Listen to her. Affirm her talents, strengths, and passions. Encourage her to pursue leadership roles and development opportunities. These are three powerful ways that we can practically support and empower the young women in our lives.
After introducing these concepts in a blog post last month, “Beyond the March: 3 Ways to Empower Your Daughters,” I want to take a closer look at each of the behaviors individually and what they can look like in action. Because, wherever you may fall on the political spectrum, most people can agree that they want their daughters — or nieces, sisters, granddaughters or other young women they are teaching, mentoring, or coaching — to feel confident that with hard work and dedication, they can achieve whatever they set their mind to. With that in mind, let’s discuss the first step, listen to her – even if you don’t agree.
Research has identified a sad and common phenomenon known as “loss of voice” that happens to many adolescent girls. Even young girls who were strong, confident, and assertive in their childhood suddenly become quiet, hesitant, and unsure of their thoughts and opinions as they enter middle school and high school. You see, from a young age girls are taught that being a woman means being “nice” and that being “nice” is of utmost importance because it ensures that everyone gets along. Recently, I heard a speaker say that the word “nice” comes from the latin word, nescius, which means
Nescius: 1. Unaware, ignorant and 2. Not knowing how, unable.
Therefore, when we tell girls to “be nice” we’re essentially telling them to act unaware, to appear unable, and be ignorant in regard to their thoughts, feelings, and opinions.
A good example of this emphasis on being “nice” or proper, is from the “AAUW Report: How Schools Shortchange Girls” which cited research by Myra and David Sadker that boys in elementary and middle school called out answers eight times more often than girls. When boys called out, teachers listened. But when girls called out, they were told to “raise your hand if you want to speak.” Boys were not given the same reprimand. The result of this type of behavior is a culture where women feel less encouraged to participate in the classroom during their academic careers. For example, a 2004 study of Harvard Law School classrooms found that men were 50 percent more likely than women to volunteer at least one comment during class, and 144 percent more likely to speak voluntarily at least three times.
Overall, the problem with encouraging girls to be “nice” is that sometimes you need to be willing to stand up for yourself and your opinions. Sometimes you need to rock the boat a bit. Sometimes you need to say no. And sometimes you just need the confidence to raise your hand and participate in a class discussion – or later in life – in the conference room. (Which unfortunately, many women are not. Another study found that during conference meetings with both men and women present – men will dominate the conversation, taking up 75% of the conversation.)
So again, listen to your daughters and the young women in your life. Ask them for their opinions, and show them you really care about what they think. Even something as small as listening to her worries about the boy she likes or a struggle she has with her friends affirms for her that her experience and perspective is valid. Dads, this is especially important coming from you. Whether and how you listen to your daughter shows her how she should expect a man to listen to a woman.
Now, listening to your daughter doesn’t mean that you always have to agree with her. Listening needs to be done with the intent to understand, not necessarily agree. But, and here’s the big thing, if you don’t agree, don’t tell her she’s being silly, stupid, unreasonable, naïve, or anything else that writes off her experience and opinion as invalid. Instead, challenge her to think critically about the issue, asking her whether she’s considered another point of view, or if she’s heard the following counterpoint, etc. Discuss and perhaps even debate the issue with her, but don’t debate or diminish her value.
By doing these things, you grant her the value and respect her “voice” deserves. You teach her that what she has to say matters and that she was given a voice for a reason. It’s one of the first steps toward building her sense of confidence and self-worth. Plus, as you role model for her what it looks like to be a good listener, you are equipping her with a valuable skill for life.
Listen to your daughter; listen to the young women in your life. It requires no money or resources, simply intention – and yet, it is a valuable investment in a young woman’s life.
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