Since 2012, the UN marked the 11th of October as the ‘International Day of the Girl Child’ to bring awareness to the challenges young girls face globally. This year’s theme called “With Her- A Skilled GirlForce” aims to proactively engage partners and stakeholders to invest in and advocate creating more opportunities for enhancing young girls’ employability. To provide some context, there are 600 million adolescent girls joining the workforce in the next decade. Of those currently living in the developing world, 90% are anticipated to only be able to access the informal sector and therefore be more likely to be subject to low pay, abuse and exploitation.
Opportunities for girls
Is this because the opportunities for young girls are not there or because they are unable to access them? Despite the great progress in gender equality, the latest statistics in the gender pay gap even in the most developed economies such as the UK or US indicate that it is not necessarily a matter of a lack of opportunities for women to thrive but rather the barriers to entry and the pre-defined notions of ‘pink’ and ‘blue’ jobs. Hence, if the opportunities are really there, what is really holding young girls and women back?
Many of us might remember the slightly controversial but hugely successful #LikeAGirl ad by Always which first aired in June 2014. At the time, the company was trying to diversify its marketing strategies and move away from the cliché of feminine-hygiene products in order to appeal to the 16-24-year old female demographic. However, in reality this advert became a movement and soon after an endorsed campaign which featured prominently in the company’s main website followed by many similar themed videos. The ad brought to life very authentically the significant impact the confidence gap between genders has on forming the societal stereotypes and unconscious bias between men and women in their adulthood.
In the video, an interviewer requires participating young girls, boys, men and women to perform various actions ‘Like a Girl’. While young girls performed all the actions wholeheartedly and confidently as one would regardless of their gender, women seemed to try and fit in the predefined box that society has created overtime. Unsurprisingly, men and young boys followed suit. It became evident that, among all the adults and young boys, doing anything ‘like a girl’ meant appearing fragile, gentle, perfect in an unnatural way which are all notorious myths about being ‘feminine’. This demonstrates that our gender bias is reinforced as adults and that interestingly, men are not the only ones prone to it. Adult women also appeared to believe the same preconceived gender norms about themselves triggered by the tag line ‘Like a Girl’.
Research has repeatedly shown that girls’ self-esteem drops twice more than boys’ during puberty and for the most part, women never regain this as adults. One of the key factors driving this trend is that during puberty most girls start being subject to the societal pressures on women such as beauty standards, relationship with men, career choices etc. Another factor might be the continuing vicious circle of raising little girls differently to little boys. While we encourage boys not to be girls as opposed to becoming men, we raise little girls to believe that their self-worth is largely linked to the level of acceptance by the men around them whether it be family, friends or partners. We grow up believing that in order to thrive, we need the protection and the support of ‘a strong’ man. And we know how it goes when women independently seek power, demand respect or make their expectations and ambitions known; the “B-bomb” may drop…
We carry the above bias to the workplace with us. Whether it is the opportunity to get promoted, or asking for a pay rise, or stepping out of our comfort zone and going for that new job, women are often victims of the ‘imposter syndrome’ which is deeply rooted in the self-esteem gap. Unlike our male counterparts, we tend to focus more on the skills we lack rather than the ones we have. This is not to say that males are immune to insecurities but more often than not, they do not allow these to be show-stoppers in their journey. They also seem to have mastered the fine art of ‘winging it’ which as women, we can definitely learn a thing or two from. In fact, an internal report at Hewlett Packard showed that unlike us, men apply for a job or promotion when they meet only 60% of the required attributes as opposed to 100%.
This is why Amelia Earhart still remains such a relevant role model. Her accomplishments as a female pilot were particularly noteworthy in the 1920 as she made it in a male domain. However, in reality Amelia was not the only competent female pilot at the time. What made her time proof was her unshakable belief in herself and her determination to go after the ‘impossible’ because she knew she had the unequivocal right to do so just like her male colleagues.
If I consider my personal journey to adulthood, I do recall the fierce little girl that would speak up 10 times louder if unfairly interrupted or spoken over, that would not accept ‘No’ for an answer without a plausible rationale and that would never be afraid to dream big. While our experiences as women are not universal, we are bounded by very similar challenges. The ability to fiercely ask or create opportunities when they are not available to us is one of them. However, we should and can change the course of reality by starting to be less hard on ourselves and then each other. Perhaps we have been focusing on changing the preconceptions of men on us for a long time that we might have overlooked changing our own. It is therefore important to keep the memory of our inner ‘little girl’ alive as adults particularly on those days where we might question our capability to succeed. Let that inner ‘little girl’ serve as our daily reminder to grab every opportunity presented in our way because the fear of failure should not overcome the lingering consequences of a ‘what if’.
 Described by Pauline Claunce and Suzanne Imes as women’s tendency to feel non-deserving of their job.
Originally published at www.linkedin.com