Sunday, December 30, 2007

Our Daughters

I remember, being in eighth grade, and wanting to grow up to be a teacher in the inner city. I devoured a constant stream of books about teacher success stories that could have easily been made into Disney movies. I was inspired and I believed that I too could change a piece of the world. My girlfriends also had dreams of growing up and pursuing careers. Nobody discouraged us from being whatever we wanted; we went on to college and graduate schools. Some of us pursued careers, some of us became full-time mothers and some tried to balance the two. This was before Title IX opened up playing fields to equalize access to athletics, before sexual harassment was outlawed and bias for college scholarships and financial aid was banned based on sex.

According to Dan Kindlon, a psychologist and adjunct professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, my daughters are profoundly different from who I was at their age. He studied 900 girls and boys in grades 6 -12, from the US and Canada and concluded in his book, Alpha Girls: Understanding the new American Girl and How She is Changing the World:
This generation of girls can be labeled, “alpha girls” because data shows they outperform boys in grades, honors, high school graduation rates and college entrance. That this new girl power is characterized by ‘emancipated confidence’ that is raising self esteem, reducing depression and altering gender roles among girls and women.
Last night I was at my 12 year old daughter’s basketball tournament. Before the game, the opponents were sitting together in a group, waiting to go into the gym. As I watched them, I stubbornly realized that they really are different from who I was at that age and they are growing up with very different expectations. There were basketball teams for girls my age, heck, my mom played basketball in high school - but girls’ athletics was not given the legitimacy that it has today. We didn’t have Recreation leagues, Little League, summer sports camps and sports clinics. Of the four teams that were out on those two courts, last night, 3 of them had woman coaches. Today, girls believe they can be as good or even better than boys, their playtime counts and their competition is just as important. And it is. Those girls played hard, aggressive basketball. And this confidence carries over to their school performance as well.

Annually, I attend the Awards nights at our high school. I have been tracking this phenomenon since before my son graduated in 2005: By my rough estimate, at least 2/3 of the academic awards always go to girls. The National Honor Societies, whether for foreign languages or general academics, consist of a strong majority of girls and my kids tell me that the presence of testosterone in the Honors and AP classes is almost non-existent. I can’t remember the last time our high school valedictorian was male.

And it’s cool now for girls to be jocks or to be smart or even better to be both. When I was growing up, it was acceptable to excel in tennis or track, but enter the culture of male dominated sports and watch out. My best friend was captain of the girls’ basketball team. She was smart and an incredible athlete, but boys shied away from her - way too intimidating. We were class presidents, team captains and honors recipients. In fact, according to Lawrence Katz, a professor of economics, “girls have been ahead of boys in precollege education for well over 100 years: in high school graduation rates and in constituting 2/3 of honor students”. Here’s the difference: we weren’t taken seriously until the women’s movement accelerated change through Title IX, and other political and legal advancements.

In an article about this study in Harvard Magazine, the author acknowledges:
Today, there is a “paradigm shift in the way parents think about their girls’ options in the world. There’s a whole generation of girls whose creativity and intellect are being supported by their families. Their mothers and fathers are cheering them on, coaching them and setting the bar high, so that their ambition can soar and take them high”.
The playing field is leveling off and for the first time, girls and young women have an opportunity to realize their potential. They do have more self-confidence and great self esteem. They are definitely more empowered.

But, if Dan Kindlon is going to label these girls, “Alpha Girls”, then I take offense. The term “alpha girl” was coined to describe those horrible middle school bullies who rule the school, set the trends, decide who will be popular and who will be relegated to the lowest rung of the social ladder. We all knew them and even though they now have a title, they existed way before any of us were even born. The fact that Kindlon chooses this term to describe this present generation of young women is insulting and perpetrates the exact stereotype that women of my generation are trying to erradicate - that successful, professional women are backstabbing, power-hungry, disingenuous bullies.

And what about girls who do not have educational or economic advantages? Although Kindlon points out that there are “alphas” in the inner city, they are less widespread among low-income and minority girls. I believe there is still a lot of work needed in these communities before this entire generation of girls is on equal footing with the boys. The girls that Dan Kindlon characterizes still represent a fraction of the entire female population.

Putting the disparity among socioeconomic groups aside for a moment, I want to believe that my daughters are on the cusp of economic and social equality and they no longer have to “confront the psychological demons that used to affect girls and women in this country”, like I guess I did. Or at least I am told I did by the psychologists who wrote about my generation. But at the end of the day, the big issues remain unresolved. With 72% of American mothers working outside the home, the work/family challenge is widespread. “From a women’s rights point of view, that’s still the hardest hurdle to overcome.”

This is not just about women. I accept that our girls are different than we were. So this creates issues for both sexes. Now it’s about choices and the ability to choose the kinds of family couples will have, how child-rearing responsibilities will be shared and the division of labor. Unless this generation opts not to procreate, then all the strides that have been made to get girls on equal footing with their male counterparts will be for nothing. Once women enter the workforce and want to have a family, what choices are they left with?

I opted out of the workforce. I didn’t make it into the inner city to teach. If I was a young mother today, I wonder if my choice would be different. Would I be caught in this wave of equality and expectations that women can “have it all”? Would I believe that I could pursue my professional dreams and have a large family and raise my own kids? I really don’t know. Maybe my decision was easier back then because I didn’t believe I could “do it all”. Maybe the choices are becoming different now.

My wish for my daughters is that when the time comes for them to choose, their options will abound with flexible work hours, telecommuting, reasonable maternity and paternity leaves and other creative solutions that we don’t even know about yet. I sincerely hope they can have it all. But I am afraid, that I may be expecting too much, still too soon, and this may only, possibly, be a reality for my granddaughters.


Anonymous said...

WHere to start? I grew up in the 80s. We were supposed to believe we could have it all. But my friends, as we have had children, have all come to realize the same thing -- something has to give. And a lot of the women are staying home, at least part time. We have chosen careers that pay less than our husbands, plus we gestate and lactate. We are the obvious choice to cut back in the relationship. Yet, we still feel inadequate for not keeping up with our careers. Sometimes I wish for a simpler time when I was just supposed to stay home...

Karoli said...

Wow, your post has much food for are a couple of mine.

On the "have it all" myth -- I'd just as soon see this die a natural death. Why should any of us or our daughters think they can 'have it all'? And more importantly, doesn't that 'have it all' thing really become a mantle of pressure these girls have to wear? If they're told "you can have it all" but for whatever reason they can't manage it "all", they're set up to feel like failures.

Better to have what you say at the end of your post -- the ability to have choices about what to have and what not to have. It seems that we've finally come to the point where it's okay to be single at 30, it's okay to choose not to have kids, it's okay to be powerful in business, and it's okay to be a bitch sometimes. What still isn't okay is to opt to get married, stay home, raise kids, run a household. And ironically, the ones who say it isn't okay are other women!

I'd like to see my daughter do what she's best at, do it well, make some money doing it if she wants to, and live a fulfilled and connected life. I don't say "happy" because happiness is a byproduct of the doing what you love, doing it well model.

I want the same for my sons. If I had one wish for all of my kids, it would be that there is room enough for everyone to use their specific gifts and talents to live joyfully, bring joy to others, and live a fulfilled life.

wheelsonthebus expresses it so well (and succintly, too!)...having choices, yet having a simpler life.

Don Mills Diva said...

Wow - a really thought-provoking post. I believe that I am already of a generation that can have it all. In Canada we have one year of mat leave paid at 55% by the gov. and generally topped up for several months by the employer to 80 or 90%. It makes such a massive difference - I don't know how working women do it in the US.

Julie Pippert said...

1. I dislike the term alpha girls for this.

2. Have it all is a crock of...well, anyway...ditto what previous posters.

3. It's actually really encouraging that the culture has shifted so that girls don't have to hide their light under a bush any longer. I still do in so many ways, even at my age, but I'm glad we've pushed through for better for the next group.

4. I worry, a bit, about superachiever pressure.

Great post.

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