What have you done to support girls today?
In honor of International Women’s Day, we are taking part in the Gender Across Borders IWD blogging campaign. They asked the question: “How can we, as a culture and as members of the global community, involve, educate, and inspire girls in a positive way?”
My answer is below – what do you think?
When the question of how to inspire and motivate young women comes up I instinctively reflect on my own experiences. This is perhaps inevitable, and, I hope, helpful―but certainly not uncontroversial. The answer to this question is different in different cultural contexts, changing with the specific challenges facing communities of girls.
I am not in a position to say what the specific answers for such inspiration are outside of the West. I don’t know what faces girls who aspire to be doctors or lawyers or teachers in Pakistan, for example. To figure out that question we must ask those girls. And to figure out what is needed in the United States we must examine what works in that environment. Cultural norms and limitations exist in every society, and must be addressed on a case by case basis. There isn’t one blanket solution that can help girls across the world rise. We must be specific with solutions.
Given that, however, I think there is one strong theme that should be incorporated into any program or approach to inspiring young women in any country. That is, girls and young women need strong role models and support systems. In order to help girls we must normalize female leadership and achievement. Successful women can’t be the exception; they must be the norm. But how can this be achieved?
In any society, two factors are essential: 1) the presence of mentors and role models for women to look up to, and 2) support systems of peers who are seeking to achieve the same (or similar) goals. The shape that these two elements take will differ from community to community and country to country, but I believe that they are key ingredients in creating a culture that promotes women.
I see the power of this in my own experience. I have been lucky enough to enjoy both strong female role models and mentors AND very rich support systems of ambitious women. My first supervisor was a wonderful manager and model of what I can achieve with my career, the posse of friends I picked up at the women’s college I attended are out of this world (no [or very little] competitiveness, and amazing support), and the women I work with now at Peace X Peace provide a great mix of mentorship and camaraderie.
Need all our mentors/role models/support networks be female? I’m torn on this question, and I think about it a lot. I think that it depends on the person and the situation. It’s about how each individual gets motivated. Do you have no hangups about your gender? Then you can probably be inspired just as well by a supportive male mentor as by a female one. I think this is especially true when girls are young, before work/life balance issues are thrown into the mix.
But perhaps in communities or cultures where being female is seen as being a deal breaker, or as questions of how to balance being a mother while also pursuing a career do start to rise in a young woman’s mind, having a woman (or women) to turn to can be essential.
The bottom line is that we need to support each other and, as we rise in careers or other pursuits, look behind us and think about how we can inspire the girls being born and growing up today. How can we make leadership and success seem exciting, desirable, and achievable? Much of that comes from how we support the women around us.
This fall Peace X Peace (where I work) launched a mentorship program that connects established and aspiring female peacebuilders. I have seen the impact of this wonderful program on the lives of both the mentors and the mentees, and I think it’s a strong model of how women can help each other get excited about their careers and move forward with them.
As you celebrate International Women’s Day, think to yourself – what have I done to help women today? What can I do to open doors for my fellow women and girls? And if you are a young woman: What can I do to build connections with those women who have gone before me? With the women around me? How can I contribute to a positive, inspiring, and supportive environment that helps women succeed? We must work together to make such an environment a reality.
The views and opinions expressed on the Peace X Peace staff blog are those of the individual staff members, and do not necessarily represent the organization.