Have you watched the latest princess movie from Disney? In “Disenchanted”, the heroine Giselle makes a wish to live a fairy tale life, but finds herself in the role of Evil Stepmother. As the movie progresses, Giselle struggles against becoming “wicked, vain, cruel and ambitious”. The first three adjectives make sense, but where did “ambitious” come from? Yes, Cinderella’s stepmother wants her daughters to marry well, but the stepmothers in Snow White and Hansel & Gretel just want to see the girls suffer. Where’s the ambition in that?
The positive influence of role models in a woman’s life is undeniable. Research has shown, time and again, that even “subtle exposure” to highly successful women improves our performance in leadership tasks.
In fact, one survey found that 89% of women set more ambitious goals for themselves when in the presence of women they admire. For women in male-dominated fields, having a supportive female mentor can influence whether they stay or go.
But, are children being given the same inspiration and support? Girls look to the women in their lives for guidance on how to think and behave. But even if you and your community provide those models, our girls are still being exposed to negative stereotypes in the media they consume.
Our girls cannot become the leaders of tomorrow when a global influencer like Disney tells them that having ambition is bad.
Let one of our New Year’s Resolutions be to become better role models for our daughters. We don’t even need to be Disney princesses to inspire the next generation. As Dr. Nina Ansary, UN Women Global Champion, reminds us, “It takes an accumulation of role models—real life examples of what girls and women can do if given the opportunity—to change entrenched attitudes.”
Ready to get started? LeanIn.org suggests some effective ways to become positive and enthusiastic role models.
First, encourage girls to speak confidently by speaking confidently yourself. And that doesn’t mean speaking louder. To exude confidence when speaking, remember to speak clearly and not rush through your words. It also helps not to use filler words or make your statement sound like a question. If they see it, they can be it.
It’s also important to teach girls how to navigate conflict. When a difficult situation arises, encourage them to speak directly to the people involved and share their feelings, instead of gossiping behind the scenes. Conflict is an evitable part of life, so the sooner girls quell their fear of not being liked and speak up, the better. Imagine if Cinderella had stood up to her evil stepmother!
Thirdly, teach girls to celebrate their successes and talents. One study has shown that between elementary school and high school, girls’ self-esteem drops 3.5 times more than boys’. A trait that is too often carried over into adulthood, causing women to attribute success to luck or teamwork. Let’s get girls proud of their achievements sooner to ensure they stay that way.
Also, have you heard that most women will not apply for jobs unless they meet 100% of criteria, whereas men will apply as long as they meet 60%? Imagine how that trend might be different had those women learned how to take healthy risks as children? Do share stories with your daughters about the times you were brave and how it felt to succeed—or what you learned when you failed.
These simple gestures and words, accumulated over time, can help to drown out more negative influences and build the stronger female leaders of tomorrow. And if, at the same time, it also bolsters your own pride and reinforces your own leadership skills, then it’s happily ever after for everyone.