A ‘supergirl’ can take many forms and roles. It’s not all about being president or bust, writes Áilin Quinlan.
HILLARY Clinton was understandably devastated — yet in her concession speech she acknowledged the many girls and young women who had followed her every move throughout a highly turbulent presidential election.
Never doubt, she told them, that they are “valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity”.
It was another public boost to the West’s burgeoning international girl-power movement — though there are those who question whether we’re putting too much pressure on girls to achieve.
Last month Wonder Woman was appointed as the honorary ambassador for the UN as a symbol “to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”.
The organisation argued that she has always been a trailblazer for women’s rights and, as an accessible comic-book figure, could be used to inspire, teach, and reveal injustice.
However, there was a storm of protest from staff members.
A petition, with more than 1,180 signatures, was submitted to the UN secretary general asking him to reconsider the decision.
Essentially what the UN staff members wanted was a real person as an ambassador, one who was “culturally empowering”.
There seems to have been a surge of superhero girls of late.
Last year, Sky One broadcast the US series Supergirl — a feisty super-heroine who is related to Superman.
And earlier this year, Mattel launched DC SuperHero Girls, a range of dolls who want to get out there and get things done. But is it possible to have one superhero role model too many?
Girls today may be getting a somewhat unbalanced message about achievement and what it is, says businesswoman Maebh Leahy, but this overemphasis on superwomen, she believes, is probably a knee-jerk reaction to the way girls have been so undervalued in the past.
“The message we’re sending to girls is that you have to go all the way to be tops — that you have to be a certain personality and you have to forsake everything to get there, like family life or motherhood,” says Leahy, who is chief executive of the Rutland Centre, Ireland’s largest addiction rehabilitation centre.
She’s concerned that there doesn’t seem to be any middle ground.“You’re either the prime minister or a stay-at-home mum.”
There is a feeling that too much of an emphasis is being placed on ‘super-strong’ women. Leahy points to a lack of acknowledgement that a girl can be in the middle or along a continuum, enjoying a decent job and being successful in reaching her own goals.
“There is an unbalanced pressure on girls. It’s a reaction — it’s about trying so hard to get women to the forefront of business and social life that we are forgetting about other things. This comes from an anxiety about girls underachieving and about trying so hard to ensure the potential of women is recognised.”
Super-strong women are fantastic role models to have, Leahy believes, “but they’re one in a million”.
She says there should be a greater focus on women who’ve worked hard and come up through the ranks.
The biggest issue is that we support our children, says Rosemary Delaney, founder of the business magazine Women Mean Business (womenmeanbusiness.com).
“I think the important words from Clinton’s concession speech was when she mentioned to all the little girls watching, to never doubt that you can achieve your own dreams,” says Delaney.
“My daughter is almost 12 and I am very conscious of the vital role I play in her life. As she transitions into senior school in the coming year, I am reminded that a rounded education — one that nurtures, is inclusive, is empowering — these are the important tools, which will allow her to develop and become whatever she wants to be.
“Society and parents do put pressure on girls to be high achievers. That same pressure is also put on the boys.
“The vital thing is to ensure we support them, make their worlds as positive and happy as possible, and everything else should fall into place.”
Gina London, an Emmy-winning former CNN political correspondent and mum to a nine-year-old girl, agrees.
“Happiness must be at the forefront of any person’s role and how they choose to define that happiness should be encouraged and celebrated by all of us,” she says.
However, empowering girls to define their own happiness and teaching them the tools to help them attain it is crucial.
“I see in my professional work that the traits of confidence are largely taught, learned, and developed over time, and the confidence to pursue your dreams is very much a building block of happiness to many people,” she says.
“It is important to empower our girls and boys to dream, to set goals, and to take steps to achieve those goals,” says London, who is also a strategic communications director with PR firm Fuzion.
Few will argue that girls need a wide range of role models, particularly those who encourage, motivate, and positively impact the lives of others.
Malala Yousafzai, the teenage Pakistani activist and the youngest person to win a Nobel Prize, sets the bar high but by speaking out about the right for girls to be educated, she has helped to galvanise world opinion on the topic.
Delaney believes “there will always be leaders and followers”.
“It takes a special person to be a leader. It also takes a unique person to create real change. They need to have a strength of character and mind regardless of their gender,” she says.
“Superheroines for me include physicist and chemist Marie Curie; suffragette and socialist Constance Markievicz; Mother Teresa of Calcutta. These superheroines were once ordinary girls who chose to do extraordinary things across generations.”
One thing above all that we should never forget is that the more empowered we are to do the things we want to do and reach our full potential, the happier we are, says Mary Cary, executive director of the Blackstone Launch Pad, an entrepreneur development programme at NUI Galway.
She is also the founder of the acclaimed Outbox Incubator, the world’s first ever incubator for entrepreneurial girls, which saw the formation of 27 new companies in just 18 months.
“I don’t believe in this notion that we’re putting too much pressure on girls. Research shows girls are parented differently to boys and that society has different expectations of them.
“The way to break these old stereotypes is through education, empowerment, healthy expectations, mentoring, and good role models — we really need strong role models.”
For Rosemary Delaney, it’s about choice: “I want my daughter to have more choices — choices that the current and previous generations only dreamed about,” she says, adding that she believes in the adage ‘seeing is believing’.
“I set up WMB a decade ago because of a lack of female role models in the business world. However, they did exist albeit in smaller numbers. In the intervening years, more women have joined the workforce — they want to pursue their careers and dreams, to have financial independence.
“They also recognise that they are role models for their own sons and daughters. So we are seeing more and more women ‘doing their own thing,’” she says.
“It’s generational — I think young people today are attracted to real talent in whatever shape or form it comes in.”
Remember, points out Maebh Leahy, that what are often seen as feminine traits — empathy, compassion, a nurturing outlook — can be powerful tools when used in leadership to bring a team together.
The problem is, she says, that these skills are not as openly valued or as measurable as other attributes, yet they have a very important role to play in leadership.
So why are so few female role models prepared to talk about the life-changing and career-defining decision to become a mum?
Again, says Leahy, that’s very much down to the way women were perceived in the past. “There’s still a fear that you won’t be taken seriously if you’re talking about having a family,” she says.
“It’s still a case of should it be marriage/kids/family or should you go career all the way?
“The question many women ask is does it affect your chances of getting a big job if you are going to go off and have kids?
“I think this is something every organisation in the world should take on the chin. They need to have an openness to their female employees getting pregnant and get rid of that fear for women. Having babies and a career should not hold you back.”
And certainly the results of the study by recruitment firm Morgan McKinley, published earlier this month, that on average women earn 20% or €12,500 less than their male counterparts, would give most female employees considering motherhood cause for thought — especially as the study found that the gender pay gap widens with the number of years’ experience.
Women with 0-5 years’ experience earn 12% less, while women with 15 years-plus of experience earn as much as 28% less than their male counterparts.
Rosemary Delaney argues if a woman is a successful businessperson, then it’s highly likely that she’d feel it more pertinent to talk about goals, visions, successes, disappointments and bottom lines.
“She is probably unlikely to talk about her personal life. Many successful people are guarded and rate their privacy highly.
“Becoming a mum is life-changing for all the right reasons but I don’t necessarily agree that it is career-defining. Ask yourself, would you ask a successful businessman how becoming a father defined his career?”
And what about boys? Will they be left out in the cold because of all of this emphasis on the empowerment of girls?
“Little boys have a head-start anyway,” says Maebh Leahy bluntly.
It’s important to recognise that a world without the female voice is not a representative one,” warns Delaney.
“Work has to be done to balance an inequality that has been allowed fester for too long — in business, in politics, in a social context.
“I see the world of tomorrow as being a more inclusive one where both genders will play leading roles and where there will no longer be a need to highlight the lack of gender diversity.”
In the end, what’s important for girls — their happiness, their prospects for self-fulfillment, and success in the world — is providing them with an abundance of good, empowering role models, of choices, and the tools to make the best decisions for themselves.
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