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Month: May 2012

The real barriers to women in leadership

I was honoured and thrilled to receive an Australian Leadership Award at the ADC Future Summit. But, oh irony of ironies, one of the lasting impressions I took home from my trip to Melbourne for the summit was just how much work we still need to do to give our girls the opportunity to shine in leadership.

Picture me sitting there with more than 50 business leaders. I looked around, and I realised that I was one of only 5 women in the room. We made up less than 10%. Do women contribute less than 10% to the world’s wealth and wisdom? If that were the case, then I guess a less-than-10% representation in leadership could be expected. But it’s not the case, is it? If any proof were needed, according to APEC, women are vastly underrepresented in leadership positions compared to their contribution to the economy and business, and their level of education.

Some of the barriers to women becoming leaders are tangible, such as inadequate childcare and lost chances for promotion for many women when they take maternity leave. But most of the barriers are culturally embedded, which makes them far more slippery and hard to pin down. Research has shown that in our culture there is a deeply ingrained belief that the qualities of a leader are assertiveness and competitiveness, and that these are male traits, while women are meant to be nice and compassionate. (Why our culture sees being nice and compassionate as at odds with leadership is an interesting question in itself.)

The workplace that today’s girls will inherit is undoubtedly a fairer one compared with previous generations, as there is now legislation to protect them against discrimination and harassment, and to enshrine their right to maternity leave. But you can’t legislate against cultural constructs. In fact, legal and accountancy firms and banks have found a way to get around the legislation so they can keep clinging to a deeply rooted cultural construct: that one of women’s roles in the workplace is to provide “some eye candy for the boys”, as Nina Funnell wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald. (Karen Brooks also wrote a great piece about this, in the Courier-Mail.) The law prevents senior management from telling female employees how they should look, so increasingly, companies are bringing in independent style consultants to tell female employees how they should look. (The men get to stay at their desks and keep working. I guess their wives and girlfriends should sort out their clothing choices for them, right? *Sarcasm alert!*)

In these “training” sessions, what do the stylists suggest women do to be taken seriously in their careers? Keep up with fashion. Wear high heels. Wear conservative makeup — and that means lipstick only, no lip gloss.

Okay, ladies, what are you waiting for? Now you’ve been let in on the secret, get out there and boost those statistics for women in leadership!

Danni vs the fashion police -- I do love a nice kaftan

I felt like a rebel at the ADC Summit and updated my Facebook status to: “Channelling Nina and Karen today in the fight against the corporate fashion police. Am one of only 5 women in a room of 50+ business leaders. Every one is in black or grey. I’m wearing my uber bright kaftan and have daringly glossed my lips.” How crazy is it that the act of wearing colours and lip gloss can feel like a radical statement for a woman?

All of this got me thinking about the messages we send girls when we criticise their fashion choices or shame them for turning up to school wearing lip gloss. Are we inadvertently reinforcing the sense that it’s okay to judge girls by what they wear rather than what they do?

Corporations bringing in style consultants might be a new phenomenon, but underpinning it is a very old idea: that no matter how accomplished and talented a woman or girl is, she must still fit within a narrow ideal of femininity. For teens, that ideal is expressed in music videos and ads and movies in which being a woman is all about one thing: how hot you are. In the grown-up workplace version, high heels and lipstick maketh the career woman. Hillary Clinton gets picked apart for failing to wear makeup when giving a speech. Julia Gillard’s bottom is a topic of public debate. This policing of appearance is undoubtedly a major barrier to more women taking leadership roles. As one of my Facebook friends commented, “Why would you want to leave yourself open to that?”

The revelations from my time at the summit went beyond fashion. David Moffatt, Chairman of Asurion Australia, gave the opening address, in which he discussed something very laudable: that companies should create flexible, family-friendly workplaces. He talked about his moment of truth, when his son called him at work and said, “Dad, you have been travelling for work half my life. I want you to come home.” His son was then 10 and David had indeed spent the equivalent of 5 years travelling for work. David left the office, went home, played with his son and vowed to back off on the travel. The audience were tremendously supportive and literally sighed at what a great guy he was to have rushed home and slowed down.

And I applaud him for doing it . . . but I also couldn’t help wondering whether a woman would have dared to share a similar story, for fear of being judged a bad mother. Rather than supportive sighs, I imagine she might be met with shocked silence as the audience thought to themselves: “What? She missed half her child’s life?” I turned to the woman next to me, who was looking fondly at David, and asked her what she honestly would have thought if a woman had shared the same story. “Truly? I would have thought, ‘Suck it up, princess, you made your choices!'” she said. She and I both reflected on what a long way we still have to go.

Another moment that got me thinking at the summit came when a social entrepreneur was introduced and at a particular line in his bio — “He also enjoys jumping on the trampoline with his son” — there were very warm smiles from the audience, giggles and looks of admiration. Would a woman leader have dared include this in her bio, for fear of looking frivolous and lightweight? Would the response have been the same? She might have had a tough job convincing the audience that she had a serious message to get across. There is a persistent and infuriating double standard at work: child-rearing isn’t meaningful work — unless it’s done by a man, in which case it’s not only meaningful, it’s beautiful and heroic.

I deeply respect both men for stepping up at home and for sharing their parenting stories in public. I think that if more men did both of those things, we would all benefit — men, women and children. But I question the current mind set in which male business leaders who take an active role in parenting are seen as almost noble, whilst women who try to combine motherhood and business are seen as either unprofessional at work or bad mothers at home.

In the plane on the way back to Sydney, I read in the papers about the virtues of attachment parenting (read: “attachment mothering”) and that studies have shown that children are sad because their parents work too much (given how strongly men have been encouraged to be career focused for generations, read: “mothers work too much”). Yet the surveyed children were simultaneously unwilling to help around the house to maximize the time they had with their parents at home.

Indeed, housework is a domestic battleground at my place. I don’t think my family are by any means unusually uncooperative: I am far from the only woman who walks in exhausted from a business trip to be greeted by mountains of laundry, a messy house and kids with a list of domestic grievances. The reality — and one of the most firmly established barriers to women attaining leadership — is that no matter how much women work outside the home, they are still expected to do the lion’s share of the work at home as well.

How do we get rid of this barrier for women, and for the women our girls will soon become? We chip away it, bit by bit. We try to teach our children, boys and girls, from an early age that there is no such thing as “women’s work” or “men’s work”. We play music and dance to try to make housework fun. We write long, impassioned letters to our kids about the unfairness of expecting their mother, by virtue of being a woman, to do everything around the house. (Okay, maybe it’s just me who does that!) At school, we think twice before saying, “Take this note home to Mum”, and when we notice that the girls are doing all the “housekeeping” type of tasks in a mixed-gender group project, we step in and make the boys responsible, too.

Get in the game

I had an amazing experience last week at the ADC Summit, where I accepted an Australian Leadership Award and got to share ideas with leading thinkers in a whole range of fields. I was especially excited by Gabe Zicchermann’s thought-provoking talk on how video games actually make kids smarter. They do this by increasing children’s multitasking skills and their fluid intelligence, which is the type of intelligence you use in problem solving. He cites research into the five key ways in which you can boost fluid intelligence — all of which occur when a child plays video games:

  • Seek novelty.
  • Challenge yourself.
  • Think creatively.
  • Do things the hard way.
  • Network.

I was delighted that many of Zicchermann’s ideas accord with Enlighten’s philosophies of engaging and interacting with girls. His messages are encapsulated in this TED talk he gave:

There is no need to despair and wring our hands over kids spending time at their gaming consoles, Zicchermann assures us. The kids of Generation G (for Gamer) will be all right. In fact, they will be awesome — just so long as we embrace their world and enter the game too. This echoes a belief I hold dear: the way to connect with our children about anything is to open ourselves to their interests, instead of reflexively dismissing the things they love as harmful or trivial. Rather than policing and patronising, we need to empathise with, and understand the world of, young people. Only then can we positively engage with them and effectively support them.

Zicchermann notes a school where the introduction of an innovative video-game-based curriculum increased children’s maths and language skills by a grade level in just 18 weeks. How? By making learning fun and making it a communal experience. Again, this is something that we know works from our presentations. We capture the girls’ hearts. We make learning serious and important life skills fun and exciting. And we have found that the way to ensure messages resonate with the girls is to reach them collectively, which is why we always work with full-year groups of girls, rather than engage in individual or small-group interventions.

I’ve seen the life-changing results of these teaching approaches on girls in terms of self-esteem and body image, and I believe that video gaming can also be an incredibly valuable educational tool. Not only are there benefits to kids’ grey matter and maths and language skills, there are a whole host of other ways that gaming can be beneficial.

A fabulous example is Superbetter. Facing an uncertain prognosis from a serious concussion, Jane McGonigal (who also gave a great TED talk) created a motivational game to strengthen herself and speed her recovery. What she found was that she not only got better; her resilience and confidence improved so much that she became better than she ever was, or superbetter. Intrigued by the possibilities that Superbetter offers girls to improve their resilience in a way they can relate to, I had a teen friend who is struggling with an eating disorder try it out. Based on her feedback, this is a game I’ll be recommending to anyone, whether young or old, who is dealing with any kind of health issue:

When you are sick with anything, you tend to lose your sense of reality and focus on what’s hurting you and not the positives that you still have. You tend to feel sorry for yourself and that gets you nowhere. Superbetter really gets your mind set changed to something different. You can choose your own activities based on your own problems — mental illness, addiction, body image, anything! You get advice/help and activities to change the way you think. For a body image person, some of the first things you get asked to do when you log on is go to the mirror, find a positive body part and love it instead of hating the others, and also go look in the mirror and change the negative thought to a positive one.

I honestly think this site has the potential to help people who feel lonely and lost and need something to take their mind off feeling down about themselves. Changing the way you think is one of the first things you need to do in order to love yourself and feel good about yourself, and I really think this site can do that!  M—, 16

Another way that gaming can be great for girls is in making them familiar and comfortable with computers. Back in 1998, gaming and virtual-reality pioneer Brenda Laurel posed the question “Why are all the top-selling video games aimed at little boys?” in a TED talk. One of her concerns was that girls were slipping behind in ICT skills because boys were more adept at using computers due to all the hours of games they played. As I’ve written on this blog before, we need to support girls and help them become ICT savvy, as otherwise they are at risk of missing out on the jobs of the future.

Characters from the Sims 3

Thanks in part to her own efforts, since Laurel posed that question more games that girls enjoy have been developed. In fact, women now outnumber men as players of web-based games. As Laurel notes, girls are now major forces in game worlds such as World of Warcraft and the Sims. The Canadian company Silicon Sisters creates video games for women and girls by women and girls. Their School 26 series of games has a storyline centred on a high school social hierarchy. The aim is to help girls develop networking, relationship and communication skills.

And if you still need another reason to get into the game with your girls, researchers have found that playing video games together can strengthen the bond between parents and daughters. Research by Sarah Coyne, Ph.D., at Brigham Young University School of Family Life, in the US, found that girls who played age-appropriate video games with their parents “behaved better, felt more connected to their families and had stronger mental health”. As Coyne says:

Playing video games with your girls could be a really good thing. It’s the face-to-face time with an adolescent culture-type of game. When parents play with their kids, they’re saying, ‘I’m willing to do what you like to do.’

And I truly believe that sending kids that message, no matter what it is they like to do, is one of the most positive steps forward we can take. This weekend, let’s all go and get in the game!

Don’t hold back this Mother’s Day

As we come up to Mother’s Day, I have decided it’s time to celebrate that often dreaded period of motherhood: a daughter’s teen years. If this is the life phase you happen to be in, I’m sure you’ve found yourself in this situation: you’re standing around with other parents at a backyard barbecue and the topic of parenting teen girls comes up. There is some eye-rolling, quite a bit of sighing and a fair dose of judgment. The best you can hope for is to just get through the teen years, just survive them, is what people usually say. You may have even found yourself nodding along in agreement. But this Mother’s Day I want to hit the pause button and inject a new word into that conversation: love.

When I ask girls for feedback after an Enlighten Education workshop, they say they loved the way we made them feel; they loved us; they were inspired by the power of the love we showed them. At first I was surprised by the prevalence of the word love in their feedback. Such a bold world, so large, so intimate.

I have come to believe that it is the fundamental secret to Enlighten’s success. Without big, bold in-your-face love, there can be no connection between us and the girls we work with. No sense that we care enough to want to fight to make things different for them. Our love gives them a safe place from which they can explore their world.

The song I play when we start work is always the Potbelleez’ ‘Don’t hold Back’, with its cry ‘Is there anybody out there, feeling something?’

How ironic that in a society saturated in sex, shopping and self-centredness, the one thing that can still truly shock and delight and make girls feel anything is simple, old-fashioned love. I have had people baulk at my frequent use of the word love and look bewildered when girls use it so freely when they are with us. When did love become something to shy away from, and what price will we pay for not being brave enough to openly, unapologetically love our children?

Too often we assume that our daughters know that we love them; that our love for them is instinctive and so needs no explanation. Rather than receiving messages of love from adults, teenage girls often get the message that the rest of the world sees them as hard to handle, troubled, unlovable. The sugar and spice of girlhood turned bad. In books, in movies and on TV, teen girls are Queen Bees, Wannabees, Bitchfaces, Princesses, Divas, Mean Girls, Drama Queens.

It is time to look at teenage girls through new lenses.

They may be some of these things at times. Yet they are also so much more. They can be hilarious, brave, captivating, creative, intelligent.

When I look at teenage girls, I see:

  • The 14-year-old who works at the ice-cream shop near me who always wears pigtails and different novelty hair clips – horses, skulls, ballerinas. Her hair is a source of never-ending surprise and childlike playfulness.
  • The 16-year-old who is my friend on facebook, whose profile page declares her to be a fan of Blu-Tack, Minties, Dory the fish from Finding Nemo and Bubble O’Bill ice-creams – and also features her reflections on gender differences and learning Italian.
  • The 15-year-old who had a baby, as a result of being raped, and turned up at the school carnival the next week to join in sporting events and cheer on her classmates.
  • The 13-year-old who asked me if there was make-up back in my day, too.
  • The 14-year-old who sends me copies of her drawings of a fantasy world she has created,  and badgers me for contacts in the publishing world as she wants to create her own line of products, ‘beginning with a book series and then obviously working my way up to films and merchandising’.
  • The 14-year-old who sends me poems she has written on what being beautiful really means and on how she will survive being bullied and emerge a shinier girl.

Try not to let the slammed doors, angry silences or sarcastic asides of adolescence blind you to your daughter’s essential lovableness. Don’t be distracted by the toxic culture our girls are immersed in, for there is a risk that it can blind us to an even more important reality: the lovableness of all girls.

Don’t be afraid to show your daughter you love her.

You can show your love in such simple ways, in everyday moments, like these:

When it’s really cold and rainy, I come home from school and my mother’s got a cup of hot chocolate and pancakes made for me and my PJs ready to get into. Then we sit under a nice blanket and watch movies all night. — Gemma, 16

My mum writes me little surprise notes and sticks them in my lunch box sometimes. I love them so much, I stick them in my school diary. I’ve never told her that I look forward to seeing them so much, as she’d probably do it all the time then and somehow that would spoil it. When I feel sad during the day, I look at the letters and smile. — Michelle, 14

I love when me and my mum go shopping together, and after buying many things we will sit in a cafe and just talk. I feel comfortable to talk to her about my life, friends, etc. and it just makes me feel better that I can trust my mum and have that time with her. — Steph, 16

I love it when my mum touches me. That might sound stupid but we’re both so busy, we don’t touch very often. When we do, it feels like home. — Gemma, 15

You may feel that a good relationship with your daughter is a long way off. If it is not working for you both yet, love her anyway, and love yourself. And if she seems unlovable at times, remember that it is often those who are the hardest to love who need our love the most. Sixteen-year-old Stephanie shared this wisdom with me: ‘I don’t believe in loving someone because they are perfect . . . I fall in love with people’s flaws, because that’s what makes them different to everyone else.’

Don’t airbrush the issues that may need to be addressed with your daughter; part of loving is setting limits. And don’t dwell on the mistakes you both may have made in the past, either.

Just move forwards and fall in love.

Flaws and all.

 

Special Mother’s Day Book Offer!

This post was adapted from the final chapter of my book primarily for mothers, The Butterfly Effect. To celebrate the bond between mums and their teen daughters, I’m offering a special price on orders of The Butterfly Effect and the companion book for young women, The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo. Order before 30 May 2012, and you will receive signed copies of both books for $50, including postage. (The price is normally $34.95 for The Butterfly Effect and $19.95 for The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo, plus postage.) This offer applies only to orders for delivery within Australia. To order now, email: christine@enlighteneducation.com.

 

(Heart image by Louise Docker from Sydney, Australia, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Rise of Baldness . . . in Teenage Girls

Vaginal aesthetics are in the news again this week. I’ve discussed on this blog before the increasing pressure on girls and women to have genitals that conform to a false ideal — by making them hairless, surgically trimming the labia to match photoshopped images from porn, and oh, let’s not forget vajazzling!

Now the Australian government, in an attempt to tighten the health-care budget, is reviewing the eligibility for the Medicare safety net of vulvoplasty and labiaplasty surgeries performed outside hospitals. The surgery is eligible for the safety net when it’s done not for cosmetic reasons but for treating “painful or embarrassing” conditions, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. This leads me to wonder if society’s definition of “embarrassing” has changed in the past decade, given that, as the Herald notes, “the number of these procedures done outside hospital attracting payments under the Medicare safety net has nearly doubled in recent years to 191 in 2010, at a cost of $427,551.” It’s hard to believe that serious conditions affecting women’s genitals have doubled. Instead, it seems that for increasing numbers of people, having labia at all seems to have become a cause for embarrassment.

So too with another completely natural part of being female: pubic hair. I was fascinated to read a recent account by Enlighten Education’s sexuality education expert, Rachel Hansen, on the pressure in the schools she visits for girls to conform to a porn ideal of hairless genitals. Rachel wrote in her blog post “The Rise of Baldness”:

Vulvas. There are billions of them out there, and they are a pretty diverse collection. I am no geneticist, but I would say there was as much diversity in vulvas as there is in fingerprints. And as long as women have had vulvas, in most cultures they have been covered in pubic hair. Until recently…

A few weeks ago I was visiting a Catholic all-girls’ high school. I had never been there before and I was meeting with the school counsellor and the Deputy Principal for the first time. They had come straight from the staff room, where it sounded like a very lively discussion had been taking place. After we greeted each other, the Deputy Principal said that before we started the meeting they would love my opinion on the topic the staff had been musing over during morning tea. Of course I said yes – very curious by this point!

“We are all trying to work out WHY none of our senior girls have pubic hair.”

(Apparently the topic had come up in a health class discussion.)

And we are not talking about delayed puberty here. We’re talking about teen girls, and why it is the norm to have a vulva stripped of hair.

These days, many girls tell me about the immense pressure to look a particular way now extends to their vulva. It’s not enough to have perfect legs, a flat stomach and blemish-free skin – their vulva must also be bald.

Why indeed is a generation of teen girls finding themselves under immense pressure to wax or shave all their pubic hair? Because it certainly wasn’t like this 15 years ago when I was at high school. We’d shave our bikini line when necessary – just enough to ensure no stray hairs were visible when swimming. But if anyone had suggested getting rid of it all, I am sure we would have been appalled. In fact, I remember girls in my first year of high school proudly displaying their pubic hair growth – for us it was a sign of maturity, of leaving girlhood behind. Now it seems that as soon as pubic hair appears, girls are feeling the pressure to get rid of it so their vulvas resemble a prepubescent child.

I want to talk a little about pornography. . . .

This generation of youth are being exposed to explicit pornography in a way that generations before just were not. According to Big Porn Inc. “Pornography has become a global sex education handbook for many boys, with an estimated 70 per cent of boys in Australia having seen pornography by the age of 12 and 100 per cent by the age of 15.” In one recent Canadian study of boys aged 13-14, more than a third viewed porn movies and DVDs “too many times to count”.

The impact of this early viewing of explicit porn on girls’ vulvas?

If boys are getting their primary sex education from pornography, their expectation is that vulvas come in one model – hair-free. And if this is what the boys expect, many girls will comply.

I would add that it is not only boys who see these porn images. For most girls, the only opportunity to compare their genitals to those of others is through pornographic images. And those images simply do not reflect reality, for they are altered — with waxing, Photoshopping and I’m sure in some cases by plastic surgery. As I wrote in my book The Butterfly Effect, teenage girls “see the look modelled by the women on porn sites and believe exposing their genitals in this way will make them hotter”. And while boys may be the ones primarily watching the porn, the pressure may be coming just as much from girls, as Rachel points out:

One teen girl commented that it wasn’t pressure from boys to wax – it was the pressure from her girlfriends. Teens are desperate to fit in – I know that should I have been a teen in this era, there would be no way I would have wanted to be the only girl in the changing rooms with pubic hair. Hair-free vulvas are now entirely the norm. . . .

The thing that really concerns me is that no part of a girl’s body now seems immune to the beauty pressure. The pressure starts so young and this is a ‘trend’ that is driven by a misogynistic porn culture seeping in to our everyday lives. It makes me sad to think of girls being so ashamed of their vulvas in their natural state.

I haven’t got a simple solution. Other than to talk talk talk with our children. They need to know that the pornography that they are likely to see (inadvertently or not) is not real. That is not what women look like; that is not how people experience loving relationships. Give girls the message that they are beautiful as they are, and teach both boys and girls the beauty in diversity.

Rachel Hansen is the progam manager for Enlighten Education in New Zealand and is an experienced educator who has a first-class honours degree in Psychology and a Masters degree in Criminology from Cambridge University (UK). Rachel is the founder of Good Talks, an organisation that offers sexuality education to schools and parents.

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