The way we talk about girls is changing. We see evidence for this all around us in progressive marketing and media campaigns, selling everything from trendy feminist t-shirts to astrophysics Barbie. These products and campaigns all send the clear message that girls can achieve anything they put their minds to. On the surface, it may seem like girls today will never have to face gender inequality, low self-esteem or a lack of confidence. Yet the harsh reality is that as girls get older, this message of strength and empowerment fades away and they begin to experience inequality with more intensity, especially as they journey into womanhood.
On days like International Women’s Day, the focus is often on the financial and emotional challenges facing adult women. But, according to a recent survey by Plan International Canada, Canadian women experience the most gender inequality between the ages of 18 and 24. This means that before they even pursue their careers, young women are battling misconceptions about what they can and cannot achieve. These experiences weigh heavily on the decisions girls make about their lives and can make them feel less empowered to chase after their dreams as they get older.
Even before they are faced with the harrowing realities of gender discrimination, girls as young as six can begin to feel like they are not as good as boys at certain subjects. These negative perceptions can stick with girls as they grow, making it harder for them to see that they can get that promotion or lead that team.
While we’ve succeeded in telling girls they can be anything they want to be, as they become women they aren’t given enough reason to believe this. In Canada, an astonishing 67 per cent of women reported that they have never received formal or informal mentorship. That’s almost two out of three women who have never heard “you’ve got this” or “I believe in you.”
Along with a weak support system, many young women are not seeing examples of themselves in powerful positions. With just 3 per cent of CEOs from Canada’s top 500 companies being women, it is clear that young women need more role models to show them that they do deserve to lead and occupy space as key decision makers.
Despite these devastating statistics, the good news is that when it comes to the gender inequality experienced by teenage girls today, parents play an important role in rewriting the script.
1. Have ‘the talk’ about gender inequality.
International Women’s Day is the perfect opportunity to sit with your teens and talk about the discrimination they experience at school, with their friends or at work. Creating this dialogue will help send the message that your daughter is not alone and that she is strong enough to overcome whatever barriers she may face in her life. Talking to your sons will also help them understand how gender norms negatively impact them and how they can become allies to the girls and women in their lives.
2. Listen to her
Listening to your teen may seem like simple advice, but it is an easy way to reinforce that her perspectives are important and worth sharing with the world. Helping girls to see this can empower them to speak out and state their opinions in the classroom or boardroom in the years to come.
3. Help her find positive role models
The benefits of mentorship can last a lifetime. Having a mentor gives girls the confidence and practical life tools they need to navigate working relationships and the various forms of discrimination that may pose challenges as they transition into the working world.
4. Raise awareness in your community
It truly does take a village to raise a child. And while it’s important to tackle gender norms at home, it’s equally important to encourage this kind of work in your wider community. Talk to the teachers, coaches and other key people in your daughter’s life about how they can invest in the girls around them.
5. Promote self-development
Connecting your teen to opportunities where she can grow, develop professional skills and receive mentorship is probably the best gift you could ever give her. Initiatives like Plan International Canada’s Speakers Bureau, for example, offers young people a platform to share their opinions, improve their public speaking skills and connect with mentors who will encourage them to speak out about gender inequality and girls’ rights.
As much of the talk around gender inequality centres on the experience of women this International Women’s Day, let’s not forget to engage teenage girls in the conversation. The truth is, we cannot build a brighter future for them without them. Their lived experiences are what we need to fuel the fight for gender equality going forward. But more than that, if our goal as parents is to set our children up for success, let’s ensure that our girls are equipped to succeed in every way. We might not be able to solve gender inequality for them today, but we can help them access the confidence and tools to pave the way for tomorrow.