My husband was fired up.
“The CEO of the kindergarten pulled me up for telling our gorgeous daughter how pretty she looked. She even went on to suggest that I use other words such as ‘clever’ or ‘thoughtful’ instead of ‘pretty’, and to leave the Barbie Dolls at home, too! Come on, did you see how pretty she looked in her dress this morning?”
This story is now 15 years old. I clearly recall my response. “She did look pretty cute. And why no Barbie Dolls?”
But on mature reflection, the educator’s words struck home, and started us both thinking about the conditioning we unconsciously instil in women as to “what’s important”.
This direct, clear and considered advice was important in shaping our thinking and dialogue with our girls throughout their formative years, and mine. One wise woman. One moment. One slightly uncomfortable disturbance in the present, for the serious hope of a better future.
In light of International Women’s Day, take a look at Mamamia’s Women of the Year of the last 12 months. (Post continues after video.)
Today I am pondering a recent conversation with a client who had read about the huge success of Blackmores under CEO Christine Holgate’s leadership.
“It would really help Christine if she manned up a bit with the media. She comes across as a bit fluffy,” he said confidently.
“Oh?” I responded in amazement. “An 83 per cent increase in profit and a $3.5B market cap – how do you think that ‘manning up’ would help her?”
Silence. Message received? Who knows?
It’s interesting that the phrase “manned up” is equivalent to “tougher and more assertive”. Even the phrase, let alone the implications of it being used in that context, presupposes that men are innately tougher and likely to be more successful.
Women in leadership roles are still breaking new ground. After the cataclysmic change wrought by the Suffragettes, the “next wave” overtly feminist movement didn’t erupt till the late 1960s. In evolutionary terms, that’s yesterday. The simple truth is, not many of us know how to behave as leaders.
It’s not just women who have a problem. The world has changed rapidly for men, too. But women unquestionably have the thorniest end of the stick to grasp. Whether we like it or not, many people seem to care more about what Julia Gillard or Julie Bishop are wearing than their success, and their home and personal lives are analysed in a way that never happens with men.
Diminishing or marginalising women actually grows from excusing or ignoring hundreds of minor slips in our parenting and grand-parenting, and in our day-to-day relationships with each other.
We banter on and on, parroting clichés and stereotypes, not challenging them because no one wants to be seen as nosy, over-bearing, humourless, or all the other epithets cast at those who dare to criticise casual sexism.
We bite our tongues. The exact same self-censorship used to apply when we heard people telling racist jokes, but we’ve pretty much got past that.
We all do it. No one employs a perfectly non-sexist communication pattern. So we all need to step up, increase our mindfulness, and put greater expectation on ourselves.
So why don’t we just “flick a switch” and “make it so”?
Many men (and a good proportion of women) seek to maintain the status quo. It is easier to follow rather than lead, and men may not consciously support patriarchy, but nevertheless find it convenient. Many men simply don’t see the problem, or if they do, they minimise and disparage it.
And many women are struggling with what “authenticity” really means for them as a woman in a leadership context.
Let’s be blunt. It’s hard to lead authentically when you’ve been brought up to be subordinate.
So re-thinking our gender roles needs to be something done by men and women, and boys and girls. But this caveat needs to be added. It has to start with women. Men aren’t about to change things spontaneously. Simple fact: Power is very rarely given up willingly, if ever.
Going back to that day in at kindergarten, there’s really nothing terribly wrong with a girl wanting to be, or even being told she is, pretty. But there sure as hell is something very wrong with it if it’s all we tell them.
And yes, you know what? We should decrease the Barbie play because as far as being a role-model for real people goes, she really doesn’t cut it does she?
Let’s also all reduce our exposure to banal media and increase awareness of the importance of getting more thoughtful words out into the world.
Let’s encourage our children to inspect, to criticise, to create, not just to consume. To create words and images that make a difference, person by person. Ideas that nurture, ripple and educate. Be the change we want to see, right?
So as my contribution to that ideal, let me just say that I think it’s time to radically change the unwritten, inherited rules of communal etiquette. No, women don’t need to “Man Up”. We all need to “Human Up”.
Here are my suggestions for healthier families, healthier education, and healthier workplaces:
1. Remind our sons that big boys do cry. Crying is a natural way of expressing emotions. If our boys cried a little more, and weren’t condemned for it, men might be a little more understanding, compassionate, empathetic and connected.
2. Tell our girls that they are enough. Remind them that while glass ceilings are real, their only ultimate inhibitor is in their own head.
3. Tell girls that it really doesn’t matter what size they are or what they wear or how their hair is done. What matters is how they feel and act. No “thing”, and no “body” – beyond a healthy one – is going to make them feel great. Only being true to their inner drives and skills will do that.
4. Support kids in exploring their values, their strengths and what lights them up. Point them in the direction of leaders who think and act creatively. Encourage them to think innovatively, not to merely regurgitate facts.
5. Explain that there’s no guarantees but that this is also the most exciting part of life. Failure shouldn’t stop us, it should encourage us.
6. Tell them to seek out idealists who believe in them and their development.
7. Let them know that if they want to be a leader it’s a choice and it doesn’t need a role description, an office or a title. Remind them of what it’s like at the other end of a life less lived.
So let’s change the world together. How about we all begin at kindergarten? How about we begin with ‘smart’, ‘trying your best’, ‘creative’ as our encouragements to our kids, and our girls, especially. You know, instead of ‘pretty?’ Or at the very least, as well as.
Because our girls have to believe in themselves before anyone else will.
Soozey Johnstone is a writer, thought leader and advisor to senior executive teams. She is the author of the recently released book I Am The Problem, outlining the 9 key obstacles that lead to organisational success, and why some businesses grow and prosper while others inevitably stumble and decline.