Guest blog: Smash the stereotypes on International Women's Day


Kate Smith, member of Plan International Ireland’s Youth Advisory Panel, writes our guest blog for International Women’s Day 2020.


On 8th March each year the world celebrate International Women’s Day which is time to celebrate the empowerment of women while calling on everyone to tackle the persistent barriers against gender equality.

Yet 2020 has got off to what seems like a slow start. Ireland’s recent election results were disappointing with only a 1% rise in female representation. The 2020 Academy Awards showed that little has improved in the fight for gender equality in Hollywood. Ungendered awards categories are once again dominated by men, and films that champion feminism such as Little Women were snubbed.

From the moment we wake up, to the moment we go to bed, we’re bombarded with harmful stereotypes of girls and women in the media and entertainment. For hundreds of years we’ve had roles and stories written about us… for us. These stories and roles we’re given are damaging and often one-dimensional, flat and more than anything – untrue! They are damaging what we believe we can do, what we believe we can achieve and where we believe we belong in the world. It’s gone on too long and it needs to stop.

 

Plan International and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media’s latest research into the world’s most popular films shows that women and girls are rarely presented as leaders, and even when they are in leadership positions they are far more likely than men to be portrayed as sex objects.

Whether it’s presidents, prime ministers, entrepreneurs, business executives, the message to girls is that leadership is for men. If girls don’t see themselves in these roles it impacts their choices, limiting their chances to follow their dreams and the world loses an extraordinary talent opportunity.

As a member of Plan International Ireland’s Youth Advisory Panel and as a training primary school teacher, naturally I see the critical role of education in allowing children – especially girls – to realise their rights.

Education is a key right and plays an integral role in reducing poverty and improving the lives of children.

Globally, a quarter of young people, most of them girls, are neither employed nor getting an education or training. Education is important for shaping girls’ and young women’s ambitions and potential. Girls around the world want learn. A recent study by Plan International exploring the leadership ambition of girls found that three quarters of 15-24 year-old girls said that they aspire to be leaders. But we know that only 24% of parliamentarians worldwide and only 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. What is happening to these missing leaders?

For girls in Ireland there is a “confidence and information gap” particularly over the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths). As a teacher in training, we’re taught that the window when children are aged between 8-14 years old is key in the development of their attitudes towards science. This makes primary school an essential place to help foster girls’ interest in STEM.

We are informed that although both girls and boys have similar performances in STEM areas, girls often believed they were weaker academically than their male peers. It is our job (we were told) as the next generation of teachers to squash this notion, and to help girls achieve their full potential within the STEM industry (no pressure!).

Children often take their ideas of “normality” from what they see in their environment, on television, newspapers, and books, and it is clear that girls need to have access to female role models and to see themselves in the stories that surround them if their capacity for leadership is to be recognised and encouraged.

Otherwise it’s a vicious cycle of girls not believing they have the capability to go into leadership generally – because they don’t see themselves represented there, and they’re not represented there due to their lack of belief in their abilities.

Yet, there is hope with initiatives like the ‘20×20’ campaign which acknowledges the obstacles girls and women face in sport. By showing girls that they are not limited by their gender helps to counteract the negative stereotypes they typically consume.

Across the world, girls and women face many adversities that hinder their education, training and entry into the workforce. Poverty is the greatest barrier to education and it is girls that face the brunt of poverty. This year alone, 12 million girls under 18 will be married, and 21 million girls aged 15 to 19 years will become pregnant in developing regions. Girls are more likely than boys to be out of school, globally, of children who are primary age, 5 million more girls than boys are out-of-school (34 million girls compared to 29 million boys).

Yet each additional year of secondary schooling increases a girl’s wages by 10% later in life. It is clear that girls need equal access to quality education and attain a secondary school education in order to break the cycle of poverty. Plan International are one of the organisations working hard to remove the barriers that keep girls out of school.

Governments need to ensure that all girls get to school so that they can gain the skills they need to succeed in the future and have the same opportunities as boys, and fulfil their dreams whatever they may be.

We also need drastic change in the way girls and young women are represented and portrayed by the world’s storytellers in media and entertainment.

However we all have a responsibility to make stories about female leadership visible and normal if women and girls are to finally realise their rights.


 

Kate spoke on our panel about the impact of harmful gender stereotypes on International Day of the Girl 2019 alongside Louise McSharry (broadcaster and writer) and Razan Ibraheem (journalist and human rights activist).

You can watch the discussion in the recording below.