Have you ever had an experience like this with your daughter?
We were walking to school together one day and she was excitedly telling me about a new idea: "... this is really, really, really..." But before I would know just how "really" it was, she stopped talking altogether because she overheard a boy imitating her in a high-pitched voice — "really, really, really" — and then laughing to his friend.
I encouraged her to finish her thought, but she refused. She said "it wasn't important." I asked her if it was because she heard someone imitating her and she just smiled shyly. For the first time ever, my confident, fearless (except in water), pink-glasses-wearing six-year-old girl was silenced by something someone else had said.
Confidence comes from power, from within. It's not given from outside.
Everything about this incident bothered me to my core. I had thought that I was a strong and confident role model for her, always showing her how to use her voice and not be silenced, but maybe I was overestimating my influence. Was I overreacting to the situation with this boy? Was I catastrophizing the incident into something it wasn't? Or was this the beginning of my daughter becoming more self-conscious and self-censoring?
As I thought about this incident, I realized that the issue, at the core, was about power. Confidence comes from power, from within. It's not given from outside. You can't control the behaviours of others, but you can control yours. Therein lies the power.
Where did this tendency for girls to silence themselves come from in the first place?
Sadly, the roles that girls and boys ascribe to themselves are ingrained early on. Girls wear pink and play with princesses, and should be sugar and spice and everything nice. Meanwhile, boys wear blue and are rough-and-tumble superheroes... and in charge.
A study of 400 children that was published in the journal Science shows just how early things change. The group of originally five-year-old boys and girls all thought of themselves as "brilliant." A year later, at age six, girls started to characterize themselves differently, no longer identifying themselves as being brilliant or having the capacity for brilliance. Not surprisingly, the boys continued to identify as "really, really, smart." The longer-term effects of these characterizations are that girls are less likely to pick "smart" careers, such as science, math or technology.
Where do these perceptions come from?
Gender stereotypes come from everywhere, all around us: the media; the barrage of gender-specific toys and clothes that are marketed directly to children; teachers and peers within school; and, yes, parents and family in general.
In fact, parents and family can have the most profound impact of all and the nuances on how children and their behaviours are treated is part of the issue. My parents and my mother, in particular, exert tremendous influence on my daughter despite the fact that they see each other barely once a week. My daughter will often tell me that I'm doing something incorrectly, and in her words, I hear my mother's voice. So I'll ask Caitlyn where she heard what she had said to me, and she'll happily chirp: "Grandma told me!"
When those behaviours are overemphasized to the exclusion of others, it has a silencing effect.
It's all well and good when my daughter's grandparents remind her to wash her hands after having used the washroom, but it's a different issue when they are praising her for being quiet, which they do far more often than I am comfortable with. Whether influenced by culture — they are Chinese — or age, they have placed a premium on behaviours that are submissive: being quiet, being seen but not heard and being a good listener. My daughter is internalizing these values.
There is of, course, nothing wrong with being a good listener, but when those behaviours are overemphasized to the exclusion of others, it has a silencing effect. It takes away some of my daughter's voice and tells her that, in order to be a "good girl," she needs to be quiet.
For example, a short while ago my fun and silly little girl refused to call out to our neighbour, who was walking ahead of us. She wanted me to do it instead. It really surprised me because normally she would have just yelled in her loudest voice to get his attention. Have my parents' words finally had their intended effect? How could I counteract these effects?
#BanBossy, #MeToo and other catalysts of change for girls
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's #BanBossy movement seemed like an interesting catalyst for change when it emerged. She didn't want girls to be called "bossy" simply because they voiced an opinion:
"Between elementary and high school, girls' self–esteem drops 3.5 times more than boys'... Girls are twice as likely as boys to worry that leadership roles will make them seem "bossy."... Girls get less airtime in class. They are called on less and interrupted more."
But it wasn't until the more recent #MeToo movement that the notion of women using their voices — and not permitting their voices to be taken away — rang through the noise. Role models play a part in change, as they have in the celebrities who have stepped forward as part of the #MeToo movement, but it really comes down to how we all speak to children, both boys and girls, every single day, and whether we continue to normalize stereotypes that have no place in our world.
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Change has to come from all around: schools, peers, parents, families, right up to government, media and big business. In the academic arena, for example, there are key ways to make sure that messages about intelligence are gender neutral. One of the researchers from the study I mentioned earlier had this to say, to the BBC:
"[Studies suggest] that everyone does better when hard work is believed as the key to success... In our studies, girls might be particularly impacted by the messages focusing on 'hard work' — they became equally interested in playing the game as boys. Thus conveying the importance of hard work to success could protect and even promote young girls' interests."
Like any issue, recognizing a problem is the first step to solving it
I had seen the same self-censoring behaviour that my daughter was exhibiting, that my parents were praising, before.
Kang Zhi-Min, my grandmother, was a role model for me. Raised by her maternal grandmother, abused by family members, provided no education and given over to an arranged marriage at a young age — my grandmother had no confidence in her intelligence or abilities. These, however, she had in abundance.
As an adult, she went to night school to learn to read and write after putting in a full day of hard work at a factory, which in and of itself was incredible. But beyond that and despite her terrible upbringing, she was the kindest, most selfless woman I have ever known. The greatest tragedy of her life, however, was that she never understood how wonderful, smart and courageous she was. We all saw it. We all knew and we all told her so. But she could never see it in herself.
Weeks after she died, I knew I needed to find a way to honour her and everything she gave to her family, to me. So I created a program that helps empower girls as they grow into young women. Whether in public speaking or entrepreneurship, in global citizenship or STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math), but most of all, in building the confidence that is the basis of success in any of these areas and in life.
If you are the parent of a daughter, learn what you can and do what you can to ensure that your girls have a voice that rings loud and clear. We could all use a lesson in what happens when girls are silenced and what can also occur when girls refuse to give others the power over them. I often wonder what amazing things my grandma, Kang Zhi-Min, could have accomplished, if she had been given the opportunity to grow and thrive, to build confidence, to build her power from within. But with a little work and a lot of love, I won't ever have to wonder that about my daughter.
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