As women, we’ve made great strides toward equality in the past century.
Our grandmothers and great-grandmothers fought for rights we now take for granted, and our mothers’ generation pushed hard at the social boundaries that kept women out of positions of power. In my generation, there is still a lot of talk about how to empower our girls, how to raise them to continue to push higher, break through the glass ceilings, and take their places among men in positions of true equality.
While we’ve made great progress, there is still work to be done. Our daughters are entering a world stronger and freer than any generation of young women have ever been, but there is not yet equality.
I see my students constantly soaking in gendered attitudes and expectations from their environment, such as how the school nurse is female, so all nurses must be female, or how the bus driver is a man so only men can be bus drivers, and drawing fixed conclusions about their world and their place in it.
Gender stereotypes are also unintentionally reinforced in school through the curriculum, books, language, staff assumptions and daily interactions with adults and peers, and that this happens at a crucial stage in our students’ development. However, our schools can become “powerful agents of change” by adopting the right awareness and tools to recognise and correct unintentional gender bias.
So what do we do about this divide? As teachers of girls, how do we work to raise women who will be warriors for their own causes and for humanity as a whole?
We are in the month of March…a month celebrating women. Are you going to hold an assembly about it, will you host discussions in your staff rooms and classes throughout the week? If you are a principal or headteachers, will you have training sessions with your female staff members, discussing the challenges and barriers they face when considering a leadership position?
There are so many things we can do.
Personally, I try to be a good role model. I say to girls at my school that they can do whatever they want to do with their lives; the future is for everybody – regardless of gender! If they work hard and believe in themselves, they can reach their full potential. They don’t have to listen to that inner critical voice that they sometimes hear, as it puts limits on them and their aspirations. I like to point out to them that our school’s Director is a woman…and that we have so many amazing women here in Nigeria, too.
There’s still a lot of work to be done to challenge our notions of leadership and gender but I do think times are changing.
Our role as educators is to encourage the girls in our schools to step up and to foster in them the confidence that they will need to lead that change. They are the only ones who can make sure we don’t have to wait 70 years for leadership equality. So, set a good example.
Maybe you’ve heard the old adage: “More is caught than taught.” For teachers who identify as women, it is vitally important that we set an example for our girls of what strong womanhood looks like. If we do our work to speak from a place of equal footing and push towards our dreams, our girls will see that this is possible for them, too. We will become their stepping stones. Finding empowerment begins in these all-important mentoring relationships.
Teachers, regardless of their gender, also have the opportunity to invite guests or study people (in class or in clubs) who will inspire students to think beyond gender roles and limitations. Why not make use of TED talks delivered by inspiring women, read about people who defy gender sterotypes, invite women who are leaders in their community or profession to the classroom, and encourage students to find heroes in the world around them? Better yet, encourage children to reach out to women whom they admire, ask them questions, or form mentoring relationships with them.
And while we are have mentoring interactions, please don’t forget to create allies. While the feminist movement has focused on women, it is not limited to women — nor should it be. Every person can be a feminist and, in my opinion, should be. We need to be actively working, as teachers, to create dialogue around feminism that is inclusive of male allies. Men have a great deal of power in this world, and they can use it to press for equality. They should be inspired to do that!
We should help our sons become sensitive to the issues, responsive to the points of injustice and inequality, and aggressive in the pursuit of change. They should be encouraged to identify as feminists and allies in a cause that not only benefits their mothers and sisters, but themselves as well. When women advance, the human race advances. Everyone wins.
The overarching point is that it’s up to us, as teachers and parents, to create classrooms and learning environments in which opportunities for dialogue and diversity are moving us towards true equality. Avoiding uncomfortable discussions doesn’t help. Pretending the issues aren’t there doesn’t improve anything. Only bravery in the face of our own discomfort and an acknowledgement of the realities of power and privilege will get the work done in the next generation.
Let’s use our positions of power to be the example, to continue the work, and to challenge our girls to become warriors, not wallflowers.
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