In 2010, Olivia, my then 15-year-old daughter was interviewed for an article in Maclean’s magazine that examined how a post-feminist generation of adolescent girls understood the meaning and value of feminism. Like many other girls at that age, Olivia saw feminists as irrelevant to her life’s circumstances – a dying breed no longer required in a Western society where men and women, to her mind, were equal. I believe I also recall her adding that feminists wore sensible shoes and minimal makeup.
Fast-forward seven years. Newly graduated from university and working at her first full-time job in downtown Toronto, Olivia has matured, and so have her ideas. She recently devoured the book, Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and immediately afterwards purchased a t-shirt with Notorious RBG emblazoned across the front. She’s read Lean In by Sheryl Sandburg, was fascinated to hear Monica Lewinsky speak last year at Western University’s Ivey School of Business, and frequently holds court at the dinner table to discuss topics such as why the number of chief executive officers named John outnumber all women in S&P 1500 companies. And last week, she was jealous that I got to attend an evening event featuring Gloria Steinem as the guest speaker. (Seven years ago she didn’t know who Gloria Steinem was.)
Good parents should never say, “I told you so.” But how wonderful as a parent to look at my daughter and think, “Yes, she gets it!” All those talks we had (or should I say, I had) about equality, about doing what’s right, about standing up for oneself, about finding your voice in a room full of boys (now men), all those snippets of conversations that often ended with her exhaling a long, “Oh, mooooom . . . it’s not like that anymore.” I don’t know if they had an impact, but I do know that she has matured into an analytical, independently-thinking young woman who cares about the world around her, and is willing and able to see and talk about its complexity.
My husband and I had dinner with friends this weekend, and the conversation briefly touched on the horrific avalanche of accusations about famous men triggered by the Harvey Weinstein scandal. I couldn’t help but be struck by one comment: “Right now it’s the film industry. I wonder what industry’s next. Music? Tech? Business?” In other words, this may not be so much about Hollywood as it is about a generation that turned a blind eye to abuse of power by men: Therefore, it’s just a given that there are a lot more men in positions of power in other industries who have behaved badly. What a sad statement about the society our sons and daughters are inheriting.
Both couples we dined with have sons who are now young men – upstanding and thoughtful young men of character. Their parents should be proud. We talked about our hope for this younger generation, and whether the robust public discussion of what’s gone horribly wrong in the past might mean better treatment in the workplace for our daughters. We think that this generation is more willing to reject traditional gender roles and better prepared to question inequalities.
I am hopeful that this younger generation may get it right (or at least closer to right). But that will take open dialogue and a heck of a lot of brave people prepared to call out discrimination when it happens. And not just those who experience abuse of power but also those who see it. Bystanders need to speak up, too. And, if I’m going to be very specific, bystanders who themselves are in positions of power need to speak up in support of those with lesser power. It can’t be left to the victims to right these systemic wrongs.
So now, let’s go back to where I started. Dealing with adolescent girls. Even though my daughter is now grown, my job allows me to spend my days talking with girls. Girls who are blessedly surrounded by support and educated in a school where every leader they see is a girl. Girls who expect that their voices will be heard, that they will be considered for opportunities based on merit, and that a world of possibility awaits them. Girls who don’t know what they don’t know, so struggle to see discussions about inequity as anything other than theoretical.
I don’t want to take that away from our girls’ positivity, their confidence, and their wonderful belief that the world is a good and kind place. But neither do I want to send them forth into this world with no idea that uneven playing fields do still exist.
So like I did with my own daughter, and at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’ll continue to talk, and talk, and talk. I’ll do a lot of listening, too, and work to meet the girls where they are in their development. I’ll share in their excitement and hope for the future, and encourage them to dream big. But I’m also going to educate them about the reality of the world they are entering. We’ll talk about inequality, about situations where decisions have perhaps been made for reasons other than merit, about women who have gone before them, and about the paths that are open to them thanks to many women who have gone before. And we’ll talk about what it means to speak up, to find one’s voice, to support one another, and to lead with integrity.
Gloria Steinem said, “A feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men.” With that definition in mind, I hope that everyone in our school community will join me in preparing our girls for whatever lies ahead after they leave the support of our community. As parents, open up dialogue at the dinner table, talk about what you see in your own workplace, discuss current events, and challenge her with questions such as, “What would you do if . . .?” Know that she might not “get it” yet, and yes, you might hear the occasional exhalation of “Oh, mom” or “Oh, dad”. But know that the time you devote to talking through these issues with her are, in fact, planting the seeds for her independence, her courage, her belief in her value, and her future ability to tackle anything that life throws at her.