A growing number of girls and young women suffer from low self-esteem, with three-quarters of 11- 21-year-olds saying that sexism has an impact on most areas of their lives, according to a report by the charity Girlguiding.
The fifth Girls’ Attitudes Survey suggests that inequality is widespread and that large numbers of girls experience “shocking levels of everyday sexism and discrimination at school, on the street, and in their interactions online and with the media”.
At a time when fears about the early sexualisation and objectification of children are rife, the report found that 87 per cent of 11- 21-year-olds think that women are more judged for their looks than ability and that a third of 7- 21-year-olds are unhappy with the way they look.
Almost 1,300 girls between the ages of seven and 21, including those not involved in guiding, took part in the survey, with the majority of interviews conducted online under controlled conditions, as well as some face-to-face interviews. Additional interviews were carried out with young women who were not in education, employment or training, to ensure that this potentially marginalised group was fully represented.
Seven out of ten girls over the age of 13 reported experiences of sexual harassment at school or college, including sexual jokes or taunts (51 per cent) and touching (28 per cent), and more than half (54 per cent) of those aged 11 to 21 say they have had negative experiences online. For older girls, aged 16 to 21, this includes having had sexist comments (26 per cent) and threatening things (25 per cent) said about or to them.
More worryingly, the report found that young women are being left to navigate this terrifying maze with little support. Just over half (53 per cent) of all the girls questioned think that too much responsibility is placed on young women for their sexual safety and more than a third (38 per cent) of 16- 21-year-olds say that sex education is inadequate.
Although the majority (84 per cent) of all girls surveyed feel happy most of the time, this figure is lower than in previous years, particularly among the older age group. 13 per cent of girls class themselves as unhappy, up from just nine per cent in 2012.
While over three-quarters of those surveyed rated friends and family support as the most important factors required to do well in life, the respondents also indicated the negative influence of an increasingly body-obsessed media and a lack of good female role models. 63 per cent of 11- 21-years olds say that more female leaders would create a better environment for women.
Despite this over half (55 per cent) of girls aspire to be a leader in their chosen job and 70 per cent want to maintain their career after having children.
The 16-strong panel of Girlguiding “advocates” who helped devise the survey, carried out by the research group ChildWise, said that “barriers can be broken down by challenging stereotypes and questioning sexist practice” and that governments need to “champion equality for every individual”.
Outside responses to the report were mixed. Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, said: “This is an urgent wake-up call. The results closely reflect the huge numbers of entries to the Everyday Sexism Project from girls and young women experiencing sexism and harassment on a regular basis.
“That three quarters of girls feel sexism affects every area of their lives is a devastatingly sad reality in a modern world where we want our children to grow up believing they can be anything they want to be. Clearly, for girls, sexism is still a major hurdle to that sense of freedom.”
However, Maria Miller, minister for women and equalities, said: “These results are encouraging in that they show so many girls and young women in the UK are highly ambitious and want to get ahead in life; we need to help make sure that their aspirations become reality.”