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Month: June 2009

Personal Happiness

Guest Post by Enlighten Education’s Program Director for Queensland, Storm Greenhill-Brown

Personal happiness is a subject that has long been of interest to me, so I was most intrigued when I read Elisa’s recent comment mentioning a study called “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness” by two economists from the University of Pennsylvania. According to their research, since the 1970s there has been a steady decline in women’s subjective perception of well-being — that is, we’re less happy than our sisters from the seventies. This is true of women of all ages, backgrounds and circumstances, all across the industrialised world, even though we have better employment opportunities and access to childcare, and more equality in our relationships and in society and politics than ever before. The researchers also found that in post-feminist America, men are happier than women.

Why? Are women driven to unhappiness by our own expectations or by the expectations of those around us?

A particularly interesting aspect of the study relates to girls at high school. The researchers suggest that young women are attaching greater importance to an increasing number of aspects of life, e.g. “being successful in my line of work”, “being able to find steady work”, “making a contribution to society”. In fact, the only domain that they attached less importance to was “finding purpose and meaning in my life”. Hmmm.

I think most women would agree that we are better off now than 30 years ago. But are we struggling to keep too many balls in play? And is this a challenge we genuinely relish or something we secretly bemoan? It’s not a simple problem and I don’t pretend to have a simple answer. However, in my own experience, I find that when I am able to keep my life as simple as possible and focus on what keeps me happy, I feel wonderfully centred and not overwhelmed. This has been called “leading an examined life”. When others judge the way we live, either through their behaviour or implied or explicit remarks, it becomes very difficult to remain authentic to ourselves. Trying to match others’ expectations is a defining characteristic of being a young woman, and is a behaviour that is likely to be repeated throughout adulthood. But imagine how much more at peace we could be if we learnt skills early in life that help us to identify the things that truly matter, that truly bring us happiness. This is something that we strive to impart in our Enlighten workshops.

To be happy, I believe we need to feel that we are good enough the way we are, and that we are free to make choices that work for us and our families.

Women can be hugely critical of other women. Whether it be girls and their friendship issues or women and their work/family issues, why do we feel the need to pass judgement? 60 Minutes ran a story a few weeks ago, Housewife Superstars, that really emphasised the divide between women on the issue of choosing to engage in paid work, or be a stay at home Mum. Watching this I could not help but think such stories only add to the “us and them” mentality…surely if the choice works for one woman and her family, then it is not up to us to the rest of us to judge?

I am going to make a conscious effort to accept other women and their choices, and celebrate diversity.

I am going to make a conscious effort to choose happiness.

For those interested, in Sydney in 2010 there will be a Happiness Conference – “Happiness and Its Causes” – with Naomi Wolf as keynote speaker.

Encouragement

I am thrilled to report that on Wednesday I was named by The Australian newspaper as the country’s top emerging leader in education, for the work that I do with girls through Enlighten Education.

As I accepted my award from Prime Minister Kevin Rudd at a lunch at Parliament House, I felt deeply honoured — and more important, encouraged by the fact that the work we do with young women has received public recognition. I see my award as proof that it is now widely accepted that we need to equip our girls to make sense of an increasingly complex world and to shape it themselves, so they can move beyond Bratz, Britney and Bacardi Breezers.

The award has also got me thinking about the leaders that I most admire. I am very impressed with Kate Ellis, the federal government’s Minister for Early Childhood Education, Childcare and Youth, for speaking up about the importance of tackling body image issues among teenagers. Hallelujah, sister! And a significant role model of mine is Elizabeth Broderick, the Sex Discrimination and Age Discrimination Commissioner of Australia’s Human Rights Commission. Immediately after her appointment in 2007, she embarked on a nationwide tour to listen to what people all around Australia had to say about discrimination, and that act really resonated with me. I apply this lesson to my own work: in designing programs for teenage girls, I have learnt that it is vital to listen to them and connect to what they are doing and experiencing in their own lives, rather than assume I know what issues concern them.

Who are the leaders you most admire? What qualities do they possess?

I’d love to hear your reflections on the nature of leadership, too. What makes someone a great leader?

Finally, given the public recognition I have just received, this seems an apt time to acknowledge my Enlighten Amazons – the woman I am privileged to lead. My love and gratitude go to: Francesca Kaoutal (my business partner and Enlighten’s co-founder), Sonia Lyne, Alana Benjamin, Melissa Coutts, Storm Greenhill-Brown, Louise Beddoes, Catherine Stark, Diane Illingworth-Wilcox, Jane Higgins, Kelly Valder, Nikki Dingle, Nikki Davis, Monica Lamata, Kellie Mackereth, Christine Elias and Fiona Ciappara.

A special edition of The Weekend Australian Magazine this weekend (June 20-21) will feature all ten of the winners. At the award ceremony I got a sneak preview, and I can honestly say it is a truly inspiring read; it features interviews with the judging panel and the winners, on the nature of leadership.

Audio from an interview I did on radio 2UE discussing the win can be listened to here: danielle-miller

Adios Supergirl

Many girls I work with tell me they are stressed — really stressed. They feel exhausted and overwhelmed. They have headaches, trouble sleeping, chronically tight muscles, fatigue and lack of appetite or weight gain, which are recognised signs of stress.

Why do our young women feel such debilitating pressure?

I believe many teen girls are suffering from the Supergirl epidemic. They feel they must be smart, popular, thin and attractive, all while displaying a Paris Hiltonesque worldliness. American writer Courtney Martin in her book Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters sums up the modern girl’s dilemma this way:

We have the ultimate goal of effortless perfectionism.

The reality is that striving for perfection is actually unachievable, let alone exhausting.

Many girls desperately fear making mistakes, believing they cannot let down their guard for even one moment. For my upcoming book, The Butterfly Effect, my interviews with girls gave me valuable insight:

I worry so much about getting things wrong in class. What will people think of me if I do? If I don’t know something, I pretend I do so the teacher won’t think less of me. Everyone thinks I am such a great student and that learning comes easily to me — and I do get good marks, but I feel sick sometimes thinking about how long I will need to keep up this effort for.  — Joanne, 14

The worst thing about being a teen girl is people condemning you when you fall when, in fact, you only just tripped and learned something. — Yan, 16

If I make a mistake I want to cry. I hate that I am a big failure. But you can’t let anyone know you feel like that so you just shrug it off and go, ‘whatever’. But I replay my mistakes over and over in my head later. — Lucy, 15

The message we need to send our girls is that while they can do anything, they do not have to do it all at once, nor do they have to get it right every time.

We can serve as positive role models by refusing to buy into the hype that we need to be “Yummy Mummys” who can do it all. This may mean letting our own guard down and setting aside our perfectionist tendencies. Amelia Toffoli, the Principal at St Brigid’s College Lesmurdie, one of Enlighten’s Western Australian client schools, offers this great advice:

A mother should share personal failures as well as successes and explain to her daughter what she may have learnt from mistakes. It gives daughters hope that they too can move on from a poor choice.

Another angle is to create opportunities for girls to engage in exploration and self-discovery, and pursue activities that make them feel good — even if they won’t result immediately in a concrete reward such as good marks or acclaim.  In a May 2009 article on teen girls and perfectionism, a teacher in the United States, Jamie Donohoe, shared his favorite assignment that he gives his English students: to fulfil a small secret dream, something the student always wanted to do but never dared to for fear of failure or embarrassment. I love this!

Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that Enlighten Education’s Chill Out workshops are increasingly popular with schools. We involve girls in practical, fun techniques that can help alleviate the physical symptoms of stress. For instance, positive visualisation helps girls develop new, more positive self-talk so they can respond calmly and optimistically to life’s inevitable challenges and setbacks. This is something we perhaps all could benefit from. We cannot always control the events that we experience, but we can control how we respond.

Do you know of any other good ideas for helping girls move beyond perfectionism?

Embracing her inner mathematician

I was really interested in the findings of a study conducted by Janet Hyde, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of psychology, and Janet Mertz, a UW-Madison professor of oncology, on girls and mathematics. They analysed studies from around the world on mathematics performance along with gender inequality as measured by the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index. Their conclusion? Girls do understand mathematics, but we don’t want them to.

Their research showed that the widely held belief that most women aren’t hard-wired for careers in science and technology is erroneous. Rather, the researchers provide several possible cultural factors keeping females from excelling in maths, including classroom dynamics in which teachers pay more attention to boys, while failing to nurture even mathematically gifted girls. In addition, they found stereotypes may drive guidance counsellors and others to discourage girls from taking engineering courses. The lack of female role models in maths-intensive careers was also identified as a possible reason why girls may steer clear of these paths.

I confess that I once said to my daughter when she was struggling with maths, “You’re just like your mummy. We both love reading and writing but find maths and science tough.” Way to go, Danni. What kind of message was I sending Teyah? The same message Mattel’s Barbie gave girls when she spoke her first words in 1992: “Math class is tough!” How limiting. Throughout history there have been accomplished women across all fields of learning. We need to take every opportunity to remind our daughters of the many women who have achieved academically.

The following websites may be worth encouraging your budding maths star to explore:

Girlstart – American site created to empower girls to excel in mathematics, science and technology. They have an interesting blog and a related website where girls can complete maths-based puzzles, etc.

Nerd Girls – American site celebrating smart-girl individuality. Their beliefs: “Brains are beautiful. Geek is Chic. Smart is sexy. Not either/or.”

An extensive list of general maths sites is also offered at the South Australian Department of Education and Children’s Services site: http://www.millnthps.sa.edu.au/websites/mathematics/general_maths.htm

Even the most simple empowering messages we give girls can have a lasting effect on them. Fifteen years ago, Rachel, who is now a grown woman, was in a class I taught at high school. She recently emailed me to share the following: “I still remember the first thing I noticed when I walked into your classroom in Year 10: a sticker on the top of the board that said ‘Girls can be engineers too.’ Yours was one of the few classrooms where I believed that I could achieve something.”

I’d love to hear how you have been encouraging girls to move beyond all sorts of limiting stereotypes.

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