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Case Study

Adolescents’ Experience with Gender Equality

Understanding how young teens may be experiencing inequality and how their views take shape.

For over 80 years, Plan International USA has been part of a global network striving for a just world that advances children’s rights and equality for girls.

Plan International USA commissioned us to conduct a robust public opinion study of adolescents, ages 10 to 19, on issues and experiences related to gender equality. The goal of the research is to provide a resource for policymakers, media, and others who want to understand how children may be viewing and experiencing inequality and how their views take shape.

Services Provided

  • Questionnaire development
  • Data collection management
  • Topline document
  • Survey crosstabs / banners
  • Detailed statistical analysis
  • Final report
  • Calls to go over findings with client
  • Calls with media to explain findings

The Objectives

How do adolescents feel about gender equality during this moment in time? Are they more progressive than the adult population on gender roles? Do they think equality exists between boys and girls? Men and women? What shapes their views? Does playing with gender-specific toys or having a mom in traditional gender roles relate to their opinions on equality? What gender-related societal pressures do they perceive and internalize? Has the #MeToo movement made an impact?

Our study sought to explore answers to these and other questions.

The Challenges

Public opinion surveys among adolescents are relatively rare. A primary reason is cost. A robust methodology requires a representative sample of US households, from which parents of 10 to 18 year-olds are selected and asked if they would allow their child to respond to a survey. We used one of the best survey research panels in the country, and provided much of our time pro bono.

Process & Approach

We started by conducting a scan of data to understand what exists and what question may be available for tracking. There was very little that we could use to build from. As a result, we immersed ourselves in some of the literature related to girls’ rights and equality to help inform the questions to ask in the survey. We reached out to experts. And we relied on insights from our past qualitative research. We also reached out to national reporters who cover the beat to get their thoughts and questions for the survey: What would they want to learn?

Our analysis went beneath the surface results to better understand underlying factors that drive adolescents’ opinions. What is correlated with adolescents’ progressive views on equality, such as wanting there to be equal numbers of men and women in positions of power in society? What is correlated with girls feeling pressure to not have strong opinions? What’s correlated with boys feeling pressure to control and dominate others?

The Results

The kids are not alright.

Adolescent girls are facing immense pressures around physical attractiveness and perceived worth through their appearances and sexuality. A majority of girls say they hear boys making sexual comments or sexual jokes about girls several times a week or more.

  • 7 in 10 girls ages 14 to 19 feel judged as a sexual object in their lives
  • 8 in 10 girls ages 14 to 19 have had at least one friend asked by a boy to send a “sexy or naked” picture
  • 51% of girls ages 14 to 19 say sexism is a big problem in the US – more than the proportion of adults

Boys face their own distinct gender-related pressures – around being physically strong and dominating or controlling others, and around sex. Close to half of boys ages 14 to 19 have heard their dad or other male family members make sexual jokes or sexual comments about women. We found that having a father who has made sexual jokes or comments about women is one of the top predictors of thinking it’s okay to ask girls for naked or sexy pictures. This factor is also related to a boy’s likelihood to watch online porn, to feel pressure to “hook up with” a girl, and feeling pressure to control and dominate others.

Surprisingly, we found that playing with gender-specific toys also has a statistically-significant correlation to views related to gender norms and beliefs. About half of boys in the survey said they grew up playing mostly with toys made for boys (like superheroes, guns, and trucks) and close to half played mostly with gender-neutral toys (like Legos). Boys in the survey who played mostly with gendered toys are more likely to think about girls’ bodies and how they look, compared to girls’ thoughts and personalities. They are also less likely to agree that they want equal numbers of men and women who are leaders in society – compared with boys who played with gender-neutral toys. Girls who played with mostly girl toys (like princesses, jewelry, and dolls) are more likely to feel pressure to dress like older women and place less importance on having a successful career. Girls who played mostly with gender-neutral toys feel less pressure to dress like older women and less pressure to get positive comments on social media.

In the Press

The study was picked up by the New York Times here, here, and here, as well as cited in the Atlantic, the Washington Post, and many other outlets.