The average teenage girl counts Disney princesses and Barbie as her early role models. She thinks being strong and getting sweaty aren’t very “girly”, so must be boys’ jobs. She is about to embark on a working life where in the U.K. there is a 19.2% gender pay gap, and only 22 of around 200 of the world’s countries are lead by women. It’s never too early to start a positive discussion about being a girl. And this is something both men and women can do. Your mother, daughter, sister, cousin, wife or girlfriend, are all women first.
Thankfully, the world is catching up with what some of us have always known. There has been major progress for gender equality in the last 2 generations, at least in the United Kingdom, United States and the developed world. The number of women in leadership positions globally is on the increase, the gender pay gap is being addressed and the UK’s female engineering First Degree graduates are on the up. Media coverage of womens’ sport, shockingly reported in 2015 as being only 7%, is also on the rise, with regularly televised games, like this weekend’s England Football Euro 2017 qualifier against Belgium being covered on the BBC.
We have come a long way, and are continuing to do so. It really is great that Barbie now has optional flat feet and comes in 14 face shapes, 8 skin tones, 18 eye colours and 23 hair colours. It makes a refreshing change for Disney princesses to fight their own battles, like Rapunzel in Tangled who escapes from her tower and fights her way back home, and to find that true love doesn’t just come with Prince Charming, as we learned in Frozen when (spoiler alert) the true love of sisters saves the day.
But the fact that Barbie’s feet have only been flat since 2015, that Rapunzel’s weapon of choice is a frying pan, and that the Frozen girls are still princesses in ball gowns, mean we might still have a long way to go. There are more men named John leading FTSE 100 companies than there are women, and women are outnumbered 5:1 in the UK’s leading companies by Davids, Ians, Marks and Andrews. Meanwhile, Kim Kardashian is flashing on instagram and calling it empowerment. I’m not convinced.
I’m not saying that ball gowns aren’t okay, or that frying pans aren’t a handy addition to the kitchen. I’m also not saying that all women should want to lead companies. What I am saying is that it is about time it was all optional; that by the time our children reach our age it will be okay for them as women to want to do any or all of these things, and not feel like they need to use their bodies for attention. It will be so okay that them being women won’t even be relevant.
Aside from crazy stunts by celebrities – isn’t it already okay? Aren’t we luckier now than we’ve ever been? Whilst we are undoubtedly making some progress, on a national and global scale there is enough evidence that it isn’t, and that the progress we have made is in danger if we don’t keep it up. There are real obstacles for women in the professional world that men simply do not face, including blatant and subtle sexism, discrimination and sexual harassment. The gender pay gap is a reality, as is the lack of meaningful support for women in part time work (a mission close to the heart of Mothers Mean Business). Awareness of the issues and steps to do something about them are on the rise, but we all need to play a part in this to reach a point where equality can become a reality.
What about on a personal level? As parents, partners, sisters, children, and friends of the women who might well change the world, and should at least believe that’s possible, are we doing enough to empower them to live their own lives, and the lives they might live irrespective of their gender?
In its 2015 article on the leadership race against Johns (that admittedly most women hadn’t previously realised they were losing) the Guardian quoted Heather Jackson, founder of An Inspirational Journey, an organisation providing advice to companies on how to ensure that more women end up in senior roles. According to her, it takes “a good 20 years to get a good CEO in place, developing them from middle management” but too many companies are cutting back on programmes and training aimed at improving gender balance at the top.
Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In looks at the roles of women in the workplace and highlights the lack of women across the board in leadership roles. She is concerned not just of a lack of support by women of women, harking back to the days of the “Queen Bee” – when being a leading women might have threatened rather than supported another, but also that men must play a role in female empowerment.
For both men and women, it can be easy to judge. It can seem easier to put women down for doing something different, or to pigeon hole them into a female stereotype than to support them standing up and doing something different or new. Whilst we shouldn’t discourage women or girls from pursuing interests that are typically “girly”, we should be moving away from that way of thinking, and equating other qualities with being a girl. From the moment we look at a baby boy and say “isn’t he strong” and tell a baby girl she is “just so beautiful” we are creating their world, and giving them a reflection of ours.
So my challenge to you, male or female and at whatever age or stage of life you are at, is to think about the women and girls close to you, and to start a conversation with them about what it means to be a girl. Do you know any inspiring women and what about them is inspiring you? When did you last tell them? What are the goals and aspirations of young females close to you? Do they see any gender barriers to success in their chosen field? Either way, it is our job to support and inspire them.
I hope one day my children will read this and wonder what I was talking about. I hope they see the issues women face as old fashioned and silly. I hope they know that for the same job a woman should be paid the same as a man, and if you are the best in the world at your sport, your reward should not be based on your gender. But that won’t happen unless we keep having the discussion. Who do you know that you can start it with this week?