How Plan’s Research Helps Challenge Teen Gender Norms

Plan International USA—an independent development and humanitarian organization advancing children’s rights and equality for girls—has published an incisive report on American adolescents and gender equality.

Plan USA commissioned the research and communications firm PerryUndem to complete the study, which drew on data from roughly 1,000 interviews conducted nationwide with girls and boys ages 10-19. The results provide a snapshot on gender equity as seen by the next generation of Americans, and can be used by funders and non-profits to better define gender issues facing young people, and provide focus for programs to improve gender equity.

Plan International USA’s report helps to identify key attitudes and experiences of teenagers in the U.S., particularly around issues like sexual harassment, physical appearance, and media representation of girls. (Image Credit: Plan International USA)

Plan’s “The State of Gender Equality for U.S. Adolescents” is part of its “Plan4Girls” initiative, and surveys girls and boys on their attitudes and experience around topics including physical appearance, career aspirations, sexual harassment, gender equity, differing societal expectations based on gender, and media representations of girls. According to Plan USA, “The goal of the research is to provide a resource for policymakers, media, and others who want to understand how children are internalizing inequality and how their views may take shape.” The full 134-page report was released in September 2018; a 14-page Executive Summary is also available.

Plan International notes that while there has been a significant shift since the 1960s in gender equity on a number of fronts, “there still exist deeply entrenched cultural, social, and economic biases that negatively affect women and girls and result in pervasive—if not as explicit as previous decades—gender inequality.” The internalization of such biases at a young age can “perpetuate sometimes harmful gender stereotypes that, at best manifest in traditional gender roles (women taking on the majority of childcare, men working outside the home) and at worst result in dangerous power dynamics or mental health challenges.”

There is some good news to report: 92 percent of adolescents (male and female) say they believe in gender equality. However, many also believe that the problem has been solved: 21 percent of girls says there is equality for girls, and 44 percent of boys believe that this is the case. Not surprisingly, a far greater share (51 percent) of girls ages 14-19 perceive sexism as a big problem compared to boys (19 percent). Plan notes that these findings are troubling, as it places the burden on girls—who are more likely to perceive that gender equality is a problem—to solve gender inequity. Moreover, 51 percent of boys strongly agree that they want “equal numbers of men and women to be leaders in work, politics, and life,” while 64 percent of girls agree with this statement.

The survey probes some of the underlying factors which lead to 54 percent of adolescents agreeing with the following statement “I’m more comfortable with women having traditional roles in society, such as caring for children and family.” For girls, these factors were:
• Not perceiving gender inequality;
• Being in a lower-income household;
• Not having a family member who has strong feelings about gender equality; and
• Feeling pressure to not have strong opinions.

For boys the most prominent factors were:
• Having a mom who does not have the final say in family decisions;
• Not perceiving gender inequality;
• Having a Republican parent; and
• Not having a mom who feels strongly about gender equality.

The report notes that exposure to strongly enforced gender norms, whether this be playing exclusively with gender stereotypical toys as a child, or having a father who makes sexual comments and jokes about women, diminishes support for gender equity in a number of areas. Another unsurprising finding is the large role that appearance still plays for females. While girls perceive sexism in a number of ways, chief among them is being evaluated according to their looks rather than personality or abilities, and unrealistic portrayals of girls’ and women’s bodies in the media.

In The News

Girls and boys career aspirations are not that disparate. Even in STEM fields, the differences are relatively modest: 42 percent of girls are interested or very interested in a STEM career, while 51 percent of boys report the same. Similarly, thirty percent of girls have thought about being a politician when they are older, compared to 35 percent of boys. In STEM areas and in politics, the actual percentage of adults in these fields is lower than what would be indicated by above referenced numbers. Two reasons suggest themselves: girls may encounter barriers and be dissuaded from these fields as they get older, and, more positively, the survey is of today’s adolescents and by definition there is a lag time between what young people want to do in their careers, and what they end up doing. Particularly in politics, it may be 15 or 20 years before we see whether the attitudes of today’s adolescents change the gender composition of future elected officials.

The report asks for straight-forward observations by adolescents on matters such as how common it is for their friends to be asked for naked or sexy pictures, or what percentage of household tasks are performed by their mothers and father respectively, but they are also asked about their perceptions, attitudes and feelings. One area that stands out is that girls feel significantly more pressure than boys not to disappoint others, to be positive, to keep everyone happy, to be liked, and to put others’ feelings before one’s own.

The report is definitely of the moment, and includes reactions to the #MeToo movement (78 percent of girls and 83 percent of boys ages 14-19 have heard of it) and questions about sexual harassment and assault. In sum, the Plan report is chock full of statistics, correlations and inferences regarding gender equity, and the experiences and attitudes of today’s adolescents about gender. While the report notes disturbing and often entrenched attitudes around gender, it concludes, “We have seen with recent movements like #MeToo and Time’s Up that there are changes in the works. As an international nonprofit focused on girls’ equality and children’s rights, Plan International USA is committed to raising awareness of the barriers that girls— and boys—face in their journey to adulthood, and we are focused on working with them to develop solutions to the issues of gender inequality.”

Plan International USA is an independent development and humanitarian organization advancing girls’ equality and children’s rights. It is part of the Plan International network of collaborative partnerships between 21 national offices and more than 50 program offices. Plan International was established in 1937 by a journalist and refugee worker assisting children affected by the Spanish Civil War. In its early years, Plan was heavily focused on assisting children displaced by WWII, and alleviating poverty in war-torn areas of Europe. Since the 1960s, its emphasis has shifted to the developing world, and of late Plan has increasingly focused on improving the lives of girls. Plan’s “Because I am a Girl” campaign launched on the first International Day of the Girl in 2012, and its programs impacted four million girls. Currently, Plan’s programs reach over 56 million children in more than 50 developing countries. Plan is a 501(c)(3) headquartered in Warwick, Rhode Island with an office in Washington, D.C. In 2019, Philanthropy Women reported on Plan International’s partnership with Body Shop on an holiday campaign to support Plan’s Youth Leadership Academy.


Philanthropy Women covers funding for gender equity in all sectors of society. We want to significantly shift public discourse, particularly in philanthropy, toward increased action for gender equality. You can support our work and access unlimited and premium content with one of our subscriptions.

Author: Tim Lehnert

Tim Lehnert is a writer and editor who lives in Cranston, Rhode Island. His articles and essays have appeared in the Boston Globe, the Providence Journal, Rhode Island Monthly, the Boston Herald, the Christian Science Monitor, and elsewhere. He is the author of the book Rhode Island 101, and has published short fiction for kids and adults in a number of literary journals and magazines. He received an M.A. in Political Science from McGill University, and an M.A. in English from California State University, Northridge.

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