A father and son are in an accident; both get rushed to separate hospitals. When the boy is taken in for an operation, the surgeon says “I can’t do the surgery, this is my son.” How is this possible?
Needed to think twice before you realised the surgeon was the boy’s mother? You’re in depressingly good company. As harmless riddles go, this one’s a pretty poignant revealer of the unconscious sexist bias still lurking in many an informed mind.
But it’s just wordplay, we say. We can shrug it off with a sheepish shake of the head and make a mental note to do better next time. In the real world, though, the ramifications are stark.
What sort of person springs to mind when you think bike mechanic, engineer, skateboarder or entrepreneur? They’re likely male. Whether we’re parents, future parents or older siblings, it’s worth considering how that bias affects the ambitions and confidence of the girls we’re responsible for, who look to us for guidance. Are we cutting them off before they’ve even had a chance?
It’s a self-fulfilling cycle: if girls don’t develop the skills or confidence to enter certain sectors – or have simply never realised that they could and should – those sectors stay male-dominated. But Amsterdam’s Project Fearless is breaking that cycle.
An after-school programme with a feminist drive, Project Fearless is a place for girls aged 9-14 to “re-write who they’ve been told they need to be,” says founder Mérida Miller. The aim is for the girls to step out of their comfort zones, upend stereotypes and find their voices, forging the confidence they need to achieve whatever they want in life.
Gender stereotypes affect everybody, Mérida says, but women consistently come off worse. In the Netherlands, the gender pay gap increased between 2017 and 2019, with men earning an average of 8% more than women in comparable jobs. As Project Fearless sees it, a key part of tackling this corrosive inequality is equipping girls with belief in their own abilities, ideas and skills, from boxing and carpentry to design thinking and climate activism.
The point, though, is that these practical skills are more than what they say on the tin. Take Project Fearless’ Skate Camp, for example. The skating skills are great, sure, but it’s the resilience the girls gain from picking themselves – and each other – up from inevitable falls, bumps and bruises that’s the real reward. That and feeling comfortable claiming their space in what they might have thought of as a boys-only zone – the skatepark.
For some girls, the skate sessions won’t just be about taking up this “male” space, but actually excelling in it. Fast forward a few years and switch out the skate park for a traditionally male-dominated working environment, and it’s easy to see how the practice will pay off.
But quiet confidence, rather than calculated competitiveness, is where the real strength lies. “There are key ages at which [girls’] confidence drops,” Mérida tells me, which can lead to unhealthy competitiveness, rather than a culture of mutual support. Projects Fearless’ goal is that no girl ever questions her ability, instead becoming a woman who knows there’s no need to step on her peers for a shot at the top. As Mérida puts it, “there’s room for us all to be a leader and a teammate at the same time.”
“Whether you’re the introvert or the extrovert, your voice does matter,” she continues. “Everybody has the ability to create an impact with their passion… in a way that feels comfortable and authentic.” We can’t all be a Greta Thunberg – but the world wouldn’t work if we were. We might be an Elena Favilli or a Francesca Cavallo instead, co-creators of the best-selling Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls series. Project Fearless is about the girls feeling their way to the key-player roles that best fit their personalities, drives and interests.
Project Fearless requires a mindset shift, a willingness and openness, from girls and parents alike. For the girls, it’s about entering a space where they can be entirely themselves, liberated even from the social expectations of their schoolmates. For the parents, it’s about embracing a chance for their daughters to learn and achieve in ways they might never even have imagined.
As for that bike mechanic, engineer, skateboarder or entrepreneur I mentioned? Give it a few years, and it’ll no doubt be a Fearless female.
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