Monday, December 1, 2014

Talking to young girls about gender

When I was home for Thanksgiving I recorded a talk I gave a few weeks ago to submit for a job application. Given that it is about gender representation in media and young girls as storytellers, I wanted to get one take of me actually giving the speech to a young girl. So, one evening I sat down with my eight-year-old neighbor, Malin. She has two older brothers who she fights endlessly with, loves sports (hockey is her favorite at the moment), and is exceptionally good at math. When I arrived at her house I explained to her what I was trying to do. I let her help me set up the camera, showed her how to change the white balance and let her play with the focus. When we finally sat down I told her briefly about the talk, explaining some concepts and why it was important. Then, I proceeded to give the talk just as I would to an older audience. There is a whole section of the talk about girls seeking out leadership opportunities and I explain that of all the kids who want to be president when they grow up, only 19% of them are girls. I then casually mention that there has never been a girl president. Malin stops me. "Wait, wait, wait," she says, "YOU ARE SAYING THAT THERE HAS NEVER BEEN A GIRL PRESIDENT IN THE WHOLE 100 MILLION YEAR HISTORY OF ALL OF AMERICA?!?!?!?!"

I didn't really know what to say. Nobody had ever stopped me in the middle of my talk before. I tried to explain, "Well, America hasn't been around that long... It's only been a few hundred years... I mean colonial America... Because, yeah, America itself has been around for a long time... And, yeah, no girls presidents. Ever."

The next question I was equally unprepared for: "Why?" she probed.

I responded with "That's just the way it is. But it is going to change soon."

For some reason I didn't feel comfortable explaining to her gender roles and expectations. It became clear to me that she did not see any of that yet in the world. I asked her, "Do you want to be president?"

"Of course!" she responded.

"Good," I told her.

This is why I love young girls (in the totally non-creepy way). Nobody is born into the world with a pre-conceived notion of who or how they are supposed to be. If anything, young girls are in a unique position to critique what society is telling them about who they are supposed to be. I felt guilty even telling Malin all of this because, really, I should have just been encouraging her to do and be anything she wanted instead of telling her about this legacy she had to change in order to achieve her dreams. I finished the talk and had a conversation with her about what she can do to become president one day. I asked her about all the ways she's a leader. I told her to keep developing those skills so that she CAN be president one day. Young girls now are going to grow up to be the next leaders. For some reason, I feel such and obligation to the girls in my life to teach them about the history of women who have fought for them and about how they are so important in this world. But, after this conversation with Malin I felt like I had diminished a part of her--by telling her about this history I had all of the sudden planted this idea in her head that she couldn't do it because nobody had done it before.

Having this conversation with her was a good experience for me. Next time I have the opportunity to have a conversation like this with a young girl, I think it will be important for me to not assume they feel or think a certain way and instead just listen.


  1. I think it's fascinating that your little neighbor wasn't aware of the male presidential legacy yet. It makes me wonder who is going to tell young girls about the patriarchal history of the US? Teachers? Parents? I would be very interested in elementary school teachers talking about this issue, but framing it in the light of what has been done, such as Title 9 and an increase in women in congress (it was only 5 women in the senate in 1992, which was called the Year of the Women, isn't that crazy??). It would be awesome if there was district training for that for all teachers who cover American History (I believe that's in fourth grade). That way it's not such a bummer when they find out, because it's in the context of progress. And teachers could give a heads-up to parents at the teacher conference beforehand, so that parents are ready for their daughters and sons to ask them more about it.

  2. Mallin's response of wanting to become the president even after you told her that there's never been a woman president really challenges me. When we hear and see that there aren't enough women leaders, we often internalize it and start subconsciously thinking that we too can't climb that ladder. We ask ourselves, if it didn't happen for thousands of other women, why should it happen to us? Of course all the 5C students are privileged to have families/friends/professors that are supportive of our dreams, but I think to some degree we all still have some doubts in the back of our minds. It's great that Mallin wasn't discouraged at all by the sad statistics and was actually challenged to want to become the first woman president. I hope that she continues to aspire to become a leader and maintains that confidence.


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