Many Ways to Be a Girl, but One Way to Be a Boy: The New Gender Rules


“For me, it’s important to be intelligent and confident. For women in society, I think people just want you to be attractive.” Hiree Felema, 13CreditAmanda Lucier for The New York Times

Girls have been told they can be anything they want to be, and it shows. They are seizing opportunities closed to previous generations — in science, math, sports and leadership.

But they’re also getting another message: What they look like matters more than any of that.

Boys seem to have been largely left out of the conversation about gender equality. Even as girls’ options have opened up, boys’ lives are still constricted by traditional gender norms: being strong, athletic and stoic.

These are findings from a new nationally representative poll of 1,000 children and adolescents 10 to 19, along with other research on this age group, which is not surveyed often. They show gender attitudes of a generation on the verge of adulthood.

“Nowadays, if you’re a girl and you act like a boy, it’s considered cool, it’s normal. But if you’re a guy and you act like a girl, it’s different, it’s not as tolerated.” Muyang Yan, 12CreditAmanda Lucier for The New York Times

In the survey, conducted by PerryUndem, a research and polling firm, a majority of girls said sexism was still a problem — yet in many ways, they felt empowered. Girls were slightly more likely than boys to say being a leader was a very important life goal, evidence of a significant shift in gender expectations.


“I’m all in for leadership,” said Isabelle Reksopuro, 13, one of eight eighth graders at Happy Valley Middle School in Happy Valley, Ore., we interviewed this week. She is captain of the debate team and a member of the student council, and wants to become a scientist. “In this school, girls and boys have equal opportunities; it just depends on your talent.”

“A lot of Asian culture is like, ‘You’ve got to do all this stuff so you can be the perfect wife.’ I’m just worried about what college I’ll get into and how to go into the sciences or politics.” Isabelle Reksopuro, 13CreditAmanda Lucier for The New York Times

When boys and girls were asked about their goals and aspirations, the responses were similar. Three-quarters said having a successful career was very important. A third of respondents or less, of either gender, said marrying or having children was a very important goal.

Girls were as likely as boys to say math or science was their favorite subject, and to have considered running for office. They said they were mostly treated fairly compared with boys.


Yet when it came to their bodies, girls said they did not feel equal. About three-quarters of girls 14 to 19 in the survey said they felt judged as a sexual object or unsafe as a girl. By far, they said society considered physical attractiveness to be the most important female trait — a view that adult women share, surveys have found. Girls were also more likely than boys to say they felt a lot of pressure to put others’ feelings before their own.

About half said they hear boys making sexual comments or jokes about girls daily, including a quarter of girls 10 to 13. One-third of teenage girls have heard these comments from men in their families.

Black and Latino adolescents, the survey found, are more likely to have progressive attitudes about gender equality, but they’re also more likely to hear sexual comments from peers, and to feel pressure to be attractive or strong.

The eighth graders (who were not part of the survey) in Happy Valley, a middle-class suburb east of Portland, described equal opportunities at school for boys and girls: Girls far outnumbered boys on the student council, and a few even played on the football team.

“If you’re upset, you try to get your mind off it and forget about it. I kinda wish I could express it more.” Jamel Pichon, 13CreditAmanda Lucier for The New York Times

The middle-school girls were unanimous in what they valued most in themselves: intelligence and confidence. But they also agreed that society placed the most value on their looks, and mentioned pressure to look attractive online and the risk of predators on social media.

“As long as I’m confident in myself, I can put myself out there and other people can take it or leave it,” said Sally Ayach, 13, a gymnast who excels at math and wants to be a lawyer.


Boys, however, don’t always see it that way, she said. “If they see a girl with a nice body, they’re going to go after seeing that body,” she said. “It’s like who can get the most girls.”

“Right now, if you put your mind to it, you can do it. You want to be an astronaut? You can do it. As long as you work hard enough, no one’s going to stop you.” Sally Ayach, 13CreditAmanda Lucier for The New York Times

In the survey, 81 percent of girls 14 to 19 said they had at least one friend who had been asked by a boy for a sexy or naked photo. “They ask all the time,” Sally said. “But I’m like, no thanks, I’m not like that.”

Deborah Tolman, a psychology professor at the City University of New York who researches adolescent sexuality, said: “This is the contradiction we put in front of girls: You should be confident and do well in school and do athletics, but you’re supposed to also be a good sex object at the same time.”

Isabelle said romance was the exception to the equality she felt at school and in life. Recently, she rejected a boy who had been flirting with her on text and social media.

“He got ridiculously mad; he called me names, used slurs,” she said. “When we get rejected, we don’t explode just because they don’t like us back. Guys just feel more privileged.”

Adolescents feel these pressures worldwide, found the Global Early Adolescent Study by Johns Hopkins and the World Health Organization. “We were stunned — and I’m not easily stunned, as a clinician working 40 years with adolescents — at the hyper-sexualization of young kids,” said Robert Blum, the study’s principal investigator and a public health professor at Johns Hopkins.


The continuing study is of children 10 to 14 in poor urban areas in 15 countries, and gender norms were remarkably similar. “Whether you’re in Hanoi or Shanghai or Baltimore, you understand the script,” Mr. Blum said. “You get the messages of girl vulnerability and girl weakness and boy strength and boy independence.”