Today’s teenage girls would like to become the leaders of the future and they are the leaders we need. They are inspired by social justice, climate change, and a diverse range of female role-models. They are also being put off pursuing these dreams by the vitriolic abuse they know they would suffer as women in the public eye.
These are the findings from research conducted for the Gender and Education Association and Oxford Brookes University. We interviewed 50 girls aged 13 to 16 around the country, asking which women they view as good leaders and whether they consider themselves potential future leaders.
Topping their list of leadership role-models was former first lady Michelle Obama, named by 58 percent of the girls. Next came Beyoncé, Ellen DeGeneres, Malala Yousafzai, and Emma Watson. Three out of five were women of colour, and one a lesbian. The common factor in the popularity of this diverse group was their commitment to social causes. Reason, we believe, these girls offer real hope for the future. The shortlist may seem disconcertingly celebrity-orientated.
However, the girls placed social justice work above a woman’s specific role. They saw these high-profile women as offering hope of a future in which sexual orientation and race do not impede access to power.
Such admiration does not cloud their vision of the challenges facing prominent women. Unrelenting focus on appearance, gender stereotypes that deny women authority, and online abuse were powerful disincentives. As one put it, “You could make a change, but you’re not acknowledged for what you do right, you’re acknowledged for what you do wrong”.
Alarmingly, poorer teens and girls of colour were particularly discouraged. Less privileged girls saw power as the preserve of “friends of people that already have it”. Another saw “Oxford” types in many public roles, but rarely people from her city (Bradford), so felt that “it’s not for us”.
Black girls were aware of being particularly under scrutiny – both as potential troublemakers and potential victims. One described the risks of being a changemaker in stark terms: “Every black person that’s done something good got shot in the head. Except Nelson Mandela. But Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Malala, Tupac...”
This matters. We have a gender leadership problem in the UK. Our average position since the World Economic Forum started ranking gender parity in political representation in 2006 is 21. Our research suggests that, without real cultural change, this won’t improve in the next generation. It also points to some solutions to the problem.
Firstly, we must remould our collective imagination of what a leader looks like in terms that do not preclude women. The tough, self-interested, white, male leader of popular imagination is as exclusionary for today’s girls as it is dangerous for our national culture. One need look no further than Trump and Putin for evidence of the threat masculinised models of leadership pose to international peace and prosperity.
Legislation is being discussed to tackle online misogyny – one key way highly visible women are punished. But it is not the full media picture. Our second recommendation is that large-scale media outlets must get their houses in order. Certainly, the Daily Mail’s “Legsit” line deserved the scorn it received, but this is not solely a tabloid problem. On the BBC’s Today programme Nick Robinson’s description of Theresa May as heading to Brussels to “show a bit of leg” passed without comment.
Lastly, we need to show girls how women in leadership positions got there, and that it’s not all bad. As well as examples of women in power, how about we show our girls women enjoying power together.
Popular wisdom calls for more female role-models. But numbers alone are not enough. We can’t just teach girls the dangers for women in the public eye then expect them to want to enter this battlefield. We are working with the Jo Cox Foundation to implement these solutions. Only by changing the ways ideal leaders are imagined and real women leaders are treated will we get the generation of progressive, diverse, female leaders our country so badly needs.
Dr Hannah Yelin and Dr Michele Paule are senior lecturers at Oxford Brookes University and co-authored this piece.
Hannah also runs celebritycultureclub.com, and Michele has served as an Oxford City councillor and is Principle Investigator on the research project Girls, Leadership and Women in the Public Eye
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