Monday, 19 August 2013

Strong role models are important for girls (and boys)

I am incredibly fortunate to have a whole host of amazing strong women to look up to. My entire family is full of them, and my grandmother was a force to be reckoned with. In particular my mother and her twin/my aunt, who both built incredibly successful careers and families.

I think I've always been what would be called a feminist (and how I would describe myself now), I was raised by feminist parents. Which made me a little blinkered to the issues that still affect women because in my thoughts and feelings there was nothing I could do, and my gender certainly wasn't ever going to get in the way of me doing stuff. That was just the way I was brought up. When I went to university I chose to study gender studies in my final year and it really opened my eyes to things. It gave me a whole new perspective on inequality, which is something I've continued learning about and discussing ever since (that was nearly 10 years ago!).

Maybe that is what we're lacking as women, that feeling of confidence that we aren't going to be dealt with differently just because of our biological differences. Think about the people who you would think twice about disagreeing with. It is usually because they exude a level of confidence that puts everything else into the shade. If we all had the confidence in our own abilities regardless of our identified gender, would it become less of an issue in the workplace?

This isn't to say we should be aware of the problems faced by people in relation to their gender, in particular those identifying as female. And to be honest, it is a little hard to forget them, given that women are 'bashed' on a daily basis for having a voice, for speaking out, for being present, when all a lot of people and publications would like them to do is go back to the kitchen and make some tea.

Strong role models need to be everywhere; in the workplace, on TV, in films, in politics. Then it can filter into our private lives, because each one of those strong women we see in the public sphere is someone's mother, daughter, wife, lover, girlfriend, best friend, sister, cousin, aunt, etc. When Thatcher died my initial reaction was 'well she was a bit of a crap feminist' because the feminists I had learned from, and had aligned with, maligned Thatcher for 'manning up' and acting like the thing we women were fighting so hard against. But President Obama made me pause and think for a second, when he sent his condolences and said:
"As a grocer’s daughter who rose to become Britain’s first female prime minister, she stands as an example to our daughters that there is no glass ceiling that can’t be shattered."

And I think it is true. I grew up as a child of the Thatcher age, she won her second term as Prime Minister just after I was born. I grew up thinking not that a woman as the head of state was normal, but that it was most certainly possible. So while I dislike the majority of the things she did and said, I cannot change the fact that I grew up knowing that a woman in Number 10 was not an impossibility.

Hopefully the millions of girls in countries where there is a female head of state can grow up feeling the same way. Brazil, Argentina, Malawi, Kosovo and South Korea all have strong female leaders, add to that the Nobel Peace Prize winning President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and the architect of European survival, German President Angela Merkel, and with the November election in Chile looking to be a close battle between former president Michelle Bachelet and old friend Pinera Matthei, it seems that the time is right for women leaders.

We just need to work on the representation of women in popular culture and everyday life, and the world will be well on its way to having the role models it deserves.


  1. You raise an interesting point both in how society’s attitude towards women has developed & evolved, and in the restrictions that are still imposed, consciously or otherwise. Would you agree that the human shift towards a more meritocratic society goes at least someway towards eliminating gender pitfalls for both sexes? I have always believed that if you strive for the pursuit of excellence, in whatever field you exist, it matters very little whether you reproductive organs are function on the interior or exterior of you body. Admittedly I am not well read on this topic, perhaps I am na├»ve in my assertion?

    1. In theory it wouldn't matter what gender you are, but in reality it does. The huge difference in the amount of parental leave the different genders can take in the UK is a good example, but even in countries where the total leave can be split equally between both parents, such as Sweden, societal attitudes towards women's roles mean that the majority of parental leave is taken by the mother.

      It can be really difficult for women to break the glass ceiling, harder than even they think.


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