02 Feb 5 Ways To Close The “Ambition Gap” For Girls

Would it surprise you to hear that a future CEO had the following background? She enjoyed weekly manicures with her mother starting at age four, spent her days playing princess dress-up, was not regularly around professional women, and was not told she could achieve anything she put her mind to. Surprised? Yes, it would surprise me too.

In her speech at World Economic Forum at Davos, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, one of the most powerful women and working moms in the world, talked of an “ambition gap” in how we are raising young girls versus boys. She didn’t point her fingers at corporations or at advertisers, but at parents and how we are raising our daughters and sons.

I can’t stop thinking about this – not because it is new – but because of Sandberg’s brilliant label for what is unfolding around us.  What are we doing to contribute to the ambition gap and what are we doing to halt it?

1. Pre-School Girls Have Regular Salon Appointments

We live in a time when it is rare to enter a nail salon and not be seated next to a mother and her daughter – as young as three years old – getting a manicure. How then can we expect that same girl to run freely, play sports, get dirty or climb a tree? The benefits of outdoor play are well documented yet we are teaching girls to be dainty and decorative at an alarmingly young age.

2. Toys are Divided Based on Gender

We live in a time when science kits are centered around spa kits for girls while boys are building rocket ships. Even Lego now feels a need to market “girl” lego which involves a Barbie like figure in a microscopic skirt. Until a few months ago, Lego was all about building. Today our daughters are building with a Lego girl who couldn’t even kneel without her underwear showing.

3. Working Moms Are Apologizing

We live in a time when working moms feel a constant need to justify their status. It is easy to forget that most of the world’s working moms need to work. In Leslie Bennett’s The Feminine Mistake, she outlines a compelling economic argument for why all women should work. (Your husband could leave you, die, get paralyzed or lose his job). We seem to have forgotten that children of working moms grow up with great role models. Here is one more example.

4. Girls Aspire to Be Princesses

We live in a time when multibillion dollar Disney marketing messages and parents themselves are encouraging our young girls towards princess adoration. Dress up is involving high heels, makeup, and aspirations of unattainable physical beauty as early as age three. Princess costumes have taken over pre-school dress up areas and even teachers are calling our girls “princesses.” Parents are parading their daughters out in princess clothing without stopping to think of the ramifications. If you need to understand why this isn’t good, readCinderella Ate My Daughter. If you want to see the impact it is having on college age women – the first generation to grow up in the princess era –  read this piece on why princesses won’t be presidents.

5. We Teach Girls to Be Pretty and Boys to Be Strong and Smart

We live in a time when the messages on sexist children’s clothing are mirroring our society’s messaging. As Sandberg points out, “We don’t raise our daughters to be as ambitious as our sons. From early childhood through marriage we reward men for being leaders, taking risks, being competitive. We teach women as young as four to lay back, be communal. We need our boys to be as ambitious to contribute in the home and we need our girls to be as ambitious to achieve in the workforce.”

If we want our daughters to reach their full potential, we need to start at home. Every time we set up gender inequality in play, we pave the way for future inequality in the workforce. Let’s set a different course now. Each time we open Facebook, let’s think of Sandberg and ask ourselves, “What have we done to close the ambition gap today?”

Samantha Ettus is a bestselling author and keynote speaker on personal branding for women. Follow her on Twitter @samanthaettus or email her at samantha@samanthaettus.com

To read this article on Forbes, please click here.

Samantha Ettus is a bestselling author & corporate speaker. The Pie Life: A Guilt-Free Recipe for Success and Satisfaction will be released in September.