What You Can Do to Advance Girl Empowerment
When half of our children are held back, the entire world suffers.
The United States has reached a point of gender equality – on paper. Still, books like Sheryl Sandburg’s Lean In, suggest that at the top of almost any field (even female dominated fields like the non-profit sector), men make up the executive team. To correct this imbalance, we need to encourage girl empowerment at the earliest of age.
Changing the Status Quo for Girl Empowerment
Gender differences start before a child is even born. From the moment the gender of a child is known, he or she is treated differently (think: pink or blue baby shower). From that point on, gender is ingrained in everything that child does.
Girls get the message loud and clear: Women don’t lead. Girls that tell others what to do are bossy; boys are assertive. When a girl misbehaves, she is taught to act like a lady; when a boy misbehaves, he hears, “boys will be boys.” When a boy sticks up for himself, adults say, “good for him”; when a girl does the same, she is taught to be kind and not worry what others think. Children learn that Dad works; Mom might work, but according to Sandburg, she also does most of the housework and childcare.
According to Women’s Funding Alliance , only one in five American girls believes she has what it takes to be a leader. Not every girl (or boy) will become a CEO, but all children need to know that they have the potential to reach their dreams. Encouraging girl empowerment is the first step.
Girls need hope. They need a different message. Their lives must show them that assertive, successful women do exist. That many women have high-powered jobs. Some women run companies. Some women don’t have kids (and don’t want them). They must see a different way, so all of their choices can be clear to them.
Steps to Take
Everybody can be part of the solution. Here are some things you can start doing with any children in your life – whether you have children, work with children, or just spend time with children of your friends or family members:
- Think twice before commenting on appearance first – it is common to praise a girl for being adorable or looking cute in her outfit. The next time you see a girl, challenge yourself to first comment on something about her that is relevant to her interests and abilities. For example, you can ask what she is learning about in school, chat about one of her hobbies, or congratulate her on something you know she accomplished recently.
- Avoid commenting on your own appearance in front of her – when girls constantly hear women making comments like, “I look fat in this dress,” or “I’m trying to lose ten pounds,” they are getting the message that appearance should be a top priority for women.
- Talk about your career or hobbies – instead of commenting on how you look, talk about your work or interests. When a girl hears a woman talking about a success at work or something she has accomplished in her free time, she is getting the message that women do value aspects of themselves other than looks.
- When giving gifts, think beyond gender stereotypes – girls don’t only want Barbie dolls and pink dresses. Get more creative in your gift giving. Find out what she likes, and get her something related to her interests. If you aren’t sure about her interests, get her a book or educational game. If you must get her a dress, go for blue (unless, of course, you know that she loves pink).
- Remember to value who she is – if a girl loves pink, shower her in pink! Same goes for boys! A child should never be made to feel guilty about her likes and dislikes. But also remember that introducing her to new things will allow her to expand her horizons, while still valuing who she is.
- Listen to her – encourage her to share her opinion, and listen to what she has to say. This sends her the message that her voice matters!
- Remind her that the sky is the limit – being told that she can be anything she wants to be – an astronaut, a scientist, a nurse, an engineer, a stay-at-home mom – will empower her to make a choice that is right for her.
Girl empowerment is not about stigmatizing choices of some women or putting down men. Girl empowerment is for both genders. It is for stay-at-home moms and stay-at-home dads. It is for male and female executives. When every child is living out his or her best, the world will be better for it. Girls receive thousands of negative messages about what it means to be a woman, but only a few counter messages can truly change the picture for her.
It is important to empower girls because the future of our society depends on it. But more importantly, it is important to empower girls because every child deserves to believe in her dreams.
Shelby Kretz is the co-founder and Executive Director of 1girl, a non-profit that provides leadership programming to girls in underserved areas. She is an activist, writer, and entrepreneur with a passion for transforming education and supporting girls. For more of her writings on education, social impact, and life, visit her website or social pages.