Every week another report or survey shows up in my inbox about gender inequality and how to ‘close the gap.’ Needless to say, despite all the progress that’s been made girls still face barriers that boys don't. It leaves us all worse off.
As a mother of three sons and one daughter, I want all my kids to be brave - to be daring in their ambitions and make their own special mark on the world. I know from my work with women around the globe, that many women often struggle to do that with the same confidence as men. We often doubt ourselves too much, and back ourselves too little.
It's why closing the confidence gap is crucial to closing the gender gap.
It’s also why we need to do what we can to raise brave girls into strong women who own their power to affect change. Not just for their own sake, but for the sake of those who lack the opportunity we in the developed world can so easily take for granted.
Too often, somewhere between playing in the school yard and leaving high school, we dial down our dreams and reset our sights as the realities of the ‘real’ world crush in on us. The hurdles are higher, the competition tougher and the disappointments bigger. Sticking with goals that minimize the sting of rejection and risk of failure seems like the better, less painful, option.
But it never is. And it never will be.
And if you have a daughter, or a young girl you care about in your life, there’s nothing more important you can do to enable her to thrive in life than helping her grow into the bravest version of the woman she has it in her to be. Here are six ways I believe you can do just that.
On my 40th birthday my daughter Maddy, 10 at the time, gave me a handcrafted birthday voucher on which she wrote:
“This vowcher lets you be my guest at the Oscars when I am nominated for best actress.”
(I figured she stood more chance of that than winning the national spelling bee!)
I’ve tucked it away for safe keeping until that day arrives. And if it doesn’t, that’s okay too. I just love that she wasn’t afraid to dream so big. I was only a little older than her, growing up on a dairy farm in rural Victoria, when I told my parents I wanted to a journalist, like Jana Wendt on 60 Minutes. My mother (who never worked outside our home) discouraged the idea, saying I didn’t read the newspaper enough. It was true. It only occurred to me years later that we never got one.
While we each walk a different path, we must all be careful not to let our own experiences –disappointments, unmet dreams and unfulfilled ambitions alike - dampen the ambitions of others. Sure, not everyone will be the next Cate Blanchet or Hilary Clinton, but better to aim high and fall short than to risk young women one day looking back on their lives and wondering ‘What if?’
By adulthood, boys are often also more resilient when knocked down, more comfortable exiting their comfort zone and more adept at taking risks – and not just physical risks, but psychological ones. This gives them an edge in business and life because let’s face it, everything worthwhile demands risk of some sort.
Research validates this. Despite our daughters doing better at school and university relative to our sons, once they get into the workplace women are less confident, more cautious and less likely to:
All of these things require risk in some way – risk of rejection, criticism, looking foolish, falling short, or outright failure. Encouraging push outside her comfort zone can sometimes be the most loving thing you can do for her because it helps her to realize she can do more than she think while building self-confidence to handle bigger challenges. Protecting our beautiful girls from the pain of failure or sting of rejection doesn’t set her up to thrive in the bigger game of life, it deprives her from acquiring the skills to live it well.
Facebook CFO Sheryl Sandberg believes we should #BanBossy, but, while I love her Lean In message, on this count, I think she has it wrong. We need to encourage our daughters to embrace bossy, not ban it. As the CEO of the United Nations Foundation, Kathy Calvin, shared with me in our recent interview, we need to own our right to have an opinion and not let others discount its value.
Don’t get me wrong though. I’m not advocating for bossiness or any behavior that pulls people down. But I strongly believe we must encourage our daughters to own their right to express their opinion, be confident in standing their ground and to take the lead when others aren’t.
It takes courage to say something that may rock the boat. It’s why women, wired to forge connections but loathe to disrupt them, so often don’t. But when we stay silent for fear of ruffling feathers, we implicitly teach those around us that we are okay with the status quo.
Starting in the schoolyard and continuing throughout her life – in the workplace, friendships, and at home – your daughter will encounter people who will to pressure her, intimidate her and devalue her. She needs to know that she has to take responsibility for standing up for herself and, starting from the time she can talk, encourage her to practice doing just that. As I wrote in my book Brave, we build our bravery every time we act with it.
Of course it’s hard to be brave and stand up for ourselves when we don’t believe, truly believe, that we deserve better. Which is why, above all else, our daughters need to know, beyond any doubt, that they are deeply loved and infinitely lovable - even when they’re behaving anything but.
Girls who don’t grow up believing in their inherent worth develop into women who spend their lives unconsciously searching for validation – from friends, strangers, lovers and losers alike. Setting your young girls up to forge genuinely loving, respectful and rewarding relationships begins by having her know that she is deserving of love, worthy of respect and that she should never settle for anyone less
Right from the get-go, there’s enormous pressure on anyone born with a vagina to conform to the idealized images created by marketers and reinforced by mass media. Refusing to conform to that pressure is a life-long challenge for women everywhere at every age.
We give our daughters and young children a head start when we actively nurture what makes them unique, accept them for who they are, and don’t pressure them to be someone they’re not! That requires regularly reminding them not to measure their worth by how good they are at sports or math or music, by their complexion or body shape, the brands they wear, the parties they're invited to or by how many followers they have on Instagram. And certainly not by their ‘boyfriend’ status!
Nothing can diminish a young woman’s fragile sense-of-self faster than believing she has to reach some external measure of success to be worthy or ‘enough’; nothing can build her bravery more than knowing she is good enough just as she is.
The young women you may know may not listen to what you say, but they notices what you do. Nothing will teach her how to be brave better than what she learns each time she sees you being brave yourself.
So as you think about inspiring young women to be confident and courageous women – sure of herself and resilient under pressure – begin by considering where you need to practice a little more bravery yourself. Any time you tip toe around an awkward conversation, allow someone treat you poorly, avoid taking a risk for fear of failure, or let other people’s opinions matter more than your own, you’re missing an important opportunity to teach your daughter how to be brave.
When my daughter Maddy was 15, she flew from Melbourne to LA to do an acting course. Hollywood didn't look quite so glamorous up close.
Yet as so often happens, by daring to spread her wings, it opened up a whole new world of possibilities for her anyway (she wants to have her own late night talk show now!)
The following year she left home and moved across the world to finish school in the US, inspired by the belief that if she works hard enough, she can do anything she wants.
Watching her go was one of the hardest, and maybe one of the bravest, things I've ever had to do (I know I tell other people to think big and live brave but I didn't realise my kids were listening!) But one thing I know for sure, it's that whatever happens, Maddy deal with it. Why? Because she's braver than she knows.
So too are you.
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