resilience, she said. When such conflict erupts, Dwight usually suggests a girl who is upset should listen to music as a distraction or talk it through with someone to process what happened.

“Let’s process it, talk about it a bit, and get you back into a thinking place. The girl can ask, what can I do to distract my brain and move it from this feeling center?”

Screen time

Regarding screen time and brain development, girls tend to become more addicted to social media and smartphones around the “give and take” of responses, while boys often get hooked on visuals, Gurian said.

That need for response and “instant gratification” invades the female brain in processing its reward chemistry, namely dopamine. Instant gratification comes from texting a friend, and getting feedback, but sometimes messages stop or get misinterpreted.

“Then she doesn’t get it, then it creates an abandonment response, because she’s not getting the dopamine hit. That instant gratification is actually really dangerous for her brain development.

“Instant gratification makes her less resilient. Taking things personally makes her less resilient. We have a resilience gap in a lot of our girls. They’re growing up and they appear fine but they become adults and they’re not as resilient as we need them to be.”

Building resiliency

For different reasons, more girls as young as 6 are being seen by professionals for anxiety and depression, Gurian said. Later, some struggle in long-term relationships and performance.

Such depression disorders in the past generally would happen later later in life. “And we had less of it 50 years ago, 30 years ago, but we have much more of it now and it’s much younger.”

Some reasons today are similar to what triggers depression in boys — environmental toxins, trauma and detachment — but now screen time and social media are additional triggers.

“One of the best ways we can see whether we have resilient females who are adults is do they say no, or are they just so multitasking and so constantly getting instant gratification, that they say yes to everything?” he asked.

Gurian suggests that parents and educators urge girls to spend more time involved in kinesthetics, and out in the world, in nature, in making relational connections that aren’t through the phone.

“All of those things build the brain better and help her to be more resilient.”

Spatial and STEM

Start early with girls to build things and do physical activity, Gurian urges. It helps that more girls are participating in sports while growing up. Such focuses will strengthen the spatial-mechanical areas of the female brain already strong in verbal, emotive centers.

Each child is different, but generally, the female brain often defaults to verbal-emotive centers, he added. “If she has a choice between throwing a ball and talking to someone, she will generally choose to talk to someone. It’s not an either-or. She can be great at soccer, but if you look at her 24-hour day, we find that she defaults toward talking and often toward verbal-emotive.”

Regarding STEM, women are far ahead of men now in science careers from biology and research to medicine, but women still aren’t as strong in technology, engineering and math fields, he said.

Parents and educators need to understand more about gender brain differences, he added. “They aren’t shown how male and female brain does calculus, for instance, or how they do geometry differently.

“If we want to hit the pipeline, we’re going to have to change the way that parents help younger kids before they enter school, and then we’re going to have to change the way that schools teach geometry, algebra and calculus, so that it helps the female brain to compete.”

Parents can help, by spending more with girls doing spatial tasks like building up the Legos and destroying them, then building them up again; throwing a ball back and forth; “or throwing the girl up in the air.” Engage them in activities such as robotics.

At St. John Vianney Catholic School, a number of girls are drawn to an after-school math club now 30 members strong and coached by two female teachers who are strong in those skills, principal Nick Senger said. “They are terrific role models.”

Strategic influences

Girls and boys need adult influences both from verbal-emotional and that spatial-mechanical side, experts say.

“Men who have daughters can cross-nurture by understanding girls typically will do more things that involve more words, and thinking about how to have conversations and to help her process emotions,” Dwight said.

But sometimes parents can convey messages of strength as well. “How can I teach her to be tough, if you will, when you fall down and get hurt? It’s a female tendency to go over and do physical touching, and a lot of taking care of to help you feel better.”

Some dads tend to ask if it’s not an emergency, “then get up and walk it off, let’s go,” which can be the same message for the game of life.

Gurian focused early on developing spatial awareness for his two daughters by coaching their soccer teams, walking with them and talking, throwing balls, and throwing them up in the air when they were little.

“Interestingly, even though we did that, one daughter is finishing law school so she’ll be a lawyer.” The other one is getting a master’s degree in business, “but she’s a climber and works at a climbing gym. She wants to own climbing gyms.”

He and his wife never set out to make them engineers, and it’s not clear how directly that spatial development applied toward his daughter’s passion for climbing, but he thinks there was some influence. “At least we gave her that opportunity.”

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