Why we need to be better role models for our young people


This particular post has been rattling around in my brain for sometime now. I haven’t got it completely straight in my head just yet, nor do I think I ever will given the constant evolution of the topic. This blog talks about how women, particularly high profiled, often present and set unrealistic standards young ladies and girls feel pressured to conform to. I want to talk about this because each and every one of us knows a young person(s) who need to understand that they should feel comfortable in their own skin and excel and being themselves.

There have been countless times when I have spoken to female teenage students about their futures who tell me “I’ll just marry a rich man” rather than opt for a career. Whilst they may be more about testing boundaries and being flippant, the comment comes from somewhere and it’s that point that factors as an itch I don’t see enough people trying to scratch. When the schools I work with through Young Enterprise are asked to list those people they think are successful, more often than not, they list countless numbers of famous and/or successful men. Sir Richard Branson, Sir Alan Sugar, Bill Gates, Barack Obama, and Steve Jobs are typically first up there followed by any number of males in the music industry I’m clearly too old to know (I could barely hold a conversation about Justin Beiber!). Only when I say “what about the women?” do they throw up a list of names that typically include any Kardashian with a first name beginning with ‘K’, and Beyonce. When they run out of ideas, all I have to say is “what about Oprah?” and more successful (not necessarily famous) women are listed: Mother Teresa, Condoleezza Rice, Rosa Parks, and the Queen to name but a few. These young ladies all know about these truly inspirational women but have gotten so caught up in what the media says and dictates as ‘success’ that they aren’t in the forefront of their minds.

Earnings of $77m (June 2013)

Earnings of $77m (June 2013)

I’m not about to slam the former list of ladies mentioned because they in their own right are successful, but because of the businesses that power them and the nature of what they do, our young persons are failing to see that success isn’t necessarily about fame and how you look. Trying to overlook it is getting harder than ever as we are exposed to it explicitly through media and mass public opinion. However we absorb it, our brain receptors are influenced one way or another building up a picture of how we’re expected to be in order to achieve success – and it’s not so much about brain power but more about image power. Check the right hand side of the Daily Mail’s website or the infamous page three of the Sun to see that whilst it’s all good and well Cameron’s Government looking to restrict public access to online pornography, girls (and boys) are looking at our adult world and restyling the definition of what it means to be successful as an adult. Even John Inverdale is being questioned over his second insult paid out to Marion Bartoli for not being ‘a looker’ when she was in the process of becoming 2013′s Wimbledon Women’s Singles Champion.  (NB: the first insult was several years’ back to the Duchess of Cornwall.)

This image was taken from the CRN UK Fight Night in 2013.

This image was taken from the CRN UK Fight Night in 2013.

Gabby Logan recently talked of Sky Sports using women as “window dressing”; Julia Gillard’s experiences during her recent political demise (see below image); and the growing talk about sexism in the tech/gaming industry all show young adults that when we tell them they can achieve whatever they want, what we really mean is you can do that as long as you look the part.

How can gender not be a political issue when ‘Julia Gillard’s big red box’ is on a Liberal fundraiser’s dinner menu?

Some like the BBC’s Apprentice 2013 runner up – Luisa Zissman – has dropped in an extra 10p into her ‘five minutes of fame’ metre by selling pictures of sexy photo shoots to the gossip magazines. Although it is satisfying to see others such as Clare Balding rise above these pressures and ensure her passion, knowledge, and experience speaks louder than just her looks which others judge her on (she even won a Bafta this year!). I’m not about to suggest we all start burning bras again because this time around it’s all too easy to point the fingers at men alone. I’m making the case here that adult women need to remember that they are setting the standard for young people to aspire to.

A few weeks back I was walking through a company office when I saw several of the women dressed as if they were heading out to a night club. I was shocked with what one was/wasn’t wearing (even I didn’t know where to look!) and couldn’t understand why she thought it was appropriate for the office… unless, she knew exactly why she had chosen to wear the outfit. Too many times I’ve sat with male colleagues and peers and listened to them talking about who’s the ‘fittest’ looking in the office or who has let themselves go without them realising how they come across. Maybe if they followed up or preceded the conversation with ‘she did some great work last week on that project’ or ‘she really motivates me to work harder’ then it might be a more balanced view to these women… but it’s not… it’s how they look and how they rate against other women’s looks. No wonder women are dressing like a modern day episode of Mad Men, it appears it’s the only way to get positively noticed.

A supplier recently won a reseller tender and invited their new customer in to meet their new account manager. After meeting her they met the company CEO. “Who’s your account manager?” he asked, “Ruth*” they said to which the CEO replied “ah yes Ruth… nice tits” before walking off. 

There is no conclusion to this post but it really grinds my gears how what we say in theory to our youngsters about looks versus talent (that goes for boys too) is nearly always undermined in practice by our very selves creating a world that celebrates appearance over brains, talent, and the right to do what they are passionate about without prejudice. First impressions always matter but we should never close ourselves off to considering the underlying abilities and strengths that they could put to good use. From when we are very young and called ‘beautiful baby’ through to ‘growing old gracefully’ it is human nature to judge everyone by their looks. However, I would love for us to make more of a conscious effort to remind ourselves that to judge just on looks alone limits us from getting the most out of anyone. And the more we judge on looks alone, the more we’ll hear our young ladies choose to marry a rich man rather than bother to reach their potential.

Further reading (external links):

New Research Shows Success Doesn’t Make Women Less Likeable (HBR)

Girls ‘being pressured to look like porn stars’ by boys growing up on pornography (Metro)

In the Video Game Industry Sexism Debate, the Time for Talk Is Over (Slate)

“Sexism in the music industry ain’t nothing new.” Why aren’t female artists getting their due? (FactMag)

Lads’ mags face cover up or ban as Co-op gets tough with publishers (The Times)

Why dealing with sexism in geek communities is urgent (TimesLive)

Maria Miller vs the BBC: Tackling sexism in sports coverage is quite the set of hurdles (The Independent)

A different take on sexism in IT (Antirez.com – blog)

Sexism in finance (Dizzynomics – blog)

*name changed

3 thoughts on “Why we need to be better role models for our young people

  1. Pingback: The Diverse Roles of Women in IT | The Cowshed

  2. A lot of very valid points made above, there has definitely been a significant change in attitude in the workplace and the world in general highlighting that famous (or infamous) equals success.

    The ability to be paid for being famous and for effectively just “Being Famous” like the Kardashians etc doesn’t set the right tone for the young (I now feel old having said that out loud) in identifying what or who they want to be.
    But are we (the greater We of society) just converting to a different type of underlying discrimination?

    Discrimination has always been there in different guises based on the “none-spoken” true prejudices of the day. We are all aware of Sexism, Racism which have been in the majority removed from the workplace, but other discriminatory behaviour has become more prevalent in terms of peoples size, weight even hair colour based on a frankly unobtainable set of “ideals” portrayed in the media.

    This type of discrimination is not limited to either sex but effects them both. As a Rugby Player I am a “larger” man I accept it and to be honest I am comfortable with it, however if I was more sensitive comments of “Big Man” or being “solidly built” would probably have a more hurtful. I have encountered younger players and colleagues who have spent multiple hours and sometimes 000′s of pounds to gain acceptance and have the “abs” the “Chest” etc in order to get ahead.

    With cultural icons like David Beckham running around in his under crackers for a high street store (it worked I bought a pair) or Ryan Gosling/Ryan Reynolds effectively never having a scene with their shirt on putting undue pressure on male body image? The same is true in Women with Jordan/Katie Price or DB’s wife Victoria being held up as the right way to be.

    It has been proven in studies that the better looking or taller applicant in a recruitment situation is more likely to be successful. Have we just started to actively conform to Evolution? i.e. Is bigger, stronger, better looking, more desirable being elevated in society as part of survival of the fittest?

    (the ramblings of a happy) Fat Sam

    • Great follow up Sam and thank you for taking the time to post.

      You’ve created a number of points that would work well in something like a dinner party because I think the choice of responses could be numerous. However, I do believe that given the growing trend for the label ‘Generation C’ for the changing spending habits of the modern day consumer, we are seeing a significant change in the factors that compel people to buy. What we are seeing is that people feel more inclined to purchase a product based on personal recommendation rather than the endorsement of a celebrity. This may be the slow burning growth in the indifference many of us ‘normals’ are showing to the ridiculous pressure the media puts on us courtesy of DB, the Ryans, etc…

      You are who you are and it is the power of the media that has created maximum effect by focusing on the few. The few being those who have the luxury of not towing the line that the rest of us pull :)

      From what you say about the results from the studies of recruitment, I think that it will continue in the same pattern if the individuals charged with the responsibility of hiring and firing continue to sacrifice talent over looks.

      Maybe what we need instead of evolution is a revolution…

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