“Like A Girl”: The Effect of Derogatory Sexist Terms on Young Children

My name is Zahra Budhwani. I am from the Silicon Valley, a wonderful community just south of San Francisco, home to many of the nations premier tech corporations, such as Apple, Google, Oracle, Microsoft, Amazon, and many more. Gender in STEM is a topic often discussed in my community. Yet what I have observed in my community is that the roots of the system remain the same: people fail to see how the education of younger girls affects their abilities later. I often work with younger girls in my volunteer service, and I wanted to do something to make people more aware of how their actions affect these girls. After conducting interviews with women in various parts of my community, I created a simple flyer which I posted around elementary and high schools in my community. Below is a copy of the flyer I used for the high schools. Underneath the flyer, I wrote simply “Think About Your Words”.

Playground Talk

In society today, gender differences crop up very early in a child’s life. All you need to do is walk onto a children’s playground.

The use of highly sexist phrases begins in elementary school and continues throughout middle and high school. Elementary school children and their teachers often use a whole host of phrases that are often overlooked, but have recently come to light due to media coverage. Though seemingly docile at first, a deeper understanding shows the inherent sexism in such phrases. For example, many adults will tell younger girls that if a boy hits them, that means he likes them. This idea is pervasive in our society, yet a deeper look shows the problem.

The Phrases

Female Sexuality Prude”, “Slut”


Often appearing in high school, these phrases condemn girls both for being overtly sexual or not sexual enough.

Female Weakness “Grow A Pair”, “Like A Girl”, “Man Up”, “Wearing the Pants in the Relationship” Phrases like these appear for both girls and boys, and often at a young age. Boys are condemned for not being stereotypically masculine enough and are often insulted with phrases that compare them to girls.
Female Assertiveness “Bossy”, “Bitch”, “Hormonal”, “Emotional” Many ambitious women, young and old, fall victim to these words and phrases. Additionally, women are often insulted for showing too much emotion.  

These phrases are all issues, pertaining to different parts of society, femininity, and masculinity that must be explored. Women of all ages, ethnicities, races, and backgrounds experience these phrases. However, my main focus in this project was with phrases that are associated with intelligence and ambition in the world of elementary school-age girls, condemning those whose gender expression does not align with the stereotype of their gender.

Stereotype Threat

Stereotype threat is defined as a quandary in which a person is at risk for conforming to their stereotype group. Much research has been done surrounding stereotype in regards to gender. In research done by Toni Schmader, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, she had men and women of similar aptitudes take a math test. One group of women were made aware of their status as women and another wasn’t. The women who were aware of their gender systematically did worse than those who were not aware. Another study conducted by Sarah Neuburger and colleagues had a similar premise, but was conducted with 4th grade boys and girls taking a STEM aptitude test. Girls who were made aware of negative stereotypes of their gender did much worse than girls who were not, despite having similar aptitudes.

So How Do They Relate?

Research has never been done regarding the relation between negative playground talk and stereotype threat. However, I decided to interview some women in my community about their experiences regarding playground talk and their experiences.

Marina Newman, Student, Age 18

“I guess when I was little a lot of people said things to me about how I was a girl and so I shouldn’t be playing with trucks or I shouldn’t be playing sports. My parents were always really open, but teachers and classmates at school weren’t always as accepting. I remember a really specific incident when I was little when I was searching for rocks or something on the playground and my teacher told me to put that down because it could be harmful. And I remember seeing other boys exploring and doing the same things, and no one was saying anything to them.
I just think that a lot of people don’t think about what they are saying to little girls and how much it can affect them.”

Sravya Cherukuri, Student, Age 18

“A lot of girls are told that they’re too “bossy” or “bitchy” and I know there was a campaign surrounding that. I think it’s subconscious for so many of us. We don’t know we’re being sexist, but we are. Nobody would ever tell a boy they’re being too bossy…it’s just not done. I just think people need to think about the way they’re pushing girls.”

Kelly Horan, Psychology Teacher and Parent

“Well, my daughters are still at impressionable ages, and I see they come home with ideas that they’ve learned from their teachers or classmates, and it’s difficult for me as a parent sometimes. A lot of parents, you know, they try to be very conscious of how they’re treating their daughters, but that influence can sometimes be deterred in a sense when the children go to school. As a teacher of high schoolers, most of the girls I see are honestly past the point of influence. The period in which their self-esteem and self-image was created has mostly passed, and it can be really difficult to change the way they view themselves now.

Arissa Huda, Student, Age 12

“Middle school kind of sucks because everyone really wants to be cool and so sometimes when their friends bully them, they stop doing things they love…A lot of my friends were really into science or other things that are “boyish” and some of them stopped doing that stuff because people told them that they weren’t “girly” enough.”

Anuprita Oak, Mother and Engineer

“In the Bay Area, many of us are immigrants and we came from families in which they really pushed us to get ahead and get the best education possible. I’m from India, and the mentality there is still that women should become housewives, they should cook, they should clean, they should support their husbands. I was really lucky that my parents gave me the opportunity to study, but many of the women around me were told “No, you are too pretty” or “Why would you let your beauty go to waste like that by going to school?” It seems so odd now because we thought that these perceptions would go away when we came to America. But even here, I see some people tell their young girls, “Oh don’t touch the hammer and the drill” or holding their young girls back when they are exploring. Girls are not that fragile.”

So What Does This Mean?

I hope that my flyers make somebody think of what they are saying, and how their actions have affected the people around them. We are far from eradicating sexism from our world, but by pledging to remove these phrases from our vocabularies and pledging to be more conscious of the way we treat young girls, we can take major strides towards getting there.

Which of these sexist remarks have you heard/experienced?

“He hits you because he likes you”
“…like a girl”
“She’s probably on her period”

Poll Maker


Neuburger, Sarah, et al. “A Threat in the Classroom Gender Stereotype Activation and Mental-Rotation Performance in Elementary-School Children.” Journal of Psychology, vol. 220, no. 2, 2012, pp. 61-69. ProQuest Research Library. Accessed 5 Apr. 2017. 

“Rhetorical Analysis of Always’s “Like a Girl” Advertisement.” RCL Blog, 2 Oct. 2014, Accessed 6 Apr. 2017. 

Sanghani, Radhika. “Oh Beyoncé, don’t ban the word bossy – reclaim it.” The Telegraph, 11 Mar. 2014, Accessed 6 Apr. 2017.

Schmader, Toni. “Gender Identification Moderates Stereotype Threat Effects on Women’s Math Performance.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 38, no. 2, Mar. 2002, pp. 194-201. ScienceDirect. Accessed 5 Apr. 2017.

Stafford, Anika Nicole. “’I FEEL LIKE A GIRL INSIDE’: Possibilities for Gender and Sexual Diversity in Early Primary School.” BC Studies, no. 289, 1 Apr. 2016, pp. 9-29. Expanded Academic ASAP. Accessed 6 Apr. 2017. 

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