Chances are, your teachers and parents have been telling you for a long time that when you grow up, you can be whatever you want to be. This is exactly what they should be saying to you. But I want to give you some advice. Achieving what you want is going to be very, very difficult, and the media isn’t going to make things any easier for you and other girls. Here are three things that I want you to know before you graduate and go out into the world:
1. If you want to be a politician, be prepared for people to regularly point out your emotions.
At times, female politicians are accused of being too emotional to do their jobs, and the media loves to run with the controversy. In reality, many of the world’s most influential events have been fueled by emotion. This includes men’s emotions. The Boston Tea Party was fueled by emotion. So was the Emancipation Proclamation. And so was Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Those men were fueled by a righteous anger over the injustices they witnessed, and they took a stand about it.
Women have every right to these same feelings, and sometimes they’re what we need to motivate us to do the right thing. Sen. Barbara Mikulski spoke this week about the importance of her emotions in her fight against the gender pay gap. Here’s what she had to say:
I’ll tell you what I’m tired of hearing. That somehow or other we’re too emotional when we talk. You know, when we raise an issue, we’re too emotional. Well, I am emotional… It brings tears to my eyes to know how women every, single day are working so hard and are getting paid less. It makes me emotional to hear that. Then, when I hear all of these phony reasons — some are mean and some are meaningless — I do get emotional. I get angry, I get outraged, I get volcanic.
You might just be giving your own speech on the floor of the US Senate someday. In order to be the leader you want to be, you’ll need to defend yourself and what you’re trying to accomplish for people. Don’t let a fear of consequences keep you from doing what you believe is right.
2. Want to be a scientist, an engineer, or a mathematician? That’s amazing, but don’t expect to see many faces like yours represented when the media talks about those fields.
There are a couple of very accomplished STEM researchers on TV right now in Danica McKellar and Mayim Bialik. These women are some of the greatest thinkers of their generation, but they’re not on TV because of their achievements in math and science. They’re on TV because they’re actors.
These women were fortunate to study STEM subjects in the first place. There have been few female scientists throughout history for the sole reason that girls have not been encouraged to pursue math and science until very, very recently. This is why you don’t see many women when you watch Cosmos. That show offers some of the best educational programming out there, but it’s almost exclusively about men’s roles in the pursuit of knowledge. You deserve to see more stories about women’s contributions to knowledge in society. One of these days, you’ll be the one that kids learn about in school.
3. Don’t expect to be featured on an institution of comedy like a late night television show.
If you become a comedian, you might be able to be a guest on those shows from time to time. However, we’re still waiting to see a woman’s name on the marquee of a network show. Even if you do get your own show, chances are you won’t get on TV without first getting the help of a well-established man in the business. This won’t be your fault. This is how people like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Lena Dunham got started in television. It’s impossible to get experience if no one gives you a shot in the first place, and you can’t get ahead if you don’t have experience. That said, there will most likely be people who won’t let you forget that a man had to help you out. Ignore those people.
There will also be crummy people who say that women aren’t funny. That women can’t hold down a comedy show. That women belong in daytime. That women like to watch female hosts while both men and women like to watch male hosts. Ideas like this will take years to change. It’s doesn’t need to take years, but it will. These ideas will be infuriating, but hopefully they serve as motivation for you to prove everybody wrong.
Don’t forget that no matter what, comedy is still a business. Decisions are made based on numbers, and the current phony wisdom is that women don’t rake in those numbers like men do. Despite this, you’ll still find a way to be funny. When you’re successful, you’ll be the one giving a funny young woman her shot.
What This Means for You
Chances are, you’ll have to be better at what you do than men are just to get the same recognition. The people who make us laugh, the people who make us think, the people who make decisions for us—most of the ones you see in the media resemble the dead guys on our bank notes.
In the future, you’ll see progress in positive portrayals of successful women, but that progress will come too slowly for you to be satisfied. That’s why the world needs you. Even if people around you don’t have the same goals or ideas or sense of humor as you, we need you to be exactly who you are and believe in yourself. We need you to fight for your beliefs and build things and make us laugh. Throughout your education and career, look at what the boys are doing and then do things your way anyway. Someday, the media will be enlightened enough to give girls and women like you the recognition that you deserve. Other girls will fulfill their own dreams by writing those stories.
Many thanks to Brita Thorne and Ann Thelen for their assistance in editing this post.
I’m in my eighties. Girls in my generation were bombarded with put downs. My high school journalism teacher told me I wasn’t picked to be editor of the school newspaper because “we need a boy.” But you know what? Those days are over. While there is still disparity in certain occupational fields, I’m not sure perpetuating the idea that women are victims is the way to encourage young women to persevere in becoming the best they can be. This post sounds like an affirmation of the “War on Women” meme, which I don’t buy.
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