Girlguiding’s fifth Girls’ Attitudes Survey provides a unique overview of the state of equality for girls in the UK today. It finds that girls live in a society in which sexual harassment is commonplace, girls’ appearance is intensely scrutinised and their abilities are undermined. It’s a society in which girls and young women feel they are judged by different standards to their male counterparts and in which they worry about gender discrimination affecting their future.

The findings reveal that girls and young women experience shocking levels of everyday sexism and discrimination at school, on the street, and in their interactions online and with the media. Three in four girls and young women feel that sexism is so widespread in our society today that it affects most areas of their lives (75%). Of girls aged 11 to 21, 87% think that women are judged more on their appearance than on their ability. More than a third of girls aged 7 to 21 have felt patronised or been made to feel stupid because of their gender (36%), rising sharply to 60% of 16- to 21-year-olds.

Sexual harassment

The majority of girls and young women report experiencing sexual harassment, starting when they are at school. Girls aged 11 to 21 are as likely to have been harassed at school as on the street. Six in ten girls have had comments shouted at them about their appearance at school (60%), and 62% have been shouted or whistled at in the street about their appearance (rising to 76% of 16- to 21-year-olds). Seven out of ten girls aged 13 and over report further experiences of sexual harassment at school or college. These include sexual jokes or taunts (51%), seeing images of girls or women that made them uncomfortable (39%), seeing rude or obscene graffiti about girls and women (33%), and unwanted sexual attention (28%) and touching (28%).

Online abuse

Harassment and discrimination follow girls online, with experience of online bullying and abuse widespread. More than half of all those aged 11 to 21 say they have had negative experiences online (54%). For older girls, aged 16 to 21, this includes having had sexist comments (26%) and threatening things (25%) said about or to them.

Too little support

The report finds that too often girls are being left to negotiate this everyday sexism with little support. Half of all girls think that too much responsibility is placed on girls for their sexual safety (53%). Most girls deal with online abuse on their own and informally rather than reporting it. At school, many girls and young women – more than a third of girls aged 16 to 21 (38%) – feel that sex education has not prepared them well. The majority say that sex education at school does not focus enough on relationships, with 64% of 16- to 21-year-olds saying this.

Appearance pressures

Girls’ experience today encompasses unprecedented levels of personal and public/media scrutiny over women’s body shape, size and overall looks – and it influences girls at a young age. Among 11- to 21-year-olds, 80% think there is too much discussion about women’s weight in the media and 71% say they would like to lose weight. One in five girls of primary school age (7- to 11-year-olds) say they have been on a diet. Girls also feel that their behaviour is judged by different standards to boys – 76% say that girls are judged harshly for sexual behaviour that is seen as acceptable in boys.

Equality tomorrow?

Girls today worry that some of the challenges faced by previous generations, such as overcoming stereotypes and constraints in work and family life, will soon be issues that affect them too. Girls believe that motherhood still disadvantages women in the workplace, and almost half of those aged 11 to 21 worry that having children will negatively affect their career (46%). A similar number think that employers at least to some extent prefer to employ men over women (43%). Half worry about the pay gap between men and women (50%), rising to 60% among 16- to 21-year-olds.

High aspirations

Nonetheless, girls and young women report being career focused as well as clearly aspiring to a balanced family life. A good job comes top of the list of what girls say they need in life to do well and be happy in the future, and seven out of ten want to combine having children and maintaining a career. The vast majority expect their future family life to be equal, with 88% saying that both parents should be able to share time off after their baby is born, rising to 93% of 11- to 21-year-olds. However, girls worry about gender stereotypes in parenting and the cost of childcare – 65% of girls aged 11 to 21 are concerned about the cost of childcare.