The Facts about Barriers Girls Face

What barriers do girls and gender-diverse young people face?

Girls up to age 14 are 15.6% of Canada’s population (Statistics Canada, 2021).

Girls and non-binary young people, struggle with unique gendered inequities and stereotypes. The years between nine and 13 are a critical time for their healthy development. Tailored interventions such as girl-focused programs can make a big difference in their health and well-being, sense of connection and belonging, participation and learning, leadership, and healthy relationships as they grow.

Overall, girl-centered approaches to skills development are critical. “Girls must, first and foremost, have a physically and emotionally safe environment in which to learn. They must be able to see examples of other empowered females in their community so that they can begin to also imagine themselves as empowered adults. Girls need to know their opinions are valuable. Finally, girls must be provided opportunities to apply their skills in their communities” (Plourde et al., 2020).

Why is ending these barriers so urgent?

Frequently Asked Questions about Barriers Girls and Gender-Diverse Young People Face

In Grade six, 36% of girls say they are self-confident, but by Grade 10 this percentage plummets to 14%. Between ages nine and 13, girls become less confident and are more likely to say they are feeling depressed (Boyce, King, and Roche, Public Health Agency of Canada, 2008).

“Girls aged 12 to 17 were more likely than same‑aged boys to report having been diagnosed with a mood disorder (e.g., depression, bipolar disorder, mania, dysthymia) or anxiety disorder (e.g., obsessive‑compulsive disorder, a panic disorder). Five percent of girls aged 12 to 17 reported having a diagnosed mood disorder, compared with 2.8% of same‑aged boys, while 7.4% of 12‑ to 17‑year‑old girls and 5.3% of same‑aged boys reported having a diagnosed anxiety disorder” (Hudon, Statistics Canada, 2017).

Girls aged five to 17 are twice as likely to be prescribed mood and anxiety medication compared to boys the same age (Canadian Institute for Health Information, 2022).

Sixty-four per cent of young Black women ages 12 to 17 report their mental health to be excellent or very good, compared to 77.2% of young white women (Public Health Agency of Canada, 2020).

Young women and girls made up 58% of hospitalizations for mental disorders among young people. Girls 15 to 17 years old are twice as likely to be hospitalized as boys and young men the same age (Canadian Institute for Health Information, 2022).

Girls up to age 14 are nine times more likely than boys to be hospitalized for an eating disorder. Girls aged 15 to 24 are 15 times more likely (Canadian Institute for Health Information, 2022).

Almost 30% of all self-harm hospitalizations are for girls and young women. Those aged 10 to 24 are three times more likely to be hospitalized for self-harm than boys and young men the same age (Canadian Institute for Health Information, 2020).

“The mortality rate due to suicide among men is three times the rate among women, but girls and young women are three times more likely than men to harm themselves and be hospitalized from self-harm” (Canadian Mental Health Association, 2021).

Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death for girls up to 14. It’s the second leading cause of death for girls aged 15 to 19 (Statistics Canada, 2022). In general, rates of suicide for Indigenous young people trend higher and, in Canada, are considered amongst the highest in the world (Government of Canada, 2019).

Transgender and sexual minority young people aged 15 to 17 in Canada are at increased risk of suicidal ideation and attempt. Compared with cisgender, heterosexual adolescents, transgender adolescents show five times the risk of suicidal ideation and almost 7.6 times the risk of suicide attempt. Among cisgender adolescents, girls attracted to girls have 3.6 times the risk of previous-year suicidal ideation and 3.3 times the risk of having ever attempted suicide compared with heterosexual peers. Adolescents attracted to multiple genders have 2.5 times the risk of suicidal ideation and 2.8 times the risk of suicide attempt. Youth questioning their sexual orientation have twice the risk of having attempted suicide in their lifetime (Kingsbury et al., 2022).

In Quebec, girls aged 15 to 19 is the most common group to visit emergency departments for suicidal behaviours (Lavesque, Bardon, and Gariépy, 2021).

An Ontario survey of students in grades seven to 12 found that girls are more likely to: report a sense of low social status at school, use prescription opioids nonmedically, be concerned about weight and body shape, rate their mental health as poor or fair, report elevated stress and psychological stress, indicate a problem with technology use, and feel depressed about the future due to the pandemic (Boak, Elton-Marshall, and Hamilton, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, 2021).

A US national poll found girls’ confidence levels drop 30% between the ages of 8 and 14 (Ypulse, 2018). A UK study found that 15% of girls are unhappy with their appearance at age 11, a rate that rises to 29% by age 14 (Crenna-Jennings, 2021).

Girls and young women experience sexual assault at a rate seven times higher than boys and young men. When broken down by age group, the rate is three times higher for girls 11 and under, and nine times higher for girls 12 to 17 (Conroy, Statistics Canada, 2018).

“While the overall rate of police-reported violence against girls and young women declined between 2009 and 2017, the same pattern did not emerge for sexual offences specifically.” Sexual offences against girls and young women increased by 31% (Conroy, Statistics Canada, 2018).

Violence against girls and young women is most often perpetrated by men. Younger girls are most often victimized by a family member, older girls by a casual acquaintance, and young women by a non-spousal intimate partner (Conroy, Statistics Canada, 2018).

Girls are 4.6 times as likely as boys to be sexually assaulted by a family member. The rate of sexual assault by a family member for girls peaks at age 12 to 14 (Statistics Canada, 2019).

In a poll of 4,000 students in Canada, more than one in seven girls reported seventh grade. Three in five said they never reported to school officials, and of those who did, only a quarter were completely satisfied with how the school responded (CBC News, 2019).

Twenty-six per cent of Indigenous girls experience sexual assault before the age of 15, three times the rate of non-Indigenous girls and over four times the rate of Indigenous men. The highest proportion of these assaults occur in the North: 38% of Inuit girls experience sexual assault, along with 32% of Metis girls, and 20% of First Nations girls (Perreault, Canadian Centre for Justice and Community Safety Statistics, Statistics Canada, 2022).

“Eight in ten (81%) Indigenous women who were ever under the legal responsibility of the government experienced lifetime violent victimization. In comparison, six in ten (60%) Indigenous women who were never under the legal responsibility of the government experienced lifetime violent victimization” (Heidinger, Canadian Centre for Justice and Community Safety Statistics, Statistics Canada, 2022).

Rates of family violence against girls are highest in the territories. In Yukon and Nunavut, the rate is nearly twice as high as for boys. In the Northwest Territories, the rate is more than double (Statistics Canada, 2019).

Girls in high school experience more dating violence than boys, including cyber dating violence and significantly more psychological violence. “One in three Canadian youth are involved with [adolescent dating violence (ADV)], and ADV involvement is associated with social marginalization. It is thus critical that ADV prevention programs focus on root causes of violence” (Exner-Cortens, Baker, and Craig, 2021).

For 13-year-olds, 43% of girls report having been bullied in the last couple of months, compared with 33% of boys (Hudon, Statistics Canada, 2017).

A survey found that four in 10 trans and non-binary youth report having been sexually harassed, and three in 10, sexually assaulted. Gender-diverse youth are also likely to experience other forms of violence, such as verbal (72%), intimidation and threats (37%) and physical violence (18%) (Trans PULSE Canada, 2021).

The Canadian Women’s Foundation (2017) found that 79% of people in Canada believe that Gen Z women (those born in 1999 or later) are just as or more likely to experience sexual assault. People in Canada hold a similar view for other forms of violence, including online harassment (87%), physical violence from a partner (81%), sexual harassment in public (70%), and sexual harassment in the workplace (64%), and 79% believe Gen Z women will be just as or more likely to feel unsafe because of their gender.

Sexualization happens when: a person’s value is associated with their sexual appeal or behavior to the exclusion of other characteristics, a person is held to a standard that equates narrowly-defined physical attractiveness with being sexy, a person is seen as existing for “sexual use” rather than a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making, and/or sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person. Widespread sexualization of girls and young women can lead to individual harms, such as a personal sense of body dissatisfaction and self-esteem concerns. And “sexualization of girls may not only reflect sexist attitudes, a societal tolerance of sexual violence, and the exploitation of girls and women but may also contribute to these phenomena” (Zurbriggen et al., American Psychological Association, 2010).

Overall, girls between the ages of 10 and 13 with high levels of self-sexualization are more preoccupied with, and feel more ashamed of, their bodies (Tiggeman and Slater, 2015).

“Mainstream media and marketing efforts continue to disproportionately present adolescent girls and adult women in sexualized and objectified ways. This is true for television, movies, video games, music videos, lyrics, magazines, toys, Halloween costumes, sports media, and advertisements. When sexual themes are present in media, they are often accompanied by problematic attitudes toward girls and women. Still, adolescents continue to see the media as an important source of sexual information, even though research indicates that such information is sexist and lacks discussion of risk and responsibility” (Lamb et al., 2019).

Women political and public figures are often scrutinized for their clothing and appearances, in no way relevant to their professional roles (Trimble, 2018). A study found that sexual objectification of women in music has increased from 6-7% of songs in the 1960s to 31% in the 2000s (Smiler, Shewmaker, and Hearon, 2017). Another study found that advertisements in magazines designed for adolescent girls objectify and sexualize women 64% of the time, higher than the rate in adult women’s magazines (56%) (Stankiewicz and Rosselli, 2008).

A US-based study of top children’s television programs found that every episode contained sexualization, and more than 70% of the time, a female character was sexualized (McDade-Montez, Wallander, and Cameron, 2017).

Demographic imbalances and a lack of representation can also add to stereotyping in media. A US-based 2021 study on high-grossing films revealed that only 31% films had a woman lead character. Men characters appeared onscreen and speak twice as often as women. “67.0% of major female characters were White, 17.2% were Black, 7.2% were Latina, 6.3% were Asian or Asian American, 0.9% were Native American, 0.0% were [Middle Eastern and North African], and 1.4% were of multiple races/ethnicities” (Lauzen, 2022).

Social media is a key consideration. A study found that social media “can have a negative influence on girls’ body image through negative appearance comparisons when viewing images on social media, exacerbating appearance-based concerns and body dissatisfaction. While negative comparisons were made irrespective of whether images were considered sexualized, findings suggested a level of self-objectification among adolescent girls whereby they viewed themselves in relation to their appearance” (Papageorgiou, Fisher, and Cross, 2022).

Another study found that girls rarely interact with social media content to critique and resist sexualization. It says, “We may need to teach girls about media effects beyond body image, and make them more aware of the occurrence and effects of sexualized media messages, as well as teach them the importance and effectiveness of a critical voice challenging such messages. When adolescent girls have internalized such a critical voice, it is crucial to create a social media environment that fosters social influence processes such as identification and compliance that promote engagement with counter-messages” (Oosten, 2020).

A study of grade seven girls found that those who “regularly shared self-images on social media, relative to those who did not, reported significantly higher overvaluation of shape and weight, body dissatisfaction, dietary restraint, and internalization of the thin ideal.” Among girls who shared photos of themselves on social media, “higher engagement in manipulation of and investment in these photos, but not higher media exposure, were associated with greater body-related and eating concerns, including after accounting for media use and internalization of the thin ideal” (McLean et al., 2015).

A review of psychology research finds that exposure to sexualized images and messages can lead to shame, body dissatisfaction, disordered eating, depression, trauma symptoms, and low self-esteem. Exposure to sexualized images can have the consequence of self-sexualization, leading girls to value their appearance over their other characteristics, view themselves as an object for other’s desires, and ignore their own wants and desires (Lamb et al., 2019).

Girls who show high levels of “internalized sexualization” – the belief that sexual attractiveness is an important part of their identity – get lower grades and score lower on standardized tests than their peers. They also experience lower academic motivation, are more likely to downplay their intelligence in class, and are more skeptical about school’s importance (McKenney and Bigler, 2014).

A study found that girls’ endorsement of sexualized gender stereotypes (SGS) in the seventh grade predicted lower academic self-efficacy later. “Highlighting a likely feedback loop, earlier academic self-efficacy equally predicted later SGS endorsement. For highly gender-typical girls, greater SGS endorsement also predicted lower mastery goal orientation over time” (Brown, 2019).

“Black scholars posit that overall, Black students experience schools as ‘carceral places characterized by neglect, heightened surveillance, and arbitrary and often extreme punishment for any perceived disobedience.’ In particular, Black girls experience, and must contend with the ‘sexual stereotypes and perceptions of low educational aspirations and achievements’ forced onto them” (Katshunga et al.).

School dress codes can also play a role, as they continue to “disproportionately target girls, non-binary students and students of colour” (Bishop, 2022). “To the detriment to student learning, dress codes disproportionately affect girls and students of color embodying them as sexualized and inferior. Females are treated like objects while males are assumed to be incapable of controlling their sexual desires. School dress codes have been adopted as a means of controlling student behavior without fully exploring the relationship between curriculum and virtue” (Whitman, 2020).

A lack of confidence and sense of restriction due to gender stereotypes may cause girls to question their abilities to succeed in traditionally male subjects. This is supported by research that girls who attend all-girls schools are twice as likely to study physics in university compared to girls who attend co-ed schools (Institute of Physics, 2012).

A Swiss-based study found that female students who perceive STEM subjects as more masculine are less likely to join the STEM field (Makarova, Aeschlimann, and Herzog, 2019).

A study of test scores in Canada found that girls and boys aged 15 had the same average scores on tests measuring scientific ability, but boys were twice as likely as girls to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subjects than girls. Girls who scored highest on math ability were still less likely than boys who scored the lowest to pursue STEM subjects in university (Ferguson, Statistics Canada, 2016).

Another factor to consider is the classroom environment. A US study found that men students underestimated women peers’ academic performance in undergraduate biology classes. Men students were more likely to be recognized as knowledgeable, and this perception increased as the course continued. “This favoring of males by peers could influence student self-confidence, and thus persistence in this STEM discipline” (Grunspan et al., 2016).

Canadian Women and Sport (2016) says, “Although a majority of girls participate in sport in their early years, evidence points to significant declines in sport participation in the transition to adolescence, with a sharper decline in girls’ participation rates than boys at this stage of life. Girls are often discouraged from participating when they feel they lack competence or fundamental skills in sport, or when they do not find value in the sport. Adolescence is a pivotal time for predicting whether or not a girl will continue to participate in sports as she grows older. Alarmingly, as girls enter adolescence, their overall participation rate drops by 22%, and school sport participation drops by almost 26%.”

Positive mentorship opportunities can help. A pilot study on an urban mentorship program for girls 13 and 14 years old found that the experience positively affected girls’ scholastic competence, social acceptance, physical appearance, job competence, behavioural conduct, romance, close friendships, and overall self-worth (Moore, Stephens, and Kelly, 2022).

Another mentorship program for girls reported significant improvements in their physical activity and healthy eating behavior and related cognitions. The findings provide “preliminary support for programs that foster belongingness and target health behaviors through mentorship models” (Dowd et al., 2015).

Programs that build identity and cultural connection and belonging are important too. A sense of belonging is important for everybody, and “the presence of belonging, specifically school belonging, has powerful long- and short-term implications for students’ positive psychological and academic outcomes” (Allen et al., 2022). For Indigenous young people, building a sense of cultural identity, community, and belonging is particularly important (Public Health Agency of Canada, 2021).

With respect to disordered eating, media literacy programs can significantly reduce risk for middle schoolers (Levine, 2016). Media Smarts says, “There’s significant evidence that media education can counter unrealistic media representations of men’s and women’s bodies. For example, a 2015 study found that girls as young as Grade five who had received media literacy education in school had higher self-esteem and body satisfaction.”

Last Update: December 22, 2022

Data Snapshot

2 times
The rate at which girls and young women aged 15 to 17 are hospitalized for mental health concerns compared to boys and young men of the same age

4.6 times
The rate of sexual assault of girls by a family member compared to boys

of Indigenous girls experience sexual assault before the age of 15

2 times
The rate that boys pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subjects compared to girls

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