The Powerful Message of the #LikeAGirl Campaign

02/03/2015 06:07 pm ET | Updated Apr 05, 2015

Procter and Gamble's #LikeAGirl commercial has been labeled "groundbreaking" not only for tackling the important topic of girls' self-concept but also for its strong message of empowerment. The advertisement featured girls being asked to engage in various activities (e.g. throw a ball, run) "like a girl" and highlighted how the term "like a girl" has stereotypically been considered derisive but could be changed to represent strength. And this message is important because while the term "like a girl" may seem like a harmless form of teasing, it is part of a bigger picture of societal discrimination against women that can have devastating effects.

Gender discrimination against women is rampant across the world and seeps into many aspects of women's lives. And this discrimination harms women in two ways. First, women directly experience stressful events. The experience of sexism is so common that research suggests women can experience one to two instances of "everyday sexism" per week, ranging from stated gender stereotypes (e.g. "throws like a girl") to being called denigrating names to sexual objectification. 25 percent of women report sexual harassment in the workplace.

More, this stress often translates into several forms of institutional disparity. For example, in one randomized double-blind study of 127 science faculty members, participants were given identical application materials for the position of laboratory manager, but applicants were randomly assigned a stereotypically "male" or "female" name. Results indicated that faculty participants rated the fictional male candidates as more competent, which resulted in male applicant's increased likelihood of being hired. Further, additional research shows that if hired, women still receive less money for the same job as men and are required to pay more in health insurance than men.

But women aren't only harmed by sexism through the tangible stress caused by others. They are harmed to the extent that they internalize and adopt these sexist attitudes that can manifest as poor self-concept. Further, this negative self-concept often manifests on a subconscious or implicit level, as women (and men) will demonstrate automatic negative biases against women. For example, women are less likely to automatically associate other women as compared to men with competence. More "internalized sexism" can even manifest in how women communicate with one another (e.g. assertions of incompetence).

Perhaps due to the confluence of increased stress and decreased self-concept, the experience of gender discrimination is associated with poor psychological outcomes. The experience of this type of sexism may cause distress and unhealthy behaviors such as binge eating and smoking. One study of 724 women attending family planning clinics found that gender discrimination was associated with lifetime and recent drug use. Further, gender discrimination worsens attitudes towards the workplace. One study of 526 male and female employees showed that in addition to increasing stress, gender discrimination decreases satisfaction, motivation, commitment and enthusiasm level of employees.

The spirit of the #LikeAGirl campaign is to change societal norms, and there is hope that this is possible. Confronting men on their biased behavior in fact influences behavior. In a 2010 study, researchers asked men and women to collaborate on a problem-solving exercise. They then asked the women to confront the men either for sexism (e.g., assuming that a nurse would be female) or on a "gender-neutral" mistake. Men accused of sexism not only did not react with hostility, but also consequently were more likely to apologize for their remark. Further, men accused of sexism were nicer to the women when solving a second set of problems, and at the end of the experiment reported liking their partners more than did the men who were accused of the gender-neutral mistake. These results are consistent with research suggesting the efficacy of interventions aimed at reducing gender bias in hiring.

Most likely, the majority of people who use terms such as "throws like a girl" do not intend to hurt girls and women, just as the majority of women who adopt this type of self-deprecating language do not intend to cause self-harm. But that is why it is even more important that we raise awareness of how these seemingly innocuous statements are part of a bigger picture -- one in which women are often degraded and mistreated.

So let's take a cue from the #LikeAGirl campaign and change the conversation to empower rather than denigrate girls and women.