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Category: Women and Careers

Destroying The Joint

I was thrilled to be asked to contribute to “Destroying The Joint – Why Women Have to Change The World,” an incredible new collection of writing initiated as a response to radio broadcaster Alan Jones’ comments that Australian women leaders were ‘destroying the joint’. Editor Jane Caro describes the work in her introduction:

The women who have contributed their responses to this book represent a wide cross-section of backgrounds, ages, beliefs, experiences and biases. Feminism is a broad church…Some of their stories will make you laugh. Some will make you cry and some rage with fury. The following pages include polemic, satire and impassioned arguments. The one thing they all share is a desire to change the world and make things fairer: for women, for men, for children, for the disabled, the indigenous, the migrant, the poor, the gay, the straight, the despised and, not least, the planet. Some people call that destroying the joint.”

The publishers, University of Queensland Press, have very kindly given me permission to republish my essay here.

Beyond Jeering – An unapologetic love letter to teen girls.

Nine times out of ten when I am introduced as a guest on radio or television, the host makes a comment to the effect that I must be somewhat unhinged to have devoted my career to working with teen girls (insert knowing smirk at just how awful they can be) or looks at me with genuine bewilderment, almost unable to comprehend why anyone would enjoy working with a group that’s 50 shades of trouble. I can see them thinking: ‘Is she perhaps just naive about what girls are really like?’ At best, they may say I’m brave.

I don’t see myself as crazy or brave. What I do see are the unhelpful common perceptions of teen girls in our culture.

How are our daughters labelled when they hit adolescence? They have been reduced to a series of caricatures. There’s Little Miss Cynical, the eye-rolling teen dismissing everything with a ‘whatever’; Little Miss Surly, the angry, no-one-understands-me bitch; Little Miss Stupid, the kind of girl TV executives love to portray on reality TV shows, helping to really ingrain the ‘clueless’ stereotype in our psyches; Little Miss Slut, she of the short skirts, provocative pouts and insatiable sexting; Little Miss Diva, too spoiled to work, clean her room or contribute to society; and Little Miss Queen Bee, who spends all her time creating burn books or Gossip Girl-esque sites where she can play the compare-and-despair game of ranking and rating her peers.

The media and entertainment industries are hypercritical of girls and take an almost salacious pleasure in exposing girls-gone-bad type stories. Every week I appear on a panel on Channel 9’s Mornings show to talk about issues affecting girls and women. When they asked me to discuss a physical fight between two young women on the show The Shire, within weeks the clip of that discussion had attracted some 135 000 views – in comparison to the few hundred views most of my clips attract. It’s hard to imagine a story about a fight between two young men on a dramality show garnering that level of attention from the media or viewers.

Even those who should have teen girls’ best interests at heart, the people who write parenting books, often describe teen girls in terms that are less than kind or generous of spirit. Walk down the parenting aisle of any bookstore and you’ll find plenty of covers depicting adolescent girls as sluttish or surly. As one girl said to me after a seminar, ‘If I came home and found my mum reading a book that presented girls in the way some of these books do, I’d be so hurt. We don’t read books entitled Parents are Pains in the Arses, do we?’

I am not naive, either. I do not view girls through rose-coloured glasses. I began my career as a high school teacher and worked in schools for ten years, predominantly with students at risk, who always give it to you real and raw. Since I founded my own business in 2003, my company has worked with tens of thousands of girls from all kinds of backgrounds, and I have a teen daughter. Yes, I know girls can be challenging. But I wonder at times if they slip into this mode because they feel it is expected of them. There are times when my daughter can become almost a caricature of the difficult teen girl – a fully fledged Ja’mie from Chris Lilley’s satirical Summer Heights High – and, in fact, the best way to snap her out of it is to casually call her Ja’mie and say that her behaviour is ‘so random’.

Binge drinking, body image anxiety, friendship fallouts, self-harming, navigating the ever-changing online world: these issues are all impacting our girls, and we should care. But the answer lies in education – not moral panic, or policing and patronising. We must give girls the skills they need to make informed choices and encourage them to turn their critical gaze on their culture, not themselves and each other.

And truly, being a pain is not typical of only the teen-girl experience – look around you! Just as many adults are struggling with alcohol, poor self-esteem, toxic relationships and stress.

I think it is far too easy to lose sight of the fact that girls are not one-dimensional stereotypes. Girlworld is made up of a multitude of identities, personalities, talents, skills and ideas. It is this diversity and the vast complexity of girls that delights me and that I think our culture often refuses to acknowledge. Of course, girls might have their Little Miss moments of acting cynical or surly or spoilt, but they are so much more than that.

Bullying and bitchiness get a lot of press, but I am often astonished by the intensity of the affection teen girls have for each other. To see a group of teen girlfriends together is a beautiful thing. They hug each other and snuggle together, styling each other’s hair, with giggled whispers and knowing looks. I wonder sometimes if we envy them their unbridled enthusiasm for each other and the intimacy of their relationships with their BFFs.

And this warmth, generosity and caring doesn’t just stop at their circle of friends.

Teen girls are destroying the joint – but not through dysfunction, apathy and nastiness, as we are led to believe. Make no mistake, for every media report of a girl in crisis, there are stories aplenty in the real world of remarkable young women doing extraordinary things. Some sail off to explore the world, Jessica Watson style. But there are plenty more everyday girl heroes. I am full of optimism and pride in the way our girls are taking on, and making over, their world.

The teen girls at a school I worked at in early 2012 in Sydney were so inspired by Real Girl Power, our workshop on the history of the women’s movement, that, at lunchtime, a group of them waltzed up to a particularly sexist boy in their year group. Samantha, the group’s nominated spokeswoman, told him, ‘You always like to say, “Go make me a sandwich,” whenever we say something you don’t agree with in class. Guess what? There will be no sandwiches for you. And you don’t have to like what we say, but you do need to listen. If you try to dismiss us again, we are all going to start clapping loudly every time you speak. It’s going to really shine the spotlight on you, and we’re not sure you’re going to like that.’

There were no more orders for sandwiches, Samantha emailed to tell me. And we realised that collectively, we were strong. You could see the fear in all the boys’ eyes after that … LOL. I loved that this made her laugh – there is indeed a joy in claiming one’s power.

A teen girl in Western Australia, named Daffodil, shared with me her own story of activism: ‘This year, my school, St Brigid’s College, has given me the opportunity to complete a personal project and … I have been inspired to raise awareness of self-esteem issues in teenage girls in our society. I have also started to create a beauty campaign for the school community, which includes posters and affirmation cards promoting true beauty.’ Daffodil posted images in the school toilets and on classroom doors that reminded her classmates that they are more than just their bodies, they are somebodies.

A group of teen girls in Victoria decided they didn’t know much about feminism and why it mattered, so they chose to do a research assignment on it as part of an interest project at school. They interviewed me and a number of other women. Then they presented their work to their classmates and invited them to join the Young Feminist group they were starting at school. They had a 70% take-up.

I am inspired by the fifteen-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. And by the fourteen-year-old who sends me poems she has written on what being beautiful really means and tells me how she will survive being bullied and emerge a shinier girl.

I am impressed by Tess Corkish, who at age eighteen was outraged when a popular retailer began selling products she thought were sexist. She transformed her outrage into something positive by starting an online petition. Amassing thousands of signatures and drawing media attention, the campaign resulted in the products being withdrawn from store shelves.

Then there’s Jemma Ryan, seventeen. After seeing me speak at a girls’ education conference in Melbourne in 2009, Jemma successfully lobbied to have me present at Clonard College, where she was school captain. Jemma and I have stayed in touch ever since. She flew to Sydney earlier this year to stay with me and my family to help me in my office before she commenced her uni studies in journalism. Anything you need I will do, no job too small! she emailed me beforehand. My goodness, it’s an opportunity, a privilege I am so, so, so lucky to have!! How is that for a go-get-’em, no-divas-here attitude?

Jemma also writes for her local paper; she has been doing that since she was fourteen. When I asked her how she had fitted in studying, her role as a student leader, her part-time job at Bakers Delight and writing for the paper, she explained, ‘Well, I just have to be time conscious, I guess. My current boyfriend and I, for example – well, we decided just to be friends until I completed Year 12. There was no time for distractions. When we first met, I was in my final year of high school and was really committed to my studies … some would say school was my first love. My first love and I had been together for thirteen years, and I wasn’t about to stop spending time with it for a boy! So when I did meet someone (a boy that is, not another school), I had to find a balance that worked for all three of us (yes, me, boy and studies). I know how it sounds, this girl was all about the parent pleasing, but that wasn’t it at all, it was about values and priorities. I only had a few months of hard study to go, and I knew anyone that really liked me for me would respect my school lovin’ ways!’

And what does Jemma plan to do with all her smarts and determination? Join the revolution, of course, and work on empowering the next generation of young girls. She says, ‘I can’t think of anything that would be more fulfilling!’

Me either, Jem.

The choices made by girls like these aren’t often shared in popular culture – but they do deserve our recognition.

We must try not to let the slammed doors, angry silences or sarcastic asides of adolescence blind us to girls’ essential lovableness. And we must also not be distracted by the toxic culture our girls are immersed in and that they do sometimes struggle with, for there is a risk that it can blind us to an even more important reality: not only the lovableness, but also the strength and resilience, of girls.

All 400+ girls Enlighten worked with recently at the Australian International School in Singapore wore shirts declaring themselves “Resilient.” I love this!

Destroying The Joint will be available in all good bookshops from 24th April, R.R.P. $29.95.

Pride

I am thrilled to announce that for the second year in a row, Enlighten Education has been announced as a Finalist for the incredibly prestigious Australian Human Rights Awards in the Business category (winners announced at the ceremony which will be held in Sydney, December 10).

I thought I would take the opportunity to share a few sections from our application with you as I am incredibly proud of the work my team are doing to improve outcomes for girls and to promote and advance human rights and human rights principles in the Australian community.

Enlighten Education is based on the belief that by entering into, and engaging with, the world of teenage girls, adults can encourage meaningful and constructive conversations about gender, identity, education, careers and girls’ futures.

A core component of the company’s work is to increase awareness among girls, their parents, teachers and the wider community of issues of injustice and inequality in Australia, especially relating to girls and women. We also encourage greater harmony between people of different race, sex, sexuality, age and ethnic origin within Australia, because acceptance of diversity is central to our message.

Enlighten Education empowers girls and educates the community about girls’ rights to:

  • freedom from sexual objectification and harassment
  • freedom from the threat of violence, intimidation and bullying
  • fairness and equity in educational opportunities
  • fairness and equity in career opportunities
  • healthy body image and self-esteem
  • the end of social and cultural pressures that place young women at greater risk of anorexia and bulimia nervosa, depression and anxiety, substance abuse and self-harm than other sectors of the community

Enlighten Education works to protect and promote girls’ rights and empower girls to: stand up for freedom of identity and sexuality; have good self-esteem and body image; and make the most of educational and career opportunities—free of discrimination based on their gender or appearance, and free of restrictive, sexualising and objectifying messages from the media, advertising and other cultural influences.

Enlighten Education encourages girls to:

  • be critical thinkers, form their own conclusions, know their own minds and find their own voice
  • decode media, marketing, advertising and popular culture messages that impose limiting gender stereotypes or have inappropriate sexualising messages
  • develop healthy body image, self-esteem and confidence
  • combat bullying and intimidation, and resolve conflict
  • set personal boundaries, deal with sexual harassment, and use the internet and mobile phones safely
  • understand the history and current status of women’s rights
  • become aware of the environmental, ethical and social impacts of their consumer choices
  • get involved in charities and volunteer work to benefit the community
Me working with some Primary School girls.

The remainder of our Application discusses our media outreach work (which includes my work on Channel 9’s Mornings program as well as the various Opinion pieces I write for both blogs and national newspapers), our online presence ( platforms include Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Twitter, and the free Iphone App we launched), the social activism work we have been involved in, and the charity work we do (for both CanTeen and The Mirabel Foundation) to help ensure equity in service delivery.

I know from attending the Award Ceremony last year that we shall be amongst giants on the day; the stories shared in 2011 were so incredibly inspiring and moving.

We feel like winners already.

 

All Women Hate Each Other

Me (far right) at The Sydney Opera House with Tara Moss, Geramine Greer and Eva Cox. #FODI 2012.

I was absolutely thrilled to have been asked to join the panel discussing the topic, “All Women Hate Each Other” at The Sydney Opera House’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas. The panel also featured Eva Cox, Germaine Greer and Tara Moss. What a line-up!

With Tara Moss at #FODI.

A video of the session will be ready to view by the end of the month and I shall share it with you as soon as it becomes available. In the interim, I’d like to tease out a few of the more interesting “dangerous ideas” the session raised.

Tara’s arguments are best summed up by a great opinion piece she wrote, published in the Sydney Morning Herald just before the event: Mean boys the worst culprits. Tara writes;

 

“All women hate each other”, or so the saying goes. It is also a view of women many instinctively agree with. From the sports field to the boardroom, male ambition and competitiveness is praised, yet the term ”ambitious”, when it describes a female, is often used with ambivalence. There is a nasty side to female competition and aggression, we are told. The perils of female-on-female cruelty continue to be widely discussed by academics and journalists, and frequently portrayed in popular entertainment, from the breakout 2004 comedy Mean Girls, to reality shows like Real Housewives. It’s widely understood that women are ”their own worst enemies”…

Yet this focus on female cruelty seems curious, when you consider that ”mean boys” are far more likely to cause physical injury and death…

The fact remains unarguable – dangerous social behaviours and acts of aggression and harm are overwhelmingly perpetrated by males.”

Germaine and Eva both provided thought provoking ideas, including a few that I found myself needing to challenge.

Germaine described watching a group of male businessmen at lunch. She said it was almost a scene reminiscent of the film Gorillas in the Mist; the most powerful “Silverback” assuming his position within the group and the others (with their clearly defined roles, the joker, the sidekick etc) positioning themselves around him. “Why don’t women network in this way?” she asked, proposing that females are not as good at building networks of support.

As someone who has been in education for over 20 years, working with teen girls on a weekly basis, I had to counter by declaring that anyone watching adolescent girls at lunch time (particularly in single-sex schools) would observe a very similar power dynamic. Girls know where to sit in the playground (their location saying much about their standing within the social network of their school) and also often sit surrounding the most socially dominant female. In fact, girls are very good at reading social environments and vying for power within these.

Perhaps the real issue may be whether in fact our young women lose this capacity to build empires once they enter the workplace, and if they do, why is this so? Could it be that our workplaces do not allow for opportunities for women to connect in this way; many working women claim they struggle to maintain a balance between home and the workplace and may, therefore, be less likely to invest precious time in socialising and networking (activities which are often perceived as almost “optional extras” rather than core responsibilities).

At the recent Australian Leadership Awards I attended in Melbourne, I had the opportunity to hear from a number of women leaders and when asked about how we might  help improve outcomes for women in the workplace, many spoke about the real barriers to women in leadership  being culturally embedded, which makes them slippery and hard to pin down. These include the belief that he/she who works the longest hours is the most conmmitted. One woman summed up her frustrations thus: “At my workplace there are diversity policies in place which have  allowed me to work part-time and re-enter the workplace twelve months after having my daughter. But the issue for me is that all the important conversations seem to happen after 5pm when I’ve left! The guys at my office tend to stay back and brainstorm and plan. When I get back in at 9am the next day, I feel out of the loop.”

In fact, very few women I spoke to said they ever had time to go to lunch with their colleagues; in order to leave punctually to get home to do their “second shift” with their  family, they often ate at their desks. I believe women will better utilise their networking skills when there is more equality around domestic work in our homes; women will then have the time and energy they need to once again engage in the power “dance” they practiced regularly, and skilfully, as young girls.

Similarly, I challenged Germaine when she said girls and women are not very good at “chilling out”. Ask any parent; teen girls are often gifted at engaging in down time! Again, perhaps due to the fact that women are doing the lioness’ share of the work at home, young women may be at risk of losing the ability to unwind and fall into the trap (one I know I often fall into) of believing we must do everything, all at once, all on our own, by the time they reach adulthood.

Finally, I would like to make a plea for kindness. For I fear we are killing it.

In a previous post on the issue of women in the workplace, I discussed the research that shows that in our culture, there is a deeply ingrained belief that the most important qualities of a leader are assertiveness and competitiveness, and that these are perceived as 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. But for now, I’d like to focus on the fact that both Eva and Germaine challenged the assumption that women should be expected to be “nice” and seemed to be implying that women could be as unpleasant as they wanted to be (insert cheering from the crowd).

Whilst I agree that women shouldn’t have any particular obligation to be pleasant or agreeable simply by virtue of their gender (we are not “God’s Police”), I would contend that in environments like workplaces (and schools), which force people together who may not have a natural affiliation with each other, life is far more bearable if everyone, regardless of sex, is considerate and cooperative. Or, as we state in our workshop on developing positive relationships, not necessarily friends, but friendly.

Of course I am at risk of either sounding naive or idealistic here. But research clearly shows that those who do engage with others in a positive way tend to be happier and more resilient. Many schools, in fact, are now following positive education principles which include teaching kindness, and fairness.

Why is it that being “nice”  is considered somewhat old fashioned and a sign of weakness? We almost celebrate the rude, aggressive, and impolite (we certainly pay them well. Think Allan Jones and Kyle Sandilands). We fall into the trap of perceiving those who act negatively as more powerful, and excuse our own poorer behaviors with phrases such as “I don’t owe it to anyone…”, “I never asked for it”, “Why should I be nice? He/she’s not”…

My company, Enlighten Education, specialises in working with young women, but the content we deliver in our program on building respectful relationships could just as easily be delivered to young men and, in fact, Cranbrook school has asked me to to deliver it to the young boys in their Junior School later this month.

In one of the other Festival Of Dangerous Ideas sessions titled “Abolish Private Schools”,  the excellent Jane Caro argued, as a part of a broader discussion on how we rank schools based on the limited criteria established by tests like NAPLAN, that one of the things that makes us most successful are our social skills and our ability to get along with others in particular. I wholeheartedly agree. I also know that getting along with others requires having the time and energy to do so (which, as I’ve argued, are challenges we need to work away at for many women in the workplace), and will involve us all learning to be a little nicer to each other- regardless of gender.

Let’s not be mislead into believing “haters” rule.

P.S The full FODI panel session may now be viewed here: http://play.sydneyoperahouse.com/index.php/media/1654-All-Women-Hate-Each-Other.html

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.

The weight-loss industry has no place in our schools.

The following guest post is written by Nina Funnell and was first published in The Age newspaper, 28th March. Nina is a sexual ethics writer, author and women’s rights advocate. She was awarded the Australian Human Rights Commission Community (Individual) Award in 2010. You may also wish to read my earlier post on this issue here: Alliance of Girls’ Schools Conference 2012 -Say No To Diets.

Image shared with us on Enlighten's Facebook wall by one of our "likers" Vanessa Henry.


The weight-loss industry has no place in our schools

Teenage girls are under great pressure to conform to a hyper-thin body ideal.

I was 12 years old when I first came face to face with a set of body-fat calipers. It was year 7 health class and we were learning about weight management and body image. The teacher produced a pair of calipers and asked for a volunteer to be measured. No one moved. She scanned the room and eventually landed on me. Next thing I knew, I was lying down on the teacher’s desk as she measured the fat on my thighs.

I suspect she picked me as the guinea pig because I was neither dangerously thin, nor heavily overweight. But as she read out my thigh-fat percentage to the class and declared it to be ”normal”, I frowned. By age 12 I had well and truly internalised the idea that ”normal” meant ”not thin” and anything other than ”thin” was undesirable. When I returned home that day I weighed myself and resolved to lose five kilograms.

Today, the pressure on teen girls to lose weight and conform to a hyper-thin body ideal is greater than ever. While we often hear that celebrity culture is to blame, the dieting industry – a billion-dollar industry that profits off body dissatisfaction – is also responsible for the extraordinary pressure placed on girls.

Every time girls turn on the TV or go online, they are bombarded with ads spruiking weight-loss products. The message they receive is not simply that ”thin is in” but that body transformation leads to a happier life.

Many techniques endorsed by the dieting industry actually mimic and encourage eating-disordered behaviour. Obsessive calorie counting, restricting or skipping meals, denying hunger, weighing food, measuring exercise (with pedometers or other devices) and rigid routines are all associated with eating disorders.

According to eating disorder specialist Lydia Jade Turner, dieting is the biggest predictor of eating disorders and unhealthy weight loss practices are becoming the norm in schools.

By age 17, 90 per cent of girls will have been on a diet of some kind. Eight per cent of teen girls smoke to control their weight.

It is no secret that the dieting industry has a vested interest in recruiting young girls in order to make them lifelong customers.

So why has Amy Smith, the chief executive of Jenny Craig, been invited to give the keynote address at a prestigious girls’ schools conference to be hosted in May this year? Regardless of what she speaks about, why would anyone who directly profits from female body dissatisfaction be given a platform at a girls’ school event?

According to Catherine Misson, the principal of Melbourne Girls Grammar School, which is hosting the event, Jenny Craig’s chief executive is a ”champion of women’s health” who will ”inspire” attendees at this year’s Alliance for Girl’s Schools Australasia conference.

Others are not so convinced. Numerous eating disorder experts from around the world have now made contact with the conference organisers to voice their disapproval over the decision. A petition has also been drafted calling for the replacement of Smith as a speaker.

Signatories to the petition include prominent eating disorder experts. Still more letters have been sent to the organisers and at least one sponsor has withdrawn their support.

The former Minister for the Status of Women, Kate Ellis, has retweeted a letter criticising the decision to include Jenny Craig’s chief executive in the line-up, but despite all this the conference organisers have refused to back down.

Regardless of the outcome in this particular case, when 12-year-old girls hate their thighs, the only one who wins is the dieting industry. The diet industry should be kept out of our schools, not given a platform within them.

Alliance Of Girls’ School Conference 2012 – Say No To Diets.

I recently noted that the program for this year’s Alliance of Girls’ Schools Conference, to be held in Melbourne 25th-27th May, was to include Ms Amy Smith, the current CEO of Jenny Craig. As I believe a woman who represents the diet industry has no place at such a prestigious event aimed at educators of young women, I sent an initial email of concern to Jan Butler, the Executive Officer of the Alliance.

On Tuesday I received a reply from Ms Catherine Misson, the Principal of Melbourne Girls Grammar, assuring me that Ms Smith is, amongst other things, “transforming the organisation (Jenny Craig) into a champion of women’s health.”

I am pleased to see the organisers of this conference have considerably extended Ms Smith’s bio in the conference program since receiving my initial email. She sounds like a truly remarkable, accomplished woman. However, I am still deeply uneasy about  her inclusion and felt compelled to explain why. I responded with the letter below. With the aim of eliciting support for my stance, and initiating vital discussion on girls and dieting, I then shared this correspondence via Twitter and Facebook. I was incredibly heartened by the positive response and particularly encouraged to see Kate Ellis, amongst other prominent educators, women’s advocates and health practitioners, circulate it too.

I have not received any response as of yet, other than a call from a Suzy Wilson who told me she was the PR representative for Jenny Craig. Ms Wilson asked me, “What is your problem?” and told me my letter was a “vicious attack” on Amy Smith. I think my letter clearly articulates what my issue is, and it is clearly not a personal attack on anyone.

If I receive any further correspondence, I will of course honour my offer to provide the Alliance with a platform here to argue their case.

*Letter begins*

Dear Catherine,

Thank you for your response to my concerns regarding the selection of Amy Smith as a speaker at the Alliance’s conference this year.

I have the utmost respect for the members of the Alliance Planning Committee and hold them in the highest regard. I am sure that all the members genuinely have girls’ education at heart and selected the conference speakers with care and diligence.

However, with due respect, I do feel that I need to stand by my convictions and state my position. Amy Smith may be a highly talented and accomplished woman, but I feel it sends the wrong message to educators of girls that the Alliance is giving a platform to a speaker whose current success is tied to the dieting industry. This industry contributes to some of the most serious issues affecting the health and wellbeing of girls: poor body image and eating disorders.

Constant dieting can cause “an obsession with weight and an increased likelihood of developing an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia”, according to research presented at the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy conference in 2011. In the words of respected Australian eating disorder expert Lydia Jade Turner, the Managing Director of BodyMatters Australia, “Dieting is the biggest pathway into an eating disorder.” Research cited by the Butterfly Foundation notes that adolescent girls who diet at a severe level are “18 times more likely to develop an eating disorder within 6 months” and “over 12 months they have a 1 in 5 chance of developing an eating disorder.”

The rates of eating disorders and poor body image in girls are alarming. Research published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry found that “disordered eating is emerging as a norm in Australian society with 90% of 12–17 year old girls and 68% of 12–17 year old boys having been on a diet of some type” (http://thebutterflyfoundation.org.au). A study published in the Medical Journal of Australia in 2009 found that between July 2002 and June 2005, 101 children aged from five to 13 years old were newly diagnosed with an eating disorder.

According to the 2011 Mission Australia Youth Survey, body image is one of the top three issues of personal concern for young people in Australia. Poor body image has been identified as such an important problem that it was the subject of a parliamentary inquiry.

Looking beyond the research, Enlighten Education works with 20,000 girls each year around Australia, New Zealand and Singapore. I speak to girls, and most importantly listen to them, about body image. On a daily basis, I meet girls who physically, psychologically and emotionally are paying a high price for dieting and for their body anxiety, which is all too often spurred on by advertisers and marketers from, amongst other industries, the dieting industry.

The sad fact is that diet companies continue to play on girls’ and women’s body anxiety to sell a product that doesn’t even work. Ninety percent of people who go on a diet will lose less than 10 per cent of their body weight and be back where they started, or heavier, in five years, according to research presented first at the Australian New Zealand Obesity Society in 2009 and again in 2010 at the International Obesity Summit. “In fact, weight tells us very little about a person’s health except at statistical extremes,” says Lydia Jade Turner. “Although it is commonly assumed that being ‘overweight’ is automatically unhealthy, in North America research shows that the overweight category (BMI = 25 to 29) is now outliving every other weight category.”

I am generally an enthusiastic supporter of the Alliance conference, and I feel that all of the other speakers the committee has selected are brilliant choices. I will attend the conference, as always, and Enlighten Education will have a stand, but it is with regret that I must tell you that Enlighten Education will not be sponsoring the conference this year, as we have in the past.

Enlighten Education was recognised in 2011 as Finalists for a Human Rights Award by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission for our work at furthering the wellbeing of girls. In light of that, and for all the schools and the girls that we work with, I feel that it is important that Enlighten Education acts according to our principles—and that means that we cannot sponsor an event where there is an association with the dieting industry.

On an individual level, as a parent whose daughter attends an Alliance school, I also wish to register my dismay at the choice of Amy Smith as a speaker.

Please know that I write this from genuine concern about the message that having a speaker associated with the dieting industry sends to the educators of girls. It is not a reflection on Amy Smith herself, and certainly not on the committee, whom I hold in great esteem.

As I initially expressed concern about the committee’s selection of Amy Smith in the public forums of Facebook and Twitter, I wholeheartedly extend to you the opportunity to respond in the same forums. If you would like me to publish your response on Facebook or Twitter, please do let me know.

Yours sincerely

Dannielle Miller
CEO, Enlighten Education
21/3/12

*Response received 22/3/12*

The Alliance responded and have made it clear that they are comfortable with their selection of Ms Smith. They have also made it clear they are not happy with my decision to raise these concerns publicly. As an educator, mother to two girls, author of two books aimed at improving body image anxiety, and as a  media commentator on girls’ issues I believe it would have been unprofessional of me not to have done this. I also stand by my response.

Zombies, Barbies and Bulletproof Vests: Why Science Is for Girls

If I asked you to name five great scientists or inventors, chances are you wouldn’t have much trouble coming up with a list pretty quickly.

But how many on that list would be women?

Girls could be forgiven for thinking that all the important scientific and technological breakthroughs were made by men such as Newton, Einstein or Bill Gates. The truth is, brilliant women have been involved in science and technology ever since someone first rolled a log down a hill and called it a wheel. They have just never got the kudos they deserve.

In fact, the Nobel Prize committee tried to stop perhaps the most famous female scientist of all time, Marie Curie, from attending the ceremony to receive her second Nobel Prize, in 1911. A widow, she had taken a lover and it was thought no one would want to sit at her table because it was a scandal. She went anyway, and dined with the King of Sweden. Rock on, Marie!

Girls cannot be what they cannot see, so it’s time women in science and technology had the spotlight. I stumbled on a cartoon that gives us a great way to engage with girls on this topic: “Zombie Marie Curie”. Zombies are hot right now and perhaps the only thing that could have made this cartoon more relevant is if they had slipped a vampire in there as well. I think it deserves a spot on the wall of every high school lab; it’s available at xkcd.com and is free for noncommercial use.

Comic by xkcd.com.

I am always impressed by how much girls care for others and want to make a difference to the world. So I think another way to connect with girls about science is to show them that it isn’t all just theory in a textbook — it is a way to change the world, to change people’s lives. Take these achievements for starters:

Kevlar: Countless lives have been saved thanks to kevlar, which is in the bulletproof vests worn by soldiers, police and security guards. It finds its way into safety helmets, fireproof clothing, skis, hiking and camping gear and the cables that hold up suspension bridges. Thank you, Stephanie Kwolek, who invented it at Dupont in the 1970s.

Hedy Lamarr, actress and inventor

Mobile phone communications: If you like old movies, you’ll know the glamorous 1940s star Hedy Lamarr. But you might not know that with George Anthiel she co-invented a form of coded wireless communication to outwit the Nazis in World War II. The technology she helped invent now makes mobile phones and other wireless devices possible.

Computer programming: The first computer programmer was Ada Lovelace. A mathematician, she wrote a program for the prototype of a digital computer created by Charles Babbage, back in the 1840s. 

Prostheses for breast-cancer survivors: Ruth Handler invented the Barbie doll in 1959. Heaven knows Barbie doesn’t exactly have realistic body proportions, yet as a breast-cancer survivor, Ruth Handler later developed Nearly Me, a range of realistic-looking post-mastectomy breast prostheses. Speaking of Barbie, in an attempt to inspire girls to enter the male-dominated field of architecture, Mattel and the American Institute of Architects recently held a competition to design a Barbie dream house. Female architecture graduates Ting Li and Maja Paklar won, with a design that is as green as it is pink: it has solar panels, locally sourced materials and other eco-friendly details. When I was a kid I loved Barbie and I sneakliy fancy sitting down to play with this, so it’s a pity that Mattel is not putting the female architects’ design into production. Oh, the irony!

Barbie Dream House by architecture graduates Ting Li and Maja Paklar

Blissymbols Printer: To help people who have disabilities that prevent them from speaking, 12-year-old Rachel Zimmerman wrote a software program that translates symbols a person points to on a touch pad into written language.

Girls like Rachel Zimmerman continue to achieve amazing things in science and technology. When Google held its science fair this year, 10,000 young people aged 13 to 18 entered and girls won the top prizes in all three age categories. Shree Bose uncovered problems with a popular ovarian cancer treatment. Lauren Hodge found that chicken can bind to toxic chemicals in marinades when it is char-grilled. And Naomi Shah used her own statistical analysis and a new mathematical model to quantify how air quality affects asthma symptoms.

I would love to get some conversations going in classrooms about the achievements of girls and women in science and technology, so here are some ideas for conversation starters or assignment topics:

  • Do you think women who have made scientific or technological breakthroughs have received as much recognition as their male counterparts? Why?
  • Do you think there are barriers to girls entering careers in science and technology today? If so, what are they?
  • How would you use science or technology to change the world?

 

 

 

Asquith Girls High: Looking at the Big Picture

At Enlighten, we know that girls flourish and shine after our workshops, because we’ve seen it with our own eyes (and felt it in their big warm hugs!). But our work does so much more than give girls a self-esteem and confidence boost on the day. We aim to be part of a wider and ongoing culture change for the girls we work with, at school and beyond.

We encourage schools to maximise the benefit of our work by using it as part of a big-picture approach, and this week I’d like to share with you what I think is one of the best examples of a school doing just that. Jane Ferris, the principal of Asquith Girls High School, a public school in Sydney, last year attended a national conference in Melbourne that I was a keynote speaker at, “Insights: A Fresh Look at Girls’ Education”. In an unusual and forward-thinking move, she had brought along three of the school’s staff, too. They were inspired and felt that Enlighten’s message was what they needed, as part of the school’s broader program of improving outcomes for girls. Jane said:

When you have 900 young women attending an all girls’ school, it is a great opportunity to focus on issues confronting young women today. Since girls now outperform boys in external exams such as the HSC, it is too easy to consider that all the battles have been won and we no longer need to worry about issues in girls’ education. However, something is still holding young women back in our society as they are under-represented in business, our legal system and politics – what a waste of so much talent! Also, sadly, women as a group have too many experiences of abuse and violence. Therefore as a school we need to support young women to have a positive outlook, believe in themselves and ‘have a go’ in all that they strive to achieve.

From the outset, Jane saw that the greatest value would come from involving the whole school, so she organised her own one-day staff training conference for the teachers. I spoke, along with a number of other experts in teen girls’ issues. Then I came back to present to the girls, and something I have never experienced before happened: Jane released the entire welfare team for the day so they could come and watch me in action with the girls. This turned out to be incredibly valuable, because it meant that once I left, the staff had a deep understanding of what the girls had learned and experienced. They could speak the same language with the girls as I had, thus giving ongoing life to the work we’d done that day. The staff were empowered to be part of the culture change.

Jane notes that since starting their work on girls’ issues, the school’s “staff are more aware and taking things on board . . . At the nucleus is a gender team of staff and executive that have led a girls’ education conference and follow-up in all faculties.” They use every opportunity in the curriculum to promote the theme, Jane notes:

As Danni says, the most common glass ceiling holding girls back is the mirror they look in. Therefore this has proved a very positive starting point for our students, to think about themselves more positively. We want to follow through on this and get them to realise the pressures they are under as consumers. Through English and Commerce we want them to learn to deconstruct advertising and identify how they are being targeted in ways that not only ensure they buy more, but at the price of feeling they are not good enough. Through the curriculum we also want to make sure they learn about positive female role models.

Judging by the girls’ passionate and positive feedback, they were powerfully moved by the workshops I led. I am truly touched that one of the girls, Bec Torrington, in Year 9, has even nominated me for a Pride of Australia award in the Inspiration category. But kudos to Jane for seeing that there is wider, ongoing work to be done:

Danni is a highly motivational speaker and clearly has had a positive impact on the way our students feel. However, there are no quick fixes or magic wands. As a school we have to continue to promote a message of positive outlooks and friendships amongst our students.
In planning one always need to look at the big-picture rather than isolated programs or initiatives. Our approach is one of developing the whole young woman with a breadth of learning opportunities and extra curricular activities – to empower her with the experiences and skills to succeed in the world outside of school.

"Enlightened" girls completing the 21 day challenge.
"Enlightened" girls completing the 21 day challenge.

In light of Jane’s point about school staff working together to maintain a positive culture for girls, I’ve put together some discussion starters that schools might like to consider at their next staff meetings or staff development programs. These are based on previous blog posts, which can act as an impetus for discussion. Staff could split into groups, each considering one of these discussion starters, then report back to the whole staff:

Keeping Feminism Relevant
Rather than just fretting about and lamenting the plight of teen girls, at Enlighten we offer a viable alternative: feminism! This week a commentator in the UK made this excellent point, which I feel sums us up: “Feminists can make cause with traditionalists in wanting to limit some of the more extreme effects of an exploitative culture . . . But let’s be clear. We can only help [girls] if we have a good alternative to offer: the role models, the interesting jobs and the alternative ways of enjoying life that make a padded bra and a bit of rude dancing on the telly not shocking – just rather dull.” Yes!

About feminism:
International Women’s Day: Keeping Feminism Relevant
Putting Girls’ Issues Back on the Radar

Discussion starter:
– How are you connecting the young women at your school to the women’s movement?

Raising Girls Who Have the Courage to Be Imperfect

About embracing imperfection:
The Courage to Be Imperfect

Discussion starters:
– What signs are there that girls are numbing the feeling that they aren’t good enough?
– What steps can we start taking today to make the girls in our lives feel confident that they are loved and worthy?

Beyond Mean Girls

About bullying:
Bullying: It’s Time to Focus on Solutions

Discussion starters:
– In what ways does your school celebrate differences?
– What resources does your school currently access to assist in creating a safe environment for all students?
– How could these initiatives be enhanced?

Cyber Gals

About girls and information and communications technologies:
Real-World Tech Influencers

Discussion starters:
– How are the young women at your school encouraged to do creative, inspiring things using technology?
– Who are the female tech-influencers within your school who your girls can use as role models?

Girls and Eating

About girls and eating disorders:
Like Mother, Like Daughter
Eating Disorders and Primary School Children

Discussion starters:
– How can your school encourage girls to make healthy choices without shaming them?
– How might the relationship girls have with food affect their academic performance?

Girls on film

It’s three minutes till the end of the world. If you’re a guy, sweat is trickling from your brow as you defuse a bomb or outwit the leader of an intergalactic army. If you’re a woman, you undo the top button of your blouse and look alarmed yet sexy . . .

Photo by Oreos, Creative Commons licence

Do you feel as though every time you go to the movies you’re seeing the same old story unfold? You’re not imagining it. A study was done recently that showed in Hollywood movies, guys talk and get stuff done, while girls are eye candy.

Men get 67 percent of the lines, leaving just 33 percent of the talking to women. Forty percent of women wear sexy, revealing clothes, versus fewer than 7 percent of male characters. I just don’t think it would fly if I spent 30 percent of my waking life partially naked, yet that is exactly what women do in blockbuster movies. Men are shown partially naked only 10 percent of the time.

The Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism looked at the 100 top-grossing movies of 2008 for the study. They confirmed what many of you will already suspect: 13 to 20 year old girls are being hypersexualised in Hollywood movies. The characters most likely to be shown provocatively are teenagers, at 40 percent of the time.

Disturbingly, other research has shown that the effect is just as pronounced in movies and TV shows for children 11 and under. Watching TV with her young daughter, Hollywood star Geena Davis became so concerned about gender bias that she set up the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Her institute’s research showed that for every female character, there are three male characters; in a group scene, there are five males to one female.

To me, the most disturbing thing was that the female characters in G-rated movies wear the same amount of sexually revealing clothing as the female characters in R-rated movies. — Geena Davis

When women are involved in writing a script, the percentage of female characters jumps by 14.3 percent, according to the Annenberg study. But Hollywood is still dominated by men. On the top 100 movies, women made up only:

  • 8 percent of the directors
  • 13.6 percent of the writers
  • 19.1 percent of the producers.

I asked my friend Jane Manning, a filmmaker, whether she thinks it is as bad here in Australia.

My hunch is that we would have a better result. The film industry here didn’t really get going until the 70s, and more women were participants from the beginning compared to the US. Australian television has many female key players, and female viewers wield substantial power. Many of the most successful TV programs — Seachange, The Secret Life of Us, Love My Way, Paper Giants — have had strong female roles and key women on the creative team. — Australian Filmmaker Jane Manning

There are more women working in film here, according to Australian Film Commission research — though we still have a long way to go toward equality. Here women make up:

  • 15 percent of the directors
  • 21 percent of the writers
  • 35 percent of the producers.

Jane has been making films and TV programs for 15 years and recently directed episodes for Who Do You Think You Are? on Christine Anu, Cathy Freeman and Tina Arena. She has also just finished directing a number of the episodes in the brilliant new television series “In Their Footsteps”.  Jane says she has never encountered extra challenges in making programs about women but she has seen the patterns described by the US research arise here:

I worked on a TV series where the head writer was an old-fashioned male, and the female characters tended to be confined to the love interest / subservient mould. Incidentally, the series failed to get an audience, and when the TV station conducted focus groups to find out why, they discovered women hated it. This kind of thing is becoming rarer, because more women are in key writing roles in Australian television.

Stories — and their slant — always arise from who is doing the storytelling. The only way gender portrayals on screens will ever be balanced is when the number of female writers and directors is on a par with men in the industry. This is probably a way off yet, but the gap seems to be closing in Australia. I don’t believe any externally imposed guidelines to influence gender portrayal would ever work. The best, truest stories always break rules and guidelines. — Jane Manning

I am always saying that girls cannot be what they cannot see, so I smiled when I saw this quote from Geena Davis:

We know that if girls can see characters doing unstereotyped kinds of occupations and activities, they’re much more likely as an adult to pursue unusual and outside-the-box occupations. I really believe that if you can see it, you can be it.

We might not have the power to change the film and TV industries overnight but we can celebrate great movie-making that shows girls they can be so much more than the breathless, scantily clad ornament by the hero’s side. Here are some of my favourites for teens: Hairspray, Whale Rider, Bend It Like Beckham, The Piano, Matilda…

I’d love to hear yours!

International Women’s Day – Keeping Feminism Relevant

Last night on ABC’s Q&A Janet Albrechtsen made the following statement on the state of feminism amongst our young women:

A few days ago at a Sydney girls’ high school, the girls were asked whether they were feminists. Of 90 girls, 30 girls put their hands up. Now, I think that’s quite unfortunate. These are girls who are obviously in favour of female suffrage. They’re in favour of equal pay and yet there is something going on here that a lot of young girls are not finding feminism attractive. The debates around quotas and discrimination are all part of a wider debate about feminism and we have to ask what it is that’s turning young girls away…

I’m not sure that I agree with Ms Albrechtsen’s assumption that this generation of girls are fleeing from feminism. Rather, I think they have a healthy interest in women’s issues, even if they do not necessarily relate to the terminology. Monica Dux, author of The Great Feminist Denial, argued in an article I was also interviewed for (“Putting Girls Issues Back On The Radar”) that a feminist consciousness is there but that we have just got to start claiming back the label.

And make no mistake, it is vital that we connect this generation of young women to the feminist agenda as the work is far from done.

Despite making up 45% of our workforce, the number of women on corporate boards is just 8.3% (an issue the Q & A panellists also discussed at length). Violence against women is a huge issue: one in three women has experienced physical violence since the age of 15; nearly one in five women has experienced sexual assault since the age of 15; and almost every week, one woman is killed by her current or former partner. One need only look at popular culture to see that misogyny and sexism are not only alive but indeed well paid (think footballers who choose to behave badly and Charlie Sheen). Meanwhile, for our sisters overseas, every day is an ongoing battle. The following extract from REFUGEES magazine, produced by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, is deeply shocking:

There are approximately 50 million uprooted people around the world – refugees who have sought safety in another country and people displaced within their own country. Between 75-80 per cent of them are women and children.

The majority of people flee their homes because of war and the proportion of war victims who are civilians leaped in recent decades from five per cent to over 90 per cent of casualties. Eighty per cent of casualties by small arms are women and children, who far outnumber military casualties.

Females are subjected to widespread sexual abuse. In Bosnia and Rwanda rape became a deliberate aim of war. More than 20,000 Muslim women were raped in Bosnia in a single year, 1992, and a great majority of the female survivors of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide were assaulted.

More than 300,000 youngsters, many of them female refugees, are currently serving as child soldiers around the world. The girls are often forced into different forms of sexual slavery.

More than 16.4 million women today have HIV/AIDS and in the last few years the percentage of women infected has risen from 41 to 47 per cent of the affected population. In sub-Saharan Africa, teenage girls are five times more likely to be infected than boys.

The majority of trafficked people are women, especially those bound for the world’s sex industries. Females are particularly vulnerable to trafficking because many have little individual security, economic opportunity or property or land ownership. Many victims are kidnapped or sold into slavery by their own families.

An estimated 1.3 billion people worldwide, 70 per cent of them women, live in absolute poverty on less than $1 a day.

Me and my PHD student friend and colleague Sarah Casey - rockin' Feminism.
Me and my PhD student friend and colleague Sarah Casey - rockin' Feminism.

The team here at Enlighten Education also investigated some of the reasons why young women are distancing themselves from the “F” word when designing our newest workshop aimed at inspiring girls to be proud Feminists – Real Girl Power. Some girls thought the work was done: “We have a female Prime Minister and a female Governor General.” Others thought that only those with “hairy legs” and those who hated men could join the club. Kate Ellis, our Minister for Employment Participation, Child Care and Status of Women, hinted at the latter misconception too when she revealed on Q & A that when she first entered politics she was advised to cut her hair and wear glasses (despite having perfect vision). Can we be taken seriously as female leaders, and indeed as feminists, if we have long hair, stilettos and wear lippy?

Yes.

We do not owe it to feminism to dress down. Nor, of course, should we feel pressured to dress up. Feminism surely must be about informed choice.

Sarah Casey, a friend and colleague, is currently completing her PhD at Griffith University. Her focus is on the relevance of feminism to the world today. Sarah argues that feminism will be revived for mainstream audiences through action rather than continual academic dialogue, which is often inaccessible to the majority of youth. “I believe that human rights violations against women throughout the world need to be addressed with urgency and focussed feminist organisation that takes into account and critiques youth culture. For example, we must tap into and explore new technologies, celebrity consumer culture and philanthropic capitalism,” writes Sarah.

In our work, we have discovered  that  when we inform girls about some of the struggles women are enduring in the third world, they soon realise that the feminist battles have not all been fought. A Western woman’s experience is vastly different to that of a woman in the developing world.  We remind girls that not only are they privileged to have choices, but that they also have powerful voices they may chose to use to effect global change. Sites like The Girl Effect and Plan International’s Because I Am A Girl are both great starting points and offer not only education but also practical ways in which we can all contribute to making a difference.

We also encourage girls to act on issues that do affect them directly. We distribute “Girl Caught” stickers (you may download a PDF with these stickers here: GirlCaught Stickers(2009)) inspired by the US Mind on The Media campaign that encourages girls to talk back to advertisers who portray women in a negative light. To say girls love these would be an understatement – every time we hand these out at school girls try to sneak extra copies from us!

GirlCaught_Sticker

We are now also distributing The Equality Rights Alliance’s postcards calling on The Hon Peter Garrett (Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth) to put the Voluntary Industry Code of Conduct for Body Image into force. An electronic version of this card may be sent from here.

I’d love to hear how you are connecting the young women at your school to feminism too.

Postscript: Thank you to Rachel Hanson for bringing this excellent TED Talk to my attention. Here young feminist Courtney Martin ( author of the insightful Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters) gives a personal account of how she reinvented feminism and connected with the movement.

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