Emma, 4, entered pre-kindergarten this academic year. Within a few months, she formed an opinion that stunned her mother.

“Girls don’t have muscles,” Emma says.

“Yes, they do,” says her mother. “Why do you say that?”

“I just know,” Emma says.

Megan McGuire controlled her dismay and patiently showed Emma that women, in fact, have muscles. She provided images of gymnastic Olympic Gold Medal winner Gabby Douglas as evidence.  

Emma, who had also recently rejected a “boy” toy, held her ground. Nothing her mother did to convince Emma that women have muscles worked. Emma had made up her four-year-old mind and that was that.

The incident reminded McGuire of a conversation that she had with a 19-year-old fellow student during the 2016 presidential campaign. “She said a woman couldn’t be president because of the menstruation cycle,” McGuire says. “She said women are too emotional.”

McGuire, a Nunez Community College student working to make a place for herself in an uncertain economy, wonders what many working women are wondering: How can women take their rightful place as equal partners with men in the workplace if so many of them believe themselves inferior?

The timing of Emma’s declaration about muscles couldn’t have been more meaningful. International Women’s Day, celebrated March 8, brought media coverage before and after the event about women’s issues. Many of the stories are disturbing.  

In February, The Washington Post reported that a study published by the journal Science shows that many girls as young as 6 – the age most of them enter school – believe that boys are smarter than girls.

Researchers at the University of Illinois in Urban-Champaign, Princeton University and New York University focused on the attitudes of children ages 5-7. In one experiment, researchers asked children to guess the identity of the main adult character in a story about a “really, really smart” person. At age five, girls were as likely as boys to guess a character of their own gender, but by age 6, researchers reported that girls of all socio-economic and racial/ethnic backgrounds were more likely to guess that a male character was the exceptionally smart one.

As a consequence of this gender stereotype, girls begin avoiding activities that are associated with high intelligence early in their academic development, researchers concluded. They also speculated that the intelligence stereotype influences the careers that girls choose later in life, thus explaining the dearth of females in engineering, high-echelons of academia and other fields.

A study conducted in England in 2013 provides evidence that girls are often steered away from advanced courses in math and science by teachers. An Institute of Physics report entitled “Closing Doors: Exploring Gender and Subject Choices in Schools” indicated that teachers send messages that certain academic subjects are for females and others are for males.

The report’s researchers used a national database to study the gender make-up of various subjects through grade levels. The researchers found that female enrollment in advanced science courses decrease with age. They determined that nearly half the country’s co-educational state funded schools were contributing to the gender imbalance in advanced science courses.  

Sexist attitudes also have been found in U.S. schools. Harvard University’s graduate school of education conducted a survey of about 20,000 students in 59 middle and high schools and issued a report called “Leaning Out:  Teen Girls and Leadership Biases.” The report’s findings, outlined on the school’s website, include the discovery that 23 percent of girls and 40 percent of boys preferred male political leaders to female. The Making Caring Common project also found that “mothers’ average level of support was higher for a student council led by boys than one led by girls.”     

This study could explain why there are so few female politicians. Even though women make up half the workforce, they occupy less than 20 percent of members of Congress, according to the Rutgers University Center for American Women and Politics. Women only make up 15.3 percent of Louisiana’s Legislature, Rutgers figures show.

Equally dismal statistics reflect the gender divide in leadership positions in corporate America. CNN Money reported in 2015 that only 14.2 percent of the top five leadership positions at 500 leading companies were held by women. At that time, only 24 women occupied top CEO positions.  

The statistics are not much better for women working in media. A 2017 Women’s Media Center assessment reported that in all media platforms there has been some progress for women, but there are also areas of “regress and sadly, outright pushback.” The WMC says that men, for example, still earn more salary than women at the Dow Jones’ Wall Street Journal, its international newspaper.   

In 21st Century America, many men still believe that unequal pay is acceptable. In response to equal pay legislation under consideration in February in Utah, a GOP county official opined that women should earn less money than men because equal pay would reduce the salaries of family-supporting men. As many news outlets reported, James Green resigned because of the controversy that followed. His attitude, however, is likely shared by the many male politicians who have voted down equal pay legislation across the country, including those in Louisiana as recently as last year.

The United States has the largest economy in the world and is its only superpower, yet according to the 2016 World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Index, it ranks 45th in gender equality. Countries such as Spain, Slovenia and Bolivia rank way ahead of the U.S. Trinidad and Tobago rank 44th.  

Yes, Emma, figuratively speaking, it’s true: American women don’t have much muscle.