Empowering girls: You CAN be what you can’t see

A common slogan in empowering women is that we must be able to see what we want to be. But this can be destructive and limiting

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There is a populist refrain for those seeking representation and equality at the highest levels: “You can’t be what you can’t see”.

Educators, mentors and others who seek to empower girls and women need to be careful about the slogans they routinely repeat. This one is particularly destructive and limiting.

If we “can’t be what we can’t see,” then our girls may never aspire to anything. Indeed, anyone who is not equally represented at the highest levels will be consigned to never rise.

Aspiring to a successful life requires educators and parents to say precisely the opposite: “You CAN be what you can’t see.”

To say otherwise is to consign our young people to a life of limitation, low expectations and constrained imagination.

So, let’s unpack why it’s so important that we teach our girls and young women that they CAN be what they can’t see. Indeed, they should expect to be what they cannot see.

Clear inequalities and inequities

It is well established now that there is a gender pay gap and a lack of representation of women in positions of power in politics, business and institutions. There are clear inequalities and inequities with women missing out.

It is evident that somewhere along the way women are discriminated against, marginalised, constrained and end up, by and large, occupying lesser roles and lesser positions to their male counterparts.

In this context you may say, “Surely we need to tell those in power that female representation and female aspiration rises when girls can see what could be.”

However, this is problematic of itself. For in the first instance young people look at what people do, not which gender they are.

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girls graphic
Source: Canva

The capacity to see beyond

In seeking to inspire, we need our young people to see beyond. Which means, seeing past what is currently there.

Imagination can be unconstrained. Young girls and young women need to be trained to imagine. Imagination is free. Imagination does not depend on having the limitation of a person show you what you can do. Imagination doesn’t stop at what you can see; it sees further.

Did the utterly brilliant Sam Kerr see women kicking goals for Chelsea as a child? There was no competition for her to view. I suspect all that young Sam saw, was the football and the goal and had the belief that she could win matches.

You cannot be beyond, if you cannot see beyond.

To make an established pattern obsolete, we must innovate.

Innovation creates discontinuity for the benefit of all.

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sam kerr
Australia women’s soccer team captain Sam Kerr. Source: @samkerr1 / Twitter

Seeing ourselves – not others

To understand young people, step back and recall what you saw when you were young. I do not recall seeing a person I admired and saying, ‘I can’t be that’. It did not occur to me that there was limitation based on gender, skin colour, religion or any other factor that can be used to define, limit or marginalise.

The reason for this is because what we see is ourselves, not others.

When young children are told stories, find heroes, or picture themselves in their imaginary world, they place themselves into the positions they want to take. This is important to reflect on. In the realm of imagination, they fly, they are heroes, they are popular, they are noticed, they are valued, they are the best. They automatically become what they cannot see.

Our starting point therefore must be to free, not to limit.

Our commencement is the universe, not a drop of water.

Our slogan must be, “You can be what you cannot see.”

Of course, the journey is easier when one is represented, but we must support our children, especially our girls, when they are not represented; and tell them that they CAN be whatever they wish to be.

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Mohan Dhall
Mohan Dhall
Academic leader, M2K Education and Advisory and CEO of Australian Tutoring Association and Global Tutoring Association.

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