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Teaching girls to speak up early could help them change the world

Published: Friday, Oct. 26 2012 11:20 p.m. MDT

Speaking up and making choices are key to building a strong personal foundation, experts say. But many girls don't get the encouragement they need to build confidence in themselves and their abilities and futures.

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CEDAR CITY, Utah — Bethany Bingham, 3, stands by the automatic pancake maker in the dining room where continental breakfast items are served each morning at the Holiday Express. She scrunches her face and looks at the array of foods for a minute, before pointing her finger at the carousel containing different cereals and announces she'd like Froot Loops for breakfast, please.

She doesn't know it, but she's exercising at a young age muscles that will help her make an array of decisions, from little choices like what to wear, to the mid-level ones like what class to take. The more she makes choice and speaks up, the better able she'll be to handle such big ones as what career to pursue and whether she'll engage in risky activities like drug abuse.

Speaking up and making choices are key to building a strong personal foundation, experts say. But many girls don't get the encouragement they need to build confidence in themselves and their abilities and futures.

Linking worlds

"The voice is a fundamentally important tool we use to connect our inner and outer worlds — to make it possible for people to know our thoughts and feelings," said Anea Bogue, self-esteem expert and author from Los Angeles who specializes in working with females of all ages. She created REALgirl(R), an empowerment program for girls 9 to 16 and has been a middle and high school teacher, as well. She said when girls aren't encouraged to find and use their voices, they can believe what they think or feel doesn't matter.

"The voice is a muscle that needs to be used regularly to remain healthy and to become strong. The more girls are encouraged to use their voice in day-to-day life, the more prepared they will be to use it at moments in their lives when the stakes are really high — like saying 'No,' challenging perspectives that are harmful or disrespectful to them as girls and asking for help or standing up to someone else," she said.

New York-based Girls Incorporated feels so strongly about the need to teach girls to speak up and participate that it lists "Girls’ Rights" that adults should support, with suggestions for doing that. Girls, it said, have a right to be themselves free of gender stereotypes, to express themselves with originality and enthusiasm, to take risks, to strive freely, and to take pride in success, as well as to accept and appreciate their bodies, have faith in themselves and be safe in the world and to prepare for interesting work and economic independence.”

Other messages

But Bogue said on a daily basis "girls see a significant absence of women's voices" in media, where only one-fifth of characters on TV and in movies are female; in school, where 10 women are mentioned to every 100 men in history books; in most high school English classes where only one of the top 10 works of literature used was written by a woman; in the seven top chemistry texts, where 85 percent of the images shown feature men; and in politics, where America ranks 90th in terms of women representatives in government.

"The message is that women's voices are not important and that they have been and continue to be 'absent partners' in the construction of our collective daily life, which simply isn't the case," she said.

Parents, said Bogue, need to give girls lots of practice at speaking up from an early age, starting with letting a girl at around age 2 choose what to wear from two or three options. When she's a bit older, she should be asked what she learned that day or what she liked about her day. "Remind her often that using her voice is the only way people can know what her valuable thoughts and feelings are," she said.

Not listening

It's also important parents and other adults let girls know they are listening. "Nothing prompts people of any age to stop using their voice like consistent feelings of not being heard," said Bogue.

Recent research by professors at Brigham Young University and Princeton confirms the point. In a study published last month in American Political Science Review, they found that women speak up less often than men. The exception is when a decision needs to be unanimous. In that case, they apparently feel their voice and vote is important and they contribute both.

"In school boards, governing boards of organizations and firms and legislative committees, women are often a minority of members and the group uses majority rule to make its decisions," said Tali Mendelberg, an associate professor of political science at Princeton. "These settings will produce a dramatic inequality in women's floor time and in many other ways. Women are less likely to be viewed and to view themselves as influential in the group and to feel that their 'voice is heard'."

That changes outcomes. When women do speak up, the study showed, they change the results. "When women participated more, they brought unique and helpful perspectives to the issue under discussion," said Chris Karpowitz, assistant political science professor at Brigham Young University and associate director of its Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. "We're not just losing the voice of someone who would say the same things as everybody else in the conversation."

He said that issues of special importance to women don't get brought up when women don't participate — and they're not small, unimportant issues. "We are talking about equality and how to distribute resources within the group and in society as a whole. When women talked more, they also talked differently — concerns for children, for the poor, the needy, those who might really be struggling. We are not just missing something others in the group might say or were saying already, but we lose a perspective that contributes to discussion and to group outcome."

Some advice

One of the most important things parents can do to raise strong girls who express themselves is to be sure that mothers model that behavior, without speaking all the time for the girl, which will have the opposite effect. A girl who sees a mother who speaks for herself and voices her opinion will do the same, while a girl whose mother always defers to others, especially the girl's father, will tend to do the same thing, clear into adulthood.

While women in a group who perceive themselves as a minority tend to clam up, men in the minority don't, the researchers noted.

A study last year by Northwestern University said that women were associated with so-called "communal" qualities, such as being nice or compassionate, while men are associated with "agentic" qualities, like being assertive or competitive. But the latter qualities were believed essential to becoming successful. Wrote Jeanette Mulvey of Business News Daily of the research, "Because men fit the cultural stereotype of leadership better than women, they have better access to leadership roles and face fewer challenges in becoming successful in them."

EMAIL: lois@desnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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