Most of us didn’t grow up celebrating International Women’s Day, so how would we know how to do this? Maybe it’s the impact of the last two years on women’s jobs, or the mental health crisis facing our teen girls, or the erosion of our control over our own bodies, or the way my niece disappears into her hoodie when I say “feminist” too loud, but the time feels right to double down on making this celebration of womanhood across the globe meaningful to each of us.
At Girls Leadership we teach girls to exercise the power of their voice by addressing both the learned internal barriers to leadership, and the external systemic barriers girls face in school and later at work. The internal work, such as taking more risks in meetings, or apologizing less for our mistakes or even our existence, is hard work to begin after 30 to 40 years of socialization that rewards compliance. The good news? The internal practices of power are downright joyous to teach to seven- and eight-year-olds. Girls can pick up in two weeks what would take us two years of therapy. The catch? We can’t teach our girls to own their power, if we still aren’t comfortable with the idea for ourselves.
It can be hard to believe, especially for those of us who are deeply committed to gender equity, but when we celebrate #BreakTheBias for International Women’s Day this year, we may need to start with our own internal, implicit bias.
Where is bias coming from?
In 2015 Harvard University’s Making Caring Common project released Leaning Out, a study on gender and leadership that showed not only White teen girls being more likely to have bias toward their White male peers as leaders, but their moms also demonstrated bias toward their sons as leaders. These findings were hard to take in. It is easier to point to media and social media as the cause for the drop in confidence, voice, and leadership ambition in the teen years, but these findings suggest that the call may be coming from inside the house.
Our 2020 study, Ready to Lead, shows that ethnicity and culture make a big difference for different girls. Different girls get different messages. Black and Latinx parents and caregivers were the most likely to see themselves as leaders, and have girls who share that identity and aspiration for the future.
At Girls Leadership we see that in families that experience multiple layers of oppression or marginalization — low income families of color, for example — there is more open and direct dialogue about the racial and gender bias their girls will face. One girl explained it this way: “My mother told me, ‘Get ready because you are a Black girl in a world that is sexist and racist.’”
In more privileged families — higher income White families, for example — the more typical message is, “You can be anything.” One dad in a parent education workshop once asked, “If I have a son and a daughter, shouldn’t I be raising them with an approach of equality?” Our response was, “If you were preparing them to go into an equal world, yes, but given our current reality in leadership across every sector, equity might be the more realistic approach.” These girls may not see bias at first because they are not taught that they will face it in STEM, sports, healthcare, or leadership in every sector. We cannot #BreakTheBias if we do not see the bias.
How Do I #BreakTheBias?
To deeply honor this International Women’s Day, we invite you to join us in a three-part exercise to become aware of your internal bias (even possibly against your own identity), to start dialogue as a family or classroom, and commit to one action that you can take to #BreakTheBias at home or in your community. If we take the time and space to give this gift to ourselves, we have a chance of being able to free this next generation from the biases we’ve carried.
Step One: Bias Reflection
Ask yourself, “In my culture, when I was growing up, how were girls supposed to look and act?” (You can ask yourself this even if you don’t identify as female. Still unsure? Call a sister or a female identifying friend.) What behaviors were praised at home, school, camps, or programs, in my religious community? What behaviors were punished? Was this different for boys? Is this different now? In your culture, how is your girl expected to look and act now? What is she praised for by adults, grandparents, teachers, and coaches? What is she chastised for?
Step Two: Dialogue
Ask your kids, “How do you think gender bias shows up at home or at school?” Explore the difference between gendered choices and gender bias, which is usually based on stereotype, and suggests a lack of fairness. Do you notice how bias shows up in our language? In the media that we consume, like TV or movie choices? In the jobs that we do around the house? Are chore assignments connected to bias? This is especially important if chores are paid. Can you own a bias that you were taught? Is that bias connected to your own identity?
Step Three: Action
How can we pick one small action today or this week to try to #BreakTheBias? Try using new language, perhaps switching from, “I’m bad at ______,” to “I haven’t had much practice at _____.” Can we try a new book or show from an author or with actors who we might not usually read or watch? Can parents or caregivers and kids spin a chore wheel to try out new jobs? Can we explore a new game or sports program just for five minutes just for the sake of seeing, naming, and exploring the limits of our everyday biases?
If we don’t see the gender and racial bias that we were all raised with, we can’t teach our kids to see and name it. This is the internal ladder we must dismantle in order to get to work on our public and systemic ladders. As always, we are here to help you do the work.
Photo credit: Chloe Jackman