There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of conversations recently about women and empowerment. Conversations about how to find our power, what it looks like and what it means — for us as individuals and for us collectively, and why it’s so important. But even with all the leaning in and banning of the word bossy, I can’t shake the feeling that we’re still not talking about the right things.
Among my company’s many partnerships, we work with a local non-profit that helps urban youth learn about technology and exposes them to the different jobs, roles, and projects within the tech space. Throughout the program they meet professionals and tour companies to see what real-world technologists do.
A few weeks ago, a small group of the program’s middle school students — three young men and two young women — toured Clockwork. They were all bright, engaged kids. During the tour we talked about our job, what it’s like to work here, and what kind of schooling and work we did to lead up to this. In turn, they showed us some of the projects they’d been working on.
One of the things they each do is contribute to a shared blog. In talking about the blog, the boys showed us some blog entries they’ve written and the girls showed us some photo-manipulation work they were doing. One of the boys had published a post about how awesome he was. As we were all checking it out, interesting banter started. The other young men started chiming in about how awesome they were and all the great things they were going to do when they grew up — ranging from being NBA stars to becoming CEO of Apple. And while they went back and forth, they reinforced each others awesomeness: one-upping but also validating as they went.
Meanwhile, the young women sat quietly listening to the conversation unfold with slight grimaces on their faces. So I looked at the girls and asked them, one at a time, “Are you awesome?” The first girl was very tentative but finally replied “No.” To which I said, “Please don’t ever say that again. Of course you’re awesome. Of course you are.” Then I asked the other young woman whether she was awesome, and with an equal amount of tentativeness she eventually told me what I wanted to hear, “I’m not awesome, but I’m amazing.” Okay, I can take amazing.
This troubled me. A lot. I was troubled by their hesitancy in participating in what, on the surface, looks like a silly conversation. Because it wasn’t silly. The conversation actually conveyed a serious and important message about, and reality for, these young women: they don’t think they’re awesome. They don’t feel awesome. And boys do.
As we continued with our tour of Clockwork, we had a conversation about the responsibilities the kids had at home. The boys spoke about chores at home while the girls spoke about jobs. The reality — for both the boys and girls — was that their parents juggled a lot of responsibilities and because of this, the kids have to participate.
And, again, I wondered about the gender imbalance apparent in how they spoke: the girls felt like they played a critical and empowered role within their households, and yet they weren’t empowered enough to feel awesome outside their households. But the boys were.
It dawned on me that in all these conversations we’re having about the challenges of claiming our own voice and standing firm on our feet as strong women, what we’re really trying to do is fix something that broke inside of us a long time ago. And it’s still broken, like the confidence of those two girls who toured my agency.
Studies have shown that young women’s self-confidence dips in their teens far lower and for far longer than young mens’. And it’s during this time — age 12 to 17 — that girls are making decisions about college, and careers, and what the rest of their lives can and should look like. So while they’re feeling the most unsure, they’re also starting to shape the vision of their lives. Is it any wonder, then, that women are underrepresented in the types of fields that maybe only little boys think they are awesome! enough to be successful in?
If our own self-esteem didn’t crack and crumble as young girls, we wouldn’t have to be healing those pieces now. Maybe we can save the next generation from struggling to fix something broken if we put effort into making sure — now — that it never breaks in the first place. This is what I imagine can happen if we talk to our daughters and the young women around us, and include them in the conversations we’re having. It doesn’t matter how far we get in conversations about us — and the balance we deserve or are seeking — if we don’t change how it happens for little girls.
I think victimization, more than anything, is what we need to eradicate. I worry that as we talk about all of this — our power, our opportunities — that we’re talking in ways that suggest it’s not up to us whether we GET to live our full potential. The power to realize our complete selves is entirely within us — it’s not some magic talisman bestowed upon us by an external force. No one else gets to decide.
The conversations and language around beauty, bodies, brains, accomplishments, power, assertiveness have to be clear and smarter and more direct. We have to own our power and embody it. If you’re loud, be loud. If you’re smart, say it it out loud. If you do amazing things, talk about them. If your daughter doesn’t want to dress like other girls, or is assertive, or puts herself out there, support her. But support yourself, too. Make your reality something that resonates with her. If you work 3 or 4 jobs to support you and your family, talk about what that means and why you’re doing it.
We’re having a lot of great conversations, and I really want us to have more. We need to have bigger and louder conversations about how women get to show up at the table. But we have no business being at the table if we’re not looking around and asking who isn’t there, and why. While we’re supporting ourselves and each other, we have to support little girls in seeing their future at that table. Because they’re out there, trying to make sense of things and not feeling awesome.