By: Dani Kessel
As women, it’s important that we work to empower those who come after us. We need to leave the world better than we found it. I have always stuck by the saying, “Empowered women empower women.” But, that needs to start at a young age.
The underestimation of girls starts before the age of 1 with moms misjudging their mobility skills. By the time a girl hits preschool, there is already a difference in gender-based playing behaviors. By childhood, parents judge girls’ pain as lesser. Throughout school, girls will see fewer representations of themselves with predominantly boy characters in the curriculum. These are just a few of the examples of sexism in childhood and adolescence.
(There are so many examples I could give, and I summed up prominent ones in the above paragraph. For those interested in other psychology and science-based examinations of sexism throughout childhood, I will list some books to check out at the bottom of this article.)
The problems with sexism at a young age persist as girls grow-up, and they snowball into the issues we see every day in adulthood. Taking this into consideration, It is extremely important that we give girls the best chance they can from the very beginning. Here are 13 of my suggestions for how to empower the next generation of women:
1. Volunteer to mentor.
If you don’t have kids of your own, get involved with the Big Brother, Big Sister programs; the HOPE Mentoring Programs; the Girls Inc. Mentoring Program; Step Up Women’s Network; Global Girl Media, or any other mentoring program you can find. It’s so important that girls have women role models to look up to because, far too often, they don’t see a good representation of girlhood and womanhood in the media. You have the power to help a girl or young woman navigate through the challenges of life.
2. They have voices–LISTEN!
Give girls a platform to speak. Let them speak about their passions, interests, beliefs, issues. Girls will experience being ignored, disregarded, and spoken over throughout their lives. Make sure that they know from a young age that their voices matter.
3. Offer girls compliments that focus on their choices and actions too instead of just their looks.
Society teaches girls that their looks are their most valuable asset and often that it’s the only thing they have to offer. We need to teach girls that their brains are important. We need to praise them for their ingenuity and innovative thinking. We need to commend their achievements. There are so many other compliments to give outside of, “you look pretty.”
4. Talk to them about consent, and model respect by asking if you can hug them.
This is important for every single child. Consent isn’t just about sexual activity. It is about agency over one’s own body. Their body; their rules. Teach consent, people! And don’t ignore a child’s consent or lack thereof. EVER. Stop forcing them to give hugs. Kids, especially girls, need to know that it is perfectly acceptable to say “no.” Offer them a high-five instead. Ask them if they prefer a fist-bump. Wave instead of touching them. Empower them to be in control of their physical contact.
5. Educate and don’t shame them about menstruation.
Due to the stigma, many girls with vaginas never learn the things they know about menstruation. I know several women who thought they were dying when they started their first period. Many cultures view periods as dirty and unclean which shames those going through them. Menstruating cisgender girls in the developing world often can’t go to school because they never get access to menstrual products. Cisgender women often don’t discover until a much older age that their severe cramps, irregular periods, painful ovarian cysts, unusually heavy flow, etc. were all indicative of a more serious problem. It’s important to discuss and educate on menstruation without shameful tactics.
(NOTE: Not all women menstruate or have a uterus, and it is not required for womanhood. As important as it is not to shame cis-girls for menstruating, it is equally important not to shame trans-girls and some intersex girls for not menstruating.)
6. Let girls make decisions!
Give girls an active role in deciding, planning, and executing things. This will foster leadership skills that are crucial later in life.
7. Invest in women-run small businesses and ethical businesses that give back to girl and women related causes with each purchase.
Put your money towards businesses that benefit girls and women. There are so many ethical businesses that donate money and products to women-centric charities across the world. The bra company ThirdLove works on a try-before-you-buy system and donates returned bras. Sseko provides training and educational opportunities for women in Uganda while also having products ranging from $9.99-$119.99 in price. Better Life Bags is run by women, employs women in Detroit at a liveable wage, and donates money to entrepreneurs in developing countries. That one is more on the pricey side though. Even if you can’t afford to buy from businesses that donate, buying from women-run small businesses helps cultivate a community of women empowerment.
8. Lead positive self-esteem by example.
Girls need to see that it’s okay to have positive self-esteem. Model that for them. Show them that women can believe in themselves and see their value.
9. Representation matters. Provide them with books about strong and influential women in history. Provide them with books centering on girl characters. (Please make sure they are intersectional!)
Things this will provide: Literacy. Representation. A strong sense of strength in being a girl.
10. Discuss the false images of gender, race, sexuality, etc. in the media.
The media sends extremely insufficient messages about diversity and minority communities. Without guidance, girls can take on extremely incorrect expectations of what they should and shouldn’t be based on their gender, race, sexuality, class, citizenship status, disability, and/or (insert other identity markers I missed here). It’s important to teach young girls that 1) their identities aren’t separate from each other, 2) the media distorts the image of certain communities, and 3) they shouldn’t weigh their value as a person based on these messages.
11. Watch Malala Yousafzai’s speeches with them.
Malala Yousafzai is a Nobel Prize laureate and a fantastic role model for girls around the world. She is intelligent, bold, inspirational. She speaks to the importance of educational access for girls. I think every girl absorb something meaningful from listening to Malala.
12. Teach them to recognize their own needs.
Girls are conditioned from a young age to put others’ needs ahead of their own. Many times, they are even taught not to acknowledge their own needs. We need to break down these lessons and teach girls that their needs are valid and important. We need to help them establish healthy boundaries, so they can balance their own needs with the needs of their loved ones. It’s okay for them to put themselves first sometimes. They need to know that.
13. Help girls learn important life skills.
Girls need to know how to cook and how to manage finances, how to sew a button and how to use tools, how to write a kick-ass resume and how to change a tire. You get the idea. Basic life skills are far too often separated based on gender-expectations. If we want to prepare girls for adulthood and empower them to live their best lives, they need to be properly equipped with all of the major skills. It is our responsibility to help them develop these abilities.
I hope that you take these suggestions and bring them to life in the world around you. There are so many ways that women can improve society. They can take on jobs as doctors, lawyers, politicians, teachers, scientists. But, this journey starts young. Girls need our guidance. They need our knowledge. And, they need our hearts.
Now that you’ve heard my thoughts, I’d love to hear what you have to say. We all have different insights and perspectives. Please let me know your own suggestions for empowering the next generation of women in the comments below.
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Books to check out:
Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference by Cordelia Fine
Gender and Social Hierarchies: Perspectives from Social Psychology by Klea Faniko
Inferior: The True Power of Women and the Science that Shows It by Angela Saini
Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue by Christia Spears Brown, PhD
Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps—And What We Can Do About It by Jill. Lise Eliot
Sexism in America: Alive, Well, and Ruining Our Future by Barbara J Berg
The Psychology of Women by Margaret W, Matlin