Gen Y fell into social media at the tail end of our school years. Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat as we now know them evolved in the years after we had struggled with friendship issues (which group do I belong in?), identity problems (am I cool enough?) and pubescent crises (why don't my parents understand me?).
Luckily for us, we are digitally literate and know how to navigate the social-media world. To us, it is a wonderful tool that has given us the ability to connect with friends, keep up to date on the latest news and events, and be part of communities of people who share the same passions or interests.
However for the generations since, social media is so much more than that. Especially for girls.
It's not just the comparison with the Kylie Jenner's of the world, it's a comparison with 19-year-old girls who perhaps attended the same school as them and now have hundreds of thousands of followers.
For teenage girls, Snapchat and Instagram defines how they see the world. These platforms offer a front-row seat into the lives of others, causing girls to question why they don't have the same lifestyle.
But it's not just the comparison with the Kylie Jenner's of the world, with their extravagant lifestyles and surgically altered appearances, it's a comparison with 19-year-old girls who perhaps attended the same school as them and now have hundreds of thousands of followers. Girls who are paid to travel the world, look beautiful and take pictures in their bikinis.
These are the average role models for Australian teenage girls.
Social media could be providing a never-ending stream of positive role models for young women to admire and emulate. However, for our teenage girls, social media has redefined what 'success' looks like and has consequently taken the pursuit of empowering our girls one step back.
Australia is constantly striving to empower young women; to push them towards STEM opportunities, leadership positions and fields that are male dominated. Yet we all know you can't achieve what you can't see. And currently, our teenage girls do not follow girls studying science at university, women working in engineering industries or female entrepreneurs -- they follow girls who live each day by how they appear on social media.
So the question becomes: why don't our teenage girls follow these brilliant women? Is it simply because these women don't post as often on social media? Is it because social media favours the most aesthetically pleasing images and images captured during an engineer's nine-to-five grind on a construction site just don't cut it against a beautifully edited flat lay of a cafe table filled with brunch food?
Whatever the reasons are, the fact is teenage girls are heavily influenced by what they see on social media. These are the girls they strive to look like, the girls they seek to emulate and the girls they see as role models. Given the amount of photoshopped selfies shared throughout a girl's Instagram feed, this poses a huge risk, but it also offers a real opportunity to positively shape what a teenage girl defines as a 'successful' life and career.
Who are the role models who can positively influence our next generation of Australian women? Who will influence our girls to want to (and believe they can!) innovate, create and digitally disrupt? Who will motivate our girls to put their hand up in class, work hard and venture into male-dominated fields of study and careers?
It might not be the role models you think.
When the media talks about great role models, they are often referring to fantastic female CEOs, leaders and executives. While it is extremely valuable to showcase women in leadership positions, in the short-term teenage girls cannot relate to or envision themselves achieving what these women have achieved. These role models aren't accessible, relatable or real life -- they're too far removed from the daily experiences of teenage girls.
We need to show them girls who look like their big sisters and babysitters, someone they want to get a coffee (or hot chocolate) with and ask them all the 'dumb' questions they might have.
We need to show young women real girls doing real things; diverse stories of women in their early twenties pursuing a whole range of pathways. We need to show them the stepping stones to becoming the CEO, leader and executive. We need to show them girls who look like their big sisters and babysitters, someone they want to get a coffee (or hot chocolate) with and ask them all the 'dumb' questions they might have. Girls need role models they can really relate to.
So if you get the chance to chat to a teenage girl or have the opportunity to influence a whole bunch of them, speak of those hard-working, ambitious, early twenties girls you know. The girl who did software engineering and is one of the most promising coders in your firm; the girl who started her own company and is now seeking funding; and the girl who wants to become a CEO one day and has entered the graduate program in a corporate firm to develop her technical skills to do so. Speak of how they got there and where you think they're going.
If you're an early twenties girl doing something cool in your career, share it. We promise it's more valuable than yet another food flat lay.
Role models are very important -- they can shape our mindsets, study trajectory and overall career. We must take action to combat the career expectations and role models that social media is creating. We can show our teenage girls relatable role models that are not only accessible but aspirational -- and that is the most powerful thing we can do.
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