Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Be the Change- It's Time We Empower Our Young Girls

Friends and fellow educators, I may sound preachy in this one, but that's my objective. Thank you in advance for reading this very important message.

Something happened the other day.  Something horrible.  Despicable.  Something that reminded me that we, as women, are still not regarded as equals in our society.  I've been deeply troubled by this something for the past few days.  At first, I didn't consider that this trouble was related to education.  However, now I see that we, as educators, have a duty to help stop this problem.  The problem is simple, and it's been around since the first woman decided to stand up for herself and make a choice to do something more.  Simply put, I've been troubled by the on-going, toxic war on women that has a long standing history worldwide.  This problem hit home for me a few days ago.  Sadly, not all people see this as a problem.  To tell you more about why this has been troubling me and what we can do about it, I need to first introduce you to my dear friend, Jenny.

This is Jenny- the one on the right.  She and I became good friends through our triathlon club in San Francisco a few years ago.  In this picture, we are with our other good friend, Erika.  Between the three of us, we have multiple advanced degrees, successful careers in three different industries, multiple Ironman finishes (just Jenny and Erika on that one!), board positions with charities, and so much more.  Honestly, I pride myself on being a strong woman who surrounds herself with other strong women.  I also pride myself on being a role model for young girls who are just starting to navigate the world.  In fact, I'd safely say all of my close girlfriends feel the same- especially Jenny.  Jenny is truly one of my closest friends in the world.  So close in fact that she asked me to be one of her bridesmaids when she was married last June.  

Here we are on a bike ride with friends.  Now, our bike rides are not casual jaunts on beach cruisers.  Believe me- sometimes I wish they were!  We cycle over mountains, log hundreds, even thousands of miles each year, and enjoy the strength that cycling and other sporting activities bring us.  Included in this picture are more good friends who are also strong, confident, successful women.  All of us not only encourage each other, but also we challenge each other and celebrate in each other's successes.  You may be thinking what all of this has to do with why I'm troubled.  I'm getting to that… 

This is Jenny at work.  Jenny is a designer at Google X.  Her current project is The Self Driving Car.  A few days ago, Jenny gave a presentation at Google's FORM design conference.  You can read all about that content here.  I was proud of my dear friend Jenny before I read this article.  However, after I read this article, I was completely in awe of her.  Jenny is truly skilled at what she does.  Not only is she a wonderful friend, but also she is an innovative designer, eloquent speaker, and extremely hard worker.  Plus (and not that this matters much), Jenny is extremely humble.  I only saw this article because another friend pointed it out on Facebook.  Jenny is not one to call attention to her accomplishments.  Although, I think she should!  

Now, this is why I'm horribly troubled and still angry even days later.  Immediately after Jenny gave her presentation at Google's FORM conference, this is what some troll posted on Twitter. The post and Jenny's response on Facebook are shown below.

Needless to say, when I saw this, rage bubbled up inside of me.  Every ounce of what I knew to be well and good in the world was just diminished.  My friend did something wonderful, and this was one of the responses.  It just makes no sense.  Why is there not more outrage over attacks on women such as these?  Why do we have to continually put up with public forms of harassment such as these?  How is this ok?  The war on strong women- really, on women in general, simply must stop. Now, if you're reading this and thinking 'It's not a big deal. Calm down,' then you are part of the problem.  Imagine if this was directed at your daughter, mother, sister, best friend, or student after achieving a huge feat- a feat that took risk-taking, intellect, countless hours of hard work, and bravery.  Imagine how it would feel?  Imagine how Jenny felt.  If you saw this above image and became angered, you then realize the urgency like I do.

Unfortunately, until women are regarded as true equals to men in our society, attacks like these will continue.  Then again, perhaps attacks like these will always continue.  The issue isn't exactly these attacks.  Rather, it's the lack of response.  Women must start encouraging each other to speak up.  Men must also speak out against sexist remarks and public humiliation against women.  Attacks like these and the lack of response are not only disheartening, but also are extremely damaging.  How much longer will we have to work twice as hard to prove our skill set and worth?  How much longer must our accomplishments and hard work take a back seat to society's value of our physical appearance?  How much longer will trolls be allowed to publicly harass women without consequence?  Just to be clear- I'm not blaming men.  Rather, I am enlisting them to speak up- to speak out.  I am asking them, asking you, to help. We all have to help end this. This has to stop.  We owe it to all of our children- to both our girls and our boys.

So, what does this have to do with education?  I am convinced that the only place that can change this pervasive attitude toward all women is in our classrooms with our words and actions toward our students.  Corporations, businesses, the entertainment industry, and the government do not have the power to change and overhaul the attitudes and values instilled early in life.  However, we as educators do have the power.  We must be the change we want to see in the world.  As educators, we are the ones who have to make it happen.  So, what can we do to prevent negative attitudes and public humiliation toward women?  What can we do to to help little girls grow into proud, strong, and confident women like the ones I am so very fortunate to call my friends?   What can we do to recognize and honor all the wonderful things both girls and boys achieve?  I have a few suggestions.

  • Encourage healthy, honest, and supportive female friendships in your classrooms.  The "mean girls" behavior and cattiness between young girls only adds to this problem.  If we all empower our girls to celebrate and support each other, imagine the power and drive it would create in the world. 
  • Encourage both girls and boys to participate in all activities- academic, social, athletic, intellectual, artistic, etc.  The sky is the limit for our kids. Girls should be encouraged to participate in sports and science.  Boys should be encouraged to tap into their artistic talents and communicative skills.  Simply put we must erase all gender-based assumptions in our education system. 
  • Implement a zero-tolerance system for gender-based harassment, humiliation, and humor of all kinds.  What is funny to one person may be extremely hurtful and permanently damaging to another.
  • Body image is a powerful thing.  Many of our girls start to obsess about the color of their hair, tone of their skin, height and weight at alarmingly young ages.  Never ignore body image issues with our girls.  If we ignore the issue- we give it more power over our girls.  Rather, address these issues proactively.  Openly talk with your female students and their parents about how body image issues can impact young girls.  Obviously, these discussions will look different at different grade levels.
  • Compliment the women and girls around you based on their intellect and accomplishments, not on their hairstyle and clothing choice.
  • Compassion and empathy go a long way.  The troll who posted that awful thing in response to Jenny's presentation probably needed a little compassion along the way somewhere that he (or she) never received.  If a student is acting out- resist punishment and humiliation of any kind.  Instead, try to get to the root of the problem.  Maybe he or she just needs someone to listen.  Maybe if more of us take the time to talk with and genuinely listen to our students who act out, these instances of harassment toward others will decrease.
  • If you are not a classroom teacher, look at the immediate world around you.  Ask yourself what changes you can make.  Then, make them.  
  • Be proud of the strong woman that you are.  If you are a man, be proud of the strong women in your life.  Kids do not do what we say.  Rather, they do what we do.  More importantly, they do what they actually see and hear us do.  Again, be the change you want to see.  It starts with us.  The negative bashing of women can also end with us.  We have the power as educators.  Are you with me?  Are you with your female students? 
  • Finally, speak up.  This is me speaking up.  We need you to speak up now.  Stop silently observing and shaking your head.  Sympathy is nice and all, but it doesn't do anything to change the system.  If something makes you angry, change it.  Jenny spoke up.  I spoke up.  Who's next? 
This is something in which we all have to commit to changing.  A handful of us can't do it alone.  It is a big deal.  Our girls deserve better.  Our boys deserve better.  It's our job as educators to make it happen.  Be the change, my friends.  Be the change.

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