Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Girl Power: What is the world missing out on by not recognizing it?

Megan Bird got to talk to three talented women who are change makers working in different fields, and got them to weigh in with their thoughts on the question: “Girl Power: What is the world missing out on by not recognizing it?”

Mila Pilz is a brilliant lady who works in the field of conflict resolution and has done some amazing work involving peace and conflict, and is a very inspiring soul.

Elyse Hall is a high school psychology teacher in Texas. Since she spends a lot of time around young people, I thought her views on what Girl Power means would be interesting.

Christine Hoaglund is a recent graduate. She just completed her Masters in IR, and lives in Mexico City. She is about to begin work with the US Department of Justice in Mexico City.

Excerpts of the conversation follow:

Megan: I would like to begin with hearing each of your views on "Girl Power” What is it, and what does it mean to you?
Let’s begin!

CH: As for Megan's first question about Girl Power, I am not sure if I like the term Girl power. The idea of a strong woman seems positive, but I think feminism and the idea of girl power has taken on such a negative connotation. Really, the focus should be on empowering all people, males and females to live in harmony.

EH: Thanks Megan! To be honest, the first thing that comes to my mind when thinking of 'Girl Power' is an image of the Spice Girls, and therefore a rather superficial connotation.  I think I grew up hearing 'Girl Power' as a popular slogan, but without real substance behind the idea of what it really meant. Thinking about it more now however (with a little more maturity then when I was first watching the Spice Girls!), I think it means that girls are not afraid to try something that might be difficult, and choose their own path.  So many career fields and opportunities are available for women, but they still need to possess the confidence to make challenging choices, and stand up for who they are and what they believe.  

MB: Thank you Elyse. You make a very good point. With you being a high school teacher, are you seeing the substance of 'Girl Power' developing in our youth? Is our society creating an environment that nurtures, rather than hinders growth?

EH: In the district where I teach, I definitely see a nurturing environment.  Many of my female students are very academically motivated and college-bound, and they speak confidently about their ideas and goals.  Of course, I know it does make a difference that I teach in a predominantly upper middle class district where most students know there parents can afford and expect them to go to college, which I know can be an important factor in how they view themselves. Actually one of the problems that I've observed and discussed with other teachers is how students are becoming overcommitted with too high expectations of themselves.  I see almost too much 'girl power' ideas in some of my students, where they feel they need to Superwoman and do everything perfectly, and don't know what to do when they encounter obstacles or failure.  What do you girls think- do our ideas and promotion of 'girl power' always encourage women to persevere, or do they sometimes set up what seems like an unattainable ideal?

CH: I like Elyse's point about girls needing the confidence to make challenging choices and stand up for who they are. American society stresses a double standard for women. One the one hand, we paste images of an ideal woman based solely on her physical appearance. According to this standard, a woman is also supposed to be silent. There are many films in which women do not speak to each other or if they do it normally only concerns issues with men. Girls have so much more to offer the world. We encourage them to shrink themselves in order to fit in. It's not healthy at all.

MP: I love your honesty, Elyse, by sharing that you think of the Spice Girls.  I agree that, unfortunately, that is the first type of thing that pops into everyone's mind of things associated with girl power.  That is sad way that even girl power has been taken from girls and turned into a monetary item.  To me girl power is teaching, empowering, supporting, mentoring, etc. girls to believe and act as a force that strives to make sure that girls/women are treated equally to boys/men.  A big part of this is reinforcing the notion that it is a good thing to be a girl.  A big challenge in this is creating and sustaining an atmosphere of women being supportive of each other.  It is so sad to see girl/women bully and compete with each other when we need to come together for our common cause.  Also, great question, Elyse! Unfortunately, I go with the idea of the unattainable ideal.  From everything to how girls should look to their career aspirations...the media and society teach them that they have to balance having a career, family, friends and look good while doing it all.  It also brings up the issue of girls being so career orientated that they feel guilty if they want to have a family and how women who end up choosing either a career or raising kids end up judging the other camp.  With all of that said, I still have to say that it is better than the alternative of women not wanting it all...it is quite the modern day dilemma and shows that the feminist movement is far from over...

CH: In regards to your question, Elyse, about setting girls up to an unattainable ideal, I totally agree. We tell women to be both quiet and bold; to value education, but not at the expense of their grades. No matter what a woman does she will never be enough - a woman must be a wonder woman in all things in order to gain respect and acceptance. 

EH: In what areas do you all think that girls face the most obstacles in not being treated as equal to boys? So much of the prejudice that we have in our society is implicit or can be subtle; I'm curious to hear where you see the greatest effect. Also, Mila, a great point about girls competing against each other rather than being supportive- it happens so often but can be so harmful!

MB: Excellent point ladies. Don't let me interrupt the current topic you are on, but something to start thinking about. What can we start doing to help solve this 'modern day dilemma?'

MP: This also shows hypocritical/double standard.  I'm glad that you pointed out the cultural/social-economical point of your students.  I worked in a school in Jordan for a few years and the women there are even more torn with how to fit the image in their heads of who they are/want to be with the image from their peers. Wow, Elyse--great question and so hard to answer since I feel it is hard to pick just a few!  The top ones that come to mind are looks, career/ family balance and fighting stereotypes since I feel that girls and pigeonholed much more so than boys. As far as solutions go...connecting with each other so that we an be allies.  Bringing more women in power in all areas, but especial media, government, businesses so that they can set higher standards for girls and teaching everyone to view people as humans, not to differentiate but to focus on our common humanity.

EH: To solve this modern day dilemma, I think women need to first feel as though it is ok it their lives and families don't look perfect or how others say they are 'supposed to'.  As Mila said, we have the cultural norm that women can have careers, but they also have to manage their family perfectly, and this can create guilt and competition among women. Another (rather simple) solution is for our expectations of husbands and fathers to change.  There is a perception that a woman choosing a career is somehow choosing not to focus on family, but I think few men feel this way when they choose a full time job.  Especially when both partners are working, it is very important for fathers to be willing (and comfortable with, because it still goes against some of our 'tough guy' male gender role) to help care for and manage the family.  I think having flexible and supportive parental roles can certainly help women manage this dilemma. 

MB: You all seem to be leading to a similar way to help solve this problem. From our discussion, it seems that our society in general is the problem. The stereotypes that keep getting passed from generation to generation are not going away. It will be a challenge, but do you think this long fight will ultimately benefit all parts of the globe? If so, in what ways?

EH:I really like the point that you both just made about learning to treat each other as humans.  We so naturally divide and stereotype our world, and I really think it takes time and effort to overcome those negative perceptions.  For both men and women, the more that we can see people in positive, diverse roles, the less (hopefully) we will pigeonhole each other!  

MP: While the fight is long, I do feel that is it is progressing, but it seems to be progressing slowly-almost by each generation.  I am hopefully that there will be a time when it is the normal, average thing to see and treat men and women equally.  Just like women voting, working took time and race and marriage equality took time...thing too takes time, but we will get there.  I like your point about how feminism affects men and how they need to take a stand too in order for there to be real change.  

CH: As far as a solution and how it will impact the world, I have to second Elyse on learning to see each other as humans. Unfortunately, I think a lot of the problems within our society have to do with inequality. The issue regarding to women is not just a gender issue. It is an economic and political issue. In some places, males are more abusive towards women during economic downtimes. Being the gender that has historically had less power, women can be an easy scapegoat when one is trying to gain a sense of control in a world that is uncontrollable. To address "girl power" issues, we need to address "boy power" issues as well. Hurting and limiting women, hurts and limits men as well. Both genders need to reevaluate their gender roles and expectations. This requires that people work as individuals to evolve emotionally and mentally.

MP: Christine makes a great point by showing the larger political and economical issues.  On a smaller scale actions we can take starting now are Another solution has a lot to do with the language we use in labeling things (postman, etc.) and in how we describe each other (bitchy) and how we talk to young girls (calling them pretty, etc. instead of focusing on their abilities/talents).  Another solution has so much to do with marketing, but not just buying all pink for girls and blue for boys and buying toys for all…not just dolls for girls and action figures for boys. Totally agree, Christine.  And this means we need to reform our mental health, educational, sport, work laws and environments...

CH: Good point Mila about marketing. I also think there needs to be social acceptance of differences between genders. Feminists are quick to attack any sort of distinction. But the truth is, gender is fluid. Each individual needs to define who and how they want to be - girls on average may like the color pink (not that they do or must), but boys may also like it as well. In my view, there is nothing wrong with people displaying or pursuing whatever makes them happy - regardless of a particular gender expectation.

MB: You all make great points. If reform does not happen in these different societies, then how can we expect the trend of confident, empowered women to progress forward? Also from a political reform standpoint, what types of changes do you both think need to be made? What laws and programs promote inequality, or where do you think an 'affirmative action' standpoint is needed?

CH: As for Megan's question, power and freedom are generally not granted. They are taken - claimed. Women and men need to stand up - vote, speak out... claim their role in society. And, while that may conjure up the 1960s, that is totally not what I am necessarily implying. Claiming their role in society means having the right to be who they want to be - mother, career focused, liking a specific color or activity, etc.. In response to Elyse, I agree with I think it was Mila that said something about the use of language. The word their should be change in the English language to also be applicable in the plural form. There is no need to write he or she. Or we should create a word that is gender neutral. Politically, policies that are family friendly - including a system that supports families that have two parents working would be a good place to start. 

MP: wow, great discussion here--really thought provoking.  Christine, I agree that gender is on a scale...and the problem with changing society's mind about this has to do with changing the status quo and people who get power or benefit from the status quo don’t want to it changed. From a political reform standpoint...there should be more a push for paternity leave and some type of reassuring that taking maternity/paternity leave and/or flexible scheduling does not equal the scare of or the reality of losing a job.  Also, giving girls more push in the STEM areas while some how opening up the teaching/nursing and other "female" career to men.  
This does tie into the marriage equality issue and the issue of gay adoption and use of surrogacy.  Interesting idea, Christine-to create a gender-neutral pronoun for people, etc. Society is always making new words/reworking how words or defined... Also, the point about needing a revolution of sorts--actually claiming our rights.  Some people don’t feel the need to do this and that hinders us all...

EH: Mila, your last comment about some not seeing the need for a revolution really caught my attention.  To be honest, in my personal life and experiences, I haven't seen a need. My mother had a successful career while working from home, I never felt as though I encountered overt gender discrimination in my education or career, and my husband and I try to work together in equal roles.  

MB: There has been wonderful discussion. I don't want to cut off any further discussion, so please continue if you are not ready. If not, I feel like this could be a good time to ask for closing statements from each of you.

CH: Good point Elyse about the influence of personal experience. When I served in the US Navy, I had a profoundly different experience. As a female in a male-dominated environment, I struggled quite a bit against stereotypes, sexual harassment and discrimination. I agree that educating both Men and Women about the negative experiences would help greatly. In closing, I think change will start with individuals. If we want a better world for ourselves and maybe our children someday, we need to make the changes in ourselves as people and in our environments. 

EH: Overall, I think the fact that the effects of inequality has become more cultural than actual legal discrimination convinces many women that the inequality doesn't exist.  My positive experiences could easily lead me to believe this, which I think highlights the importance of advocacy.  Women and men need to be aware of issues like the ones that we've been discussing, such as the prevalence of domestic abuse, inequalities in family law, or double standards for gender.  We need more people to know about the importance of these issues to make change.

MP: You are right, advocacy and communication of the issue itself is huge.  I am happy to hear that you have been lucky enough to have not seen the need.  Thank you for opening me open to this issue of getting more women to see the need and that they haven't seen the need isn't their fault/a bad thing...just is and once they know then we are all more powerful. In closing, having these types of discussions are vital to pushing the cause forward and that using our common humanity and seeing each person as an individual cannot be underestimated. Thank you Megan!  Thank you Elyse!  Thank you Christine!

MB: On behalf of the Red Elephant Foundation and the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, I want to say thank you all three of you! You have given great insight to the meaning of "Girl Power" and the steps needed to make our society a better place for all.