My son recently cast his vote for the first time in student council elections, reminding me of my own experience running for class representative in the nineties in Italy.
Seated in the first row, the first one to raise my hand to respond to questions, I had little doubt about running for that role—and sure enough, I was elected by my peers. As years passed, however, I became less and less likely to run for student office. Student council began to feel unpleasant at an age when my nerdy and eye-glassed former self began also focusing on peer acceptance. I became less willing to be seen as the ambitious girl; even being a smart one was difficult enough.
I was not alone. A recent study revealed that, among American high school students, boys and girls are equally interested in running for office. As college students, however, things change dramatically: males were twice as likely to have thought about political involvement than their female peers.
All over the world, girls are made to believe that they are innately less talented than their male peers in a broad variety of fields, including STEM and politics, with such beliefs reinforced throughout their lives. Boys, on the other hand, are told that their value and worth depend on physical strength, sexual prowess and fearless ambition. They are often discouraged from pursuing career opportunities in fields perceived as traditionally “female,” like nursing and caregiving.
As Sheryl Sandberg memorably put it: The truth is that it’s very hard for women to be perceived as both likeable and high achievers. The opposite is true for men, because of societal expectations around gender. The good news is that gender, unlike sex, is a learned identity, and we can therefore modify or even unlearn our own understandings of it.
We can also teach it better. As the Director of Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program, I can only be optimistic regarding the future of gender equality. While I know the road ahead is long, I’ve seen positive change happen day by day in my own lifetime.
Education cannot be—and has never been, for that matter—only about knowledge. It’s about learning the “life skills” that enable us to become agents of change, think for ourselves and create paths to solve the world’s problems. By learning critical thinking, persistence and empathy, a good education helps us discover our place in the world and empowers us to challenge the status quo and try to build a better world.
It’s time for educators to go beyond gender neutrality and become gender-sensitive—making sure that boys and girls are aware and able to challenge limiting stereotypes linked to their gender identities. In some instances, this shift can be life-saving: sexuality and HIV education curricula that addressed gender or power, for example, are found to be five times as likely to be effective as those that do not. If schools taught our kids about gender equality, then the next generation would be better equipped to recognize and unpack bias and limiting stereotypes of womanhood and manhood and build a more equal world.
Last week, two girls were elected to be president and vice president of the student council at my son‘s school. A lot is going to change between now and the time they’ll have finished college, but many of the conversations being led by women today within and beyond the #MeToo movement tell me that they’ll find a broader sky in which to spread their wings—and that they’ll be freer chase their dreams, wherever they bring them.