By Zeina Habib ICF ACC Coach
In every youth leadership camp I led, there was at least one girl whose narrative was something like that “I wish I could play football or climb trees or etc. but I wouldn’t be good at it and my parents don’t think I should, since I am a girl”
It breaks my heart that these amazingly talented girls don’t get to develop their skills because of gender constructs imposed by society.
Some parents seem to forget the stories of amazing women like Jeanne D’arc and Marie Curie and only remember Disney princesses and the list of “allowed activities” for girls.
It is sad that beliefs like these are denying these girls their identity and preventing them from changing the world.
I was lucky. My parents never shied away from me wanting to play basketball or volleyball. They never rejected my love for physics and math but not all parents share that view. So I am writing this article to shed light on how big of a role parents play in raising successful resilient girls; girls who believe they can have any career they want anywhere in the world.
I am an outspoken feminist advocating for women’s empowerment, so you can imagine my embarrassment when in a course on diversity and inclusion, I failed my own beliefs. My first assignment in that course was to answer the below riddle.
A boy and his father are involved in a horrible car accident in which the father is killed. The son is rushed to the hospital, but just as he is about to go under the knife, the surgeon says « I can’t operate on this boy – he is my son! ».
Who is the surgeon ?
My first reaction was that the surgeon was his dad and his parents were gay. I was so proud of myself for having figured it out , till I realized that the point of this riddle was that the surgeon was the mom, a woman. I deleted my answer before anyone could see it; It was embarrassing. I can’t be a feminist and still think like that. Then I realized that this was not a reflection of my current beliefs but rather a compilation of years of conditioning turned into a deeply rooted unconscious bias.
Our brains put people into categories the moment they see them or hear them talk , to make it easier to remember things and make associations such as “surgeons are males”. This was the case for me, having grown up in a country where surgeons are mostly male.
We all have our own version of this story and our own unconscious bias and the question is what are we doing about it? And why is it important or relevant to this article?
It is important because to raise our kids differently we need to see things differently and address our own biases. We also need to explain to our kids what these biases are, how they manifest and how to deal with them.
They need to know that this bias and this social construct regarding women and ”…” (take your pick of words) is in no way an indication of who they really are or the level of their skills.
They should understand that they may be judged for simply being girls but this does not mean that they are less qualified for it or that they should give up on their dreams.
There may not be many girls who are scientists or football players or nascar drivers but there are still amazing women out there who have changed the world. There is Saniya Vashist who founded CodeHer at 13 years old, a non-profit empowering girls in tech; there is Kamala Harris, the first Vice President who’s a woman in the USA and there are the women in your girls’ lives who may be accomplished business women or doctors or engineers.
We have to believe in them and remind them that they may be judged or disrespected but that does not make it ok and it does not mean they are not capable of achieving whatever it is they dream of achieving.
Choosing the right education
Education at school or through books and movies, plays a huge part in what girls believe about themselves and the world. With the right education, they can be exposed to a diverse environment that advocates for equality and women’s rights. .
They can also get the right support and resources to explore different things they may be passionate about.
As parents, when choosing schools, you need to ask questions about inclusion, talk with the teachers and make sure the school offers a diverse curriculum to all the students.
I had first had experience with the importance of education and teachers on girls’ careers. I became an engineer because I had a physics teacher who thought I was a natural in physics and pushed me to ask more questions and be curious and excel.
On the other hand, parents should also be mindful of the books, TV shows and movies they expose their kids to. Choosing books with girls superheroes or scientists can make a big difference in how your girls view themselves. .
When I was around 9 years old, I was obsessed with a french book series called “Fantomette”, it talked about a superhero teenage girl who saved people’s lives and protected them so I never had any doubts that girls could be superheroes or that they could be physically strong.
To make the quest for good books and TV shows or movies easier , I have added a few articles below that address that issue.
Encouraging diverse experiences and commitment
Discovering ourselves and the world is a lifelong process. We start experimenting when we’re toddlers by learning to talk and keep on learning even when we’re old and retired. So it is important to teach your kids how to learn and experiment properly.
I have a strategy that has worked for me for many years and I am going to share with you the steps I follow so you can work on it with your girls.
1- Research affordable and available activities or learning opportunities together (ie. cooking, dancing, football, violin….)
2- Select one or two that they feel interested in and try them out
3- Evaluate with them how things are going. (Do they like it ? Do they want to change ?Why? Is it hard? Do they want to learn more about it?)
4-Adjust according to the discussion
While doing this with your kids, there are a few things you should be weary of. While you want your kids to let go of things that do not fit them, you also want them to learn commitment. So it is important to have deep discussions with them to understand the reasons they want to quit a certain activity. If it is fear of failure or insecurities you should push them to commit and help them face their fears and accept failure as part of the process. However, if it is simply disinterest in the activity you should help them let go.
Some kids may have difficulties committing to certain activities especially if they are afraid of failing at it while others may have difficulties letting go and it is your duty to support them in overcoming both.
Another thing to look out for is making sure kids have some free time to get bored and be creative. You do not want to overwhelm them with activities and deprive them from the chance to create on their own.
Finally and most importantly, you should not push your children towards gender complying activities. It is easy to let your upbringing take over and encourage your girls to play with dolls and dance and your boys to play with trucks and practice football but you should fight that impulse and keep all options open. You need to help them choose what works best for them as individuals regardless of their gender.
All the above will play a big role in raising resilient girls who are long life learners, who pursue the career they want regardless of the norms and who can embrace failure and criticism and learn from it.
In today’s world, volunteering, being part of a non- profit or receiving mentoring are great ways to support girls in their quest for a meaningful career.
In this article by Initlive, the company discusses the benefits of volunteering for youths in developing their skills, networking and gaining access to events for free. All of these provide them with exposure to new ideas and new people which could facilitate their access to good universities, provide them with new career choices and improve their leadership skills.
In addition to that, through volunteering, the youth get the chance to find meaning in what they do. It helps them answer these two questions
Why am I doing what I am doing? How does that benefit the world outside of me?
As for mentoring, In an interview with Harvard School, Dr. Mentor talks about the importance of mentoring in developing the youth’s self-confidence, attitude and relationships with peers, all of which are great qualities for leaders. Mentoring also gives youth the opportunity to connect with adults other than their parents and teachers to get a different perspective on the adult world and get inspired.
Leading by example
I was lucky to grow up in a family with empowered women. My mom had a masters degree in business and was still running her father’s shop while 9 months pregnant with me.My grandmother refused to have any man do any painting job around the house since she always did it better.So I never doubted that women could get things done and succeed.
You don’t have to be a scientist or a working mom to set a good example for your kids.
You just have to believe women can achieve anything in any field, sharing with your kids your achievements and other women’s achievement and encouraging them to pursue their passion no matter what that is.
Leading by example is rejecting the gender norm and celebrating women in any field.
This is not just for mothers but also for fathers who need to acknowledge the bias and privilege that patriarchy brings.
I had a boss who would not let his sister design the columns of his house because she is a woman so I cannot imagine how difficult it is for his girls to choose their careers. You cannot reject treatment from a surgeon who is a woman or be afraid to fly with a female pilot or ignore your colleague’s opinion because she is a woman and then encourage your girl to become a surgeon. You need to believe women can do anything so your girls believe that,too.
My favorite portrayal of this is a scene from Full House (episode 7×20) where Michelle a young girl believes girls can’t race or build cars because she heard her aunt, uncle and father say so. Girls choose their beliefs based on yours so if you want empowered successful daughters you have to believe that women can be successful and empowering.
In the end, with the society we live in, girls will face criticism and patriarchal behavior and it is our duty to advocate for them and work to change the status quo. But, most importantly it is our job to raise empowered resilient girls who believe they can choose any career they want and create change in the world.