Dear Women: You Are Being Lied to

A woman standing in the middle of a busy city street looking at the camera

Dear American women,

You are being lied to. For much of your life, you have been told you are not strong enough, not smart enough and not aggressive enough. You have been told that these weaknesses and character flaws prevent you from learning certain subjects, performing certain tasks, becoming certain leaders and earning certain awards. 

But, you are being lied to.

These pernicious inaccuracies have been perpetuated by a society still steeped in the sexism of years past. But better data and forward-thinking research, not to mention the examples set by women in countries around the world, are proving these stereotypes wrong. And it's high time we started paying attention. Below are a few more dangerous myths that society needs to stop teaching young women.

1. You are not good at science and math.


For years, gender stereotypes have held that women are not good in math and science. This damaging myth has lead to a serious gender gap when it comes to women who choose careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Now research is showing the toll that these myths have taken on the national female psyche. A study titled "Do Girls Really Experience More Anxiety in Mathematics?" in Psychological Science found that girls say they're anxious about math because that how they think society expects them to feel. 

Badass astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson explained that sexism and racism are the reasons so few women and people of color pursue math and science careers, not any genetic predisposition. "Before we start talking about genetic differences, you gotta come up with a system where there's equal opportunity," Tyson said. "Then we can have that conversation."

Furthermore, girls can and do excel in the math and sciences around the world. According to international standardized test results released in 2013, students — both male and female — in 29 countries or education systems had higher test scores than American 15-year-olds in math, and students in 22 countries did better than Americans in science. It's not a mystery: Encouraging more young girls to go into STEM careers before they begin to internalize stereotyped messages will play an essential role in closing America's gender gap.

2. Rape is your fault.

The Frisky

PolicyMic's Elizabeth Plank recently compiled an amazing round-up of brave survivors and allies debunking myths about sexual assault. As the women in the story show, young people are too often taught that if bad things like assault or harassment happen to them, then they must have done something wrong, whether it be their choice of clothing or number of drinks they consumed.

Nobody asks to be raped. And nobody deserves to be assaulted. Everyone makes their own choices and young women around the country are starting to fight back against the lie that women are somehow to blame. Sending a strong message of agreement, the White House released a recent PSA focusing on enthusiastic consent, placing the responsibility for prevention on the perpetrators, not the victims. Scotland's on-point anti-rape campaign "We Can Stop It" is another example of how to intelligently target potential perpetrators, not victims.

3. Maternity leave cuts down on your productivity.


The United States is the only industrialized country without paid maternity leave for mothers of newborns. This is a rather shocking statistic, and one that makes even less sense when you take into account that providing paid leave for new mothers and fathers cuts down on turnover, ensures that women are not dropping out of the labor force entirely and, in some countries, has even cut down on the divorce rate.

In Sweden, recently named "the best place to be a mom," new mothers are guaranteed one full year of paid leave. That means they don't have to worry about joining the ranks of the unemployed while they are on leave, during the most important years in a child's early development. And since maternity leave has also been linked to decreased levels of depression in mothers, leave means that when these women do return to work, they are likely to be happier, and therefore more productive.

4. Movies about you don't sell tickets.

At the 2014 Academy Awards, best actress winner Cate Blanchett called out Hollywood sexism and the notion that movies made with women leads are not successful at the box office.  

"To those of us in the industry who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center are niche experiences, they are not," she said. "Audiences want to see them, and, in fact, they make money." 

Blanchett is right. If recent trends are any indication, films with women as lead protagonists can be blockbusters. But more than that, films with strong female characters can and do make money. In fact, according to a recent survey of the 50 biggest box office movies of 2013, those that passed the so-called Bechdel test had bigger domestic box office numbers than movies that didn't. 

Meanwhile, Swedish television and movie houses have begun to rank films based on the Bechdel ratings system, promoting art that furthers gender equity. "The goal is to see more female stories and perspectives on cinema screens," Swedish filmmaker Ellen Tejle said.

5. You are "bad negotiators."


In their must-read book on negotiation, Women Don't Ask, professors Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever analyze the social and cultural factors that make women afraid to negotiate and ask for the things they need.

While institutional factors are the biggest contributor to gender inequality and the pay gap, women are often told that they make less because they are bad negotiators. Women are told to just play hardball like the boys, and then they will get everything they want.

Wrong. In fact, women who are too aggressive can damage their professional reputations.

"As a society, we teach little girls (and I have a little girl, so I see this all the time) that it's not nice or feminine or appropriate for them to focus on what they want and pursue their self-interest — and we don't like it when they do," Babcock wrote in the New York Times.

Whether it's a salary negotiation or trying to get a deal on a new car, women are less likely to ask for what they really want, and this has led to the inaccurate conclusion that women are by nature bad negotiators. Women being bad negotiators was the most recent Republican talking point in opposition of the Paycheck Fairness Act.  

But women are not bad negotiators. In fact, Babcock and Laschever found that women are very good negotiators under the right circumstances, especially when they are negotiating on behalf of someone else, Babcock told Forbes.

6. You are not capable of making your own medical decisions.


In the most cynical calculated political move of the week, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) announced that he's going to try to force a vote in the Senate on a 20-week abortion ban.  

Reminder: Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land, making such a ban arguably unconstitutional. But that hasn't stopped anti-choice politicians from passing legislation making access to safe abortion procedures increasingly difficult in states across the country.

Graham claimed he knows twins who were born at 20 weeks. While the Beltway media fact-checks that claim, let's all remember that what Graham believes should have no bearing on a woman's choices about her health.

Research shows that in states with more access to contraception and family planning, teenage pregnancy rates are lower and median incomes are higher. In fact, when young women are given robust sex education and access to affordable contraception, they are able to make more informed choices and the teen pregnancy rate drops.

7. Street harassment is just a "compliment."

Tatyana Fazlalizadeh

No matter how you try to explain it as such, street harassment is simply not a compliment.

In fact, when women on the street are subject to harassing comments, physical assaults and stalking during their morning commutes, there is a big problem. The recent movement to fight back against street harassment has gone global, because women everywhere are validating their own experiences with catcalling and demanding to feel comfortable in public spaces.

"Stop Telling Women to Smile" is a powerful art project by Brooklyn-based artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh that takes aim directly at street harassers, shining a light on the everyday objectification of women that contributes to the related issues of slut-shaming and rape culture. Meanwhile, the Hollaback movement has spread around the world, empowering women to fight back against harassment and know that they are not alone.

8. You can't be feminine and strong.


Despite the myriad examples of women being fierce, strong, muscular, lean and powerful, all while being traditionally feminine, society often teaches young women that they can't be both strong and feminine.  

Young women are also bombarded by hypersexualized images of women in mass media, which contribute to low self-esteem and high rates of eating disorders. Complicating things are images of manufactured perfection in Hollywood and reality television that demand young girls conform to unrealistic expectations for what is attractive. There is no either/or when it comes to a woman's strength and beauty.

9. You can't be a grandmother and be president.


Chelsea Clinton's pregnancy should not affect Hillary Clinton's candidacy for president. But that didn't stop "experts" from speculating what effect a "Grandma Hillary" would have on the election.  

The double standard is obvious. Mitt Romney is a grandfather many times over, but no one questioned whether he was fit to be commander-in-chief, just because his kids decided to procreate.   

Indeed, grandparents lead and have led nations all over the world, including the United States. In Liberia, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf took time out of her busy schedule as grandmother (and national leader) to win the Nobel Prize in 2011. As The New Republic's Rebecca Traister put it, the question about whether grandparents leading nations matters is pretty stupid.

"I tried to look up how many presidents have been grandfathers while serving in office," Traister wrote. "It's pretty hard to look up because no one in the history of presidents has ever cared about whether or not they have grandchildren or will ever have grandchildren because it is truly one of the dumbest things to care about in the universe."