At school I was never pegged to be an academic. It was my older sister who showed me a door to freedom of thought and opportunity by attending university as an older adult. I watched her blossom, and she encouraged me to try, so I also attended university. Without getting those cues from my sister modeling the courage and tenacity to educate herself further, I would never have followed that path and reached a place that allows me to successfully navigate the path I have chosen to follow.
A decade later I am fortunate enough to work with teen girls, helping them build those muscles they need to meet the world head on — resilience, self-leadership, self-awareness. Through this role I have gained insight into how girls view themselves in the world, identifying that what we all struggle with as women is successfully carving out a path that doesn’t limit us to playing small. While there are far more opportunities for girls to flourish, girls are struggling with poor mental health as they traverse their life course that appears sprawling while also limited to certain paths afforded to women.
What has helped me in my journey has been fierce female role models out there blazing trails. It’s these women who give support and insight into the practicalities of carving out a life without burning out or limiting themsleves. If we don’t, girls will continue to look to the some of the popular celebrity role models and influencers that only feed their insecurities, not their minds nor their hearts.
There are still paths the remain difficult to access for all women, especially for women of colour. In 2020 scientists Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier won the Nobel Peace Prize in Chemistry, making headlines as two of the few women to have received a Nobel Prize for Science over the years. Of the 904 individuals awarded the Nobel Prize since1901, only 58 have been women, (https://stacker.com/stories/1709/57-women-who-have-won-nobel-prize) *Maria Resser from Philippines has recently been awarded Nobel Peace Prize for 2021, the only woman to do so.
Dr Margie Warrell, in Forbes magazine wrote “…when girls can readily see women rising, on their terms, it spurs their ambitions.” (https://www.jstor.org/stable/4132808). However, all too often girls do not get to see women who look like them, rising. It is not that we don’t rise, of course we do — but it is that they are so often hidden from view, quietly changing the world.
There was a social media post recently that really highlighted the lack of recognition trailblazing women receive. It references a woman sitting in a lecture when the Professor, holding up a bone marked by 28 incisions, explains that the incisions were man’s first attempt at a calendar. He asked the class why he might have done this, why 28 days? This led the female student to suggest it was likely a woman who needed to mark a 28 day cycle, highly likely then it was a woman who created the calendar. I rolled my eyes at this anecdote while thinking about how women’s accomplishments are often mis-attributed to men. We live in a society that often ignores the accomplishments of women if those successes do not fit the social constructs women are encouraged to inhabit, Maggie Hamilton, author of the book “What’s Happening to Our Girls?”, writes “The toys, programs and clothes we choose for our little girls reveals a great deal about how we see girls and women — how they should look and behave, and what they aspire to.”
How can we ensure all women are seen for their accomplishments and to lead our girls to build life goals that challenge but don’t limit them?
· Talk about all women positively, highlighting women who are achieving in an arena that is of interest to your child/students.
· If you are teachers, have pictures of successful women in the classroom. Ones from history and today, and talk about their lives.
· Get your students to research the lives of women who have done amazing things — the suffragists, global leaders, scientists, feminists from the past.
Women will always blaze trails, we don’t really have a choice — I’m looking at you Greta Thunberg, Malala Yousafzai, et al, incredible, courageous women. When women give younger women directions to roads that have been cleared, girls can be the trailblazers they want to be. Without having to clear the same trail over and over like so many women before them have had to do, they can be free to build their own future.
Vicky Pond Dunlop, Director, Enlighten Education NZ, Advocate for teen girls.