02 Aug 2018

Opportunities for girls have grown, but stereotypes linger

Girls are expected to be ambitious and think about the future, but they are also told to be quiet, humble and polite -- an interview with psychologist Dr. Barbara Józefik 

Wysokie Obcasy
Agnieszka Jucewicz Wysokie Obcasy, Global
Opportunities for girls have grown, but stereotypes linger - NewsMavens
Women running on Beach, Wikimedia Commons

The following selections are from an interview by Agnieszka Jucewicz with psychologist Dr Barbara Józefik. The original appeared in Polish in the weekly “Wysokie Obcasy” in July 2018.

Agnieszka Jucewicz: When you look at young girls today, what do you see?

Barbara Józefik: Possibilities. We live in a time of female revolution. Women are taking back their power and young girls will surely follow their example.

18-year-old Emma Gonzalez became the face of “Never Again” -- the anti-gun movement in the United States. Last year, on International Women’s Day, a bronze sculpture of little girl was placed on Wall Street in front of the famous Charging Bull statue in a subtle challenge to the strength and brutality of the financial world.

We’re in the middle of a great transformation. Women have new opportunities, but they also face problems they’ve never experienced before. What’s more, some of the old, already known difficulties have never vanished, and instead have started appearing much earlier in a woman’s life. 

AJ: What are some examples of this?

Concerns about one’s appearance, which a few decades ago affected only a small percentage of young women, now starts bothering little girls in kindergarten. The media bombards us with slimming products and unrealistic body images and yet another generation of children is being raised on Barbie dolls. Daughters listen to their mothers’ complaints: “My jeans don’t fit me anymore”, “I need to lose weight”, “I look old and disgusting”, and they involuntarily acquire the same harsh self-criticism.

AJ: What’s the message a mother who is obsessed with her appearance sends to her daughter?

That the body is the main aspect of a woman’s identity. Females have always been perceived through their physique, but in today’s consumer culture, the body has become a product. We’re judged by the way we present ourselves.

A fit and good-looking person comes across as someone who can control themselves and is therefore usually perceived as more intelligent, ambitious and hard-working.

A well-shaped body is a necessity on the road to success, and I’m not talking about success in any particular field.

The old aspirations like following your passion, working with those you value and respect, or developing social and emotional skills have lost their meaning. People’s number one priority today is to have a life that “looks good”. This craving for a higher social and material position is also the main reason behind the enormous pressure parents put on children and their education. Unfortunately, additional private lessons, extra trainings, and constant competition between peers, with no time to play or relax, often result in a child’s exhaustion, apathy or depression. The myth of success takes its toll.

AJ: The myth of success?

We forget that success relates to a narrow group of people. Not all of us will end up as pop culture icons, world famous athletes or CEOs of giant corporations, driving expensive cars and spending holidays in Barbados. Most people will live average lives and there’s nothing wrong with it. Except, for many of us, being average is not enough. People want to stand out, to be visible and recognized. It’s a sign of our times.

AJ: Does parental pressure affect children of both genders?

Absolutely. But boys have a different way of coping with this tension and they often follow the "it will work out, somehow.” strategy. Girls seem to be more realistic and usually treat expectations more seriously. They are perfectly aware that high grades don’t fall from trees, but require a lot of effort and sacrifice. Statistics prove that in highly developed countries, more women than men choose to go to university, graduate and complete additional courses.

Girls are more vulnerable to criticism and more affected by failures, especially when they let other people down.

AJ: Do they see this kind of pressure as a problem when they come to your practice?

Girls as young as thirteen express concerns about their future job and material prospects. The question of whether their profession will give them satisfaction and the opportunity to develop their interests, has either very little or no significance to them. Many of my young patients, especially those attending demanding schools, are completely worn out. They study till 1 am and get up at 5 to run through some of the material again before leaving for morning classes. They suffer from depression, insomnia, eating disorders, headaches, stomach pains -- typical psychosomatic symptoms that often conceal their stress and fear of failure.

Parents can see that the world is changing fast and the future is extremely unpredictable, so they follow the reasoning that the more child a learns, the more prepared they will be for unknown challenges. This problem mainly applies to modern, liberal circles -- to educated families with relatively high social status. Girls in this environment are brought up in almost the same way as boys. They’re encouraged to travel the globe, expand their interests and master diverse skills to provide them with a greater variety of potential career choices. But there are still families belonging to more conservative social groups. They nurture traditional values and prepare girls from the earliest age to become dutiful wives and mothers, and devote their lives completely to the family. I have a feeling that these two conflicting ideologies not only coexist in today’s world but even intersect in some fashion.

AJ: So the new has emerged but the old hasn’t disappeared yet?

That’s the way I see it, at least.

Both traditional and modern expectations are directed at young girls simultaneously. In fact, these two demands apply to adult women as well.

Don’t you get the impression that today we need to be well educated and have a prestigious and satisfying job but that no one relieves us of taking care of the kids and minding the house?

Young girls struggle with the same problem. They‘re expected to be ambitious and think about the future, but at the same time they should be quiet, humble and try not to stand out. A teachers’ usual reaction to a boy running around the classroom and acting out is: “Boys will be boys” or “He has a strong personality”. His female classmate would never get away with such behavior.

Girls are still required to control themselves, be more sensitive and more obedient -- despite the significant changes in our lifestyle, those old-fashioned demands have never really been eliminated. What is more, this duality in expectations has started relating to males as well. Today, men are encouraged to look after children and be more tender, while also staying tough enough to make a “manly decision” in case of emergency and never openly shed a tear.  They are also now encouraged to help out around the house and kitchen.

AJ: Isn’t this a good thing?

Partners, husbands and sons getting involved in household chores is certainly a great thing. I’m only concerned that the dividing line between masculine and feminine behaviour is slowly vanishing. It’s natural that every transformation entails the erasure of of old divisions, and the searching for new definitions and testing unknown territory, yet there might be a dark side to this liberalization.

AJ: What do you mean?

For example, girls are showing aggressive behaviours that used to be typical for boys. They gang up and pick fights, and they bully and rob people. It’s not a common occurrence but it becomes more frequent every year. Female violence has become one of the leading themes in modern culture: movies, cartoons, books and comics abound with lady superheroes -- skilled combat fighters and killers. 

Of course, I am glad that women have finally been granted permission to show anger, because it is there, deep inside them. I only wonder whether female aggression in its true form is truly is the same as the male version? Some time ago, I read in one of the British papers that the ultimate proof of female liberation and gender parity in Great Britain is the fact that when completely drunk, women can urinate outside the club, just like men. I think that’s absurd. Is this really what the battle for equality was about?

AJ: I’d rather nobody urinated in public. Neither girls or boys.

I agree completely. Another problem I’ve observed is a significant increase in substance abuse among teenage girls, which also leads to earlier sexual initiation. Unfortunately, the price girls are paying for these “privileges” can be incredibly high.

We have to remember that transformation towards equality was aimed at law, politics, economy and education, not at the denial of the biological differences between men and women.

We are physically unequal: girls get drunk quicker than boys and they’re usually more susceptible to the effects of drugs. Sometimes they lose consciousness, which might result in non-consensual sex. I’m talking about exposure to genuine risks here -- these situations happen. Probably more often than we’d expect.

AJ: Can you see any similarities between young girls you meet today and those attending your therapy 10 years ago?

Much to my surprise, despite all the changes we’ve been witnessing in the last few years, the confidence of many teenage girls is still subject to their relationship status. Having a boyfriend increases a girl’s position in high school, and being single drastically lowers her self-esteem. This applies to girls from all backgrounds. Even when it comes to physical appearance, a boyfriend’s opinion still has a major influence on a girl’s body image and self-acceptance.

AJ: What can we do to help young girls take a full advantage of their freedom? How can we encourage them to nourish their femininity?

We could start with a careful consideration of all the prejudices and stereotypes that restrain us, because whether we want it to or not, we pass our behavioral patterns on to younger generations. 

Women demand a lot from themselves and even more from their daughters, but not as much from their sons. This might stem from history: men would go to war and die or disappear, meanwhile women, suddenly alone, had to be strong and resolute enough to take care of themselves and families.

If, we, as grown-up women, tried to diminish our self-expectations or stopped feeling obliged to meet others’ demands, perhaps girls would get some space to cherish their freedom, discover their own ambitions and finally start enjoying their lives? 

Some of them might want to travel and explore the world, while others will look for a reliable partner to with whom they could share responsibilities. Surely, they won’t all aspire to become Nobel Prize winners but they’ll be much happier following their own dreams and not the lofty expectations of their parents.


Dr. Barbara Józefik -- clinical psychologist, certified psychotherapist and psychotherapy supervisor of the Polish Psychiatric Association and the Polish Psychological Association. Professor at the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Jagiellonian University Medical College, head of the Department of Psychology and Psychotherapy of the Clinic's System and the Infirmary of Family Therapy at the OKDDiM University Hospital in Krakow. 

Translated from the Polish by Martyna Kardach 


Project #Femfacts co-financed by European Commission Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology as part of the Pilot Project – Media Literacy For All

The information and views set out on this website are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union. Neither the European Union institutions and bodies nor any person acting on their behalf may be held responsible for the use which may be made of the information contained therein.

NewsMavens is a media start-up within Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's largest liberal broadsheet published by Agora S.A. NewsMavens is currently financed by Gazeta Wyborcza and Google DNI Fund.
Is something happening in your country that Newsmavens should cover?
Zuzanna Ziomecka
Zuzanna Ziomecka EDITOR IN CHIEF
Lea Berriault-Jauvin
Lea Berriault Managing Editor
Jessica Sirotin
Jessica Sirotin EDITOR
Ada Petriczko
Ada Petriczko EDITOR
Gazeta Wyborcza, Agora SA Czerska 8/10 00-732, Warsaw Poland
The e-mail addresses provided above are not intended for recruitment purposes. Messages concerning recruitment will be deleted immediately. Your personal data provided as part of your correspondence with Zuzanna,Lea, Jessica and Ada will be processed for the purpose of resolving the issue you contacted us about. The data provided in your email is controlled by Agora S.A. with its registered office in Warsaw Czerska 8/10 Street (00-732). You can find more information about the processing and protection of your personal data at