Girls Will Shine… Just Let Them!
By Nicola Ifill, Ed.D., MPH, M.Sc.
A few years ago I sat at lunch in a San Francisco Bay Area restaurant with a male family member. Professionally, he was a ranking government official who worked in the public policy arena. He was quickly recognized by a young man who was a public engineer and worked for the same public agency. After brief introductions, the young engineer began to engage my family member in a conversation about the structural integrity of a public works project he was overseeing. Then in what sounded like gratuitous condescension, the engineer said to me, “I apologize for having this technical conversation in the presence of a lady. I suspect this is going straight over your head. I should leave you guys to your lunch.”
Fortunately, my male family member did not allow this slight to go without rectification. He turned to the engineer and responded, “I’m afraid you’re making a mistake. Not only does she hold two graduate degrees, but one of them is from a faculty of chemical engineering. She does not only understand what you’re saying, but you may discover she understands it better than I do.”
I was very happy that my family member challenged the public engineer’s sexist assumptions. I might have been less than gracious in my response. Yet I seethed with anger at the greater issue faced by young women across the professional world every day. Men, and sometimes other women, assume that women are somehow bereft of the ability to think critically, assess complex problems, and make decisions based on facts. While I make no apologies for the unique sensitivity women bring to our decision-making, I take umbrage with the very idea that we cannot or should not excel in the sciences or quite frankly, in any discipline we choose.
There is perhaps a cultural component to all of this. As a Caribbean native (Trinidad & Tobago), I have often seen the objectification of girls and women. Some people appear to be incapable of seeing beyond our appearance or our clothing. Some even offer justification for their bias with the suggestion that women “encourage” it by wearing provocative clothing in public. To accept this line of reasoning is to accept the flawed notion that humans are one-dimensional. As women, we have the right to look beautiful and feel beautiful without trading the right to be recognized for our intellectual capabilities.
Now, since my blog generally focuses on public health and beauty, how does this relate? Well, mental health and well-being is as important as physical health. I am concerned about the long-term well being of little girls. In fact, I believe that as a woman who has navigated the complexities a world with social biases and a higher education system that often deliberately or inadvertently fails to push women to succeed, I must help the next generation of girls find their footing and confidently move forward understanding they they can shine. Yes, they can look beautiful. Yes, they can draw on their well-springs of emotional struggles. But these are not liabilities that cancel out their capacity to advance in any arena they desire and succeed at it.
Girls will shine. We just need to get out of their way and let them. And for good measure, get behind them, as my family member did that day, and give them a nudge in the right direction, topped off with a vote of confidence.