fbpx Skip to content

A Dose of Confidence

Creating a future with More Female Leaders

Who are Canada’s future leaders?

For too many girls, the answer is, “not me.”

Although we’ve come a long way since the days when women were not allowed to practise medicine or become lawyers, the struggle for gender equality is far from over.

Children learn what they live and our daughters are deeply internalizing one of the key messages of our culture: the worth of a female is primarily measured by her physical appearance, not her intellect or career success.

Far more than boys, girls struggle with serious body image issues, low self-esteem and a chronic lack of confidence.Their struggles are mostly internal, silent and invisible. Teen girls are three times more likely than boys to be depressed and some girls are especially at risk. In one British Columbia study, almost 30 per cent of Aboriginal teenage girls had seriously considered suicide.

But one organization is teaching girls that they matter. The Canadian Women’s Foundation is Canada’s only national foundation that focuses on improving the lives of women and girls. Across the country, they fund 14 girls’ programs in 22 different communities that help girls develop confidence, courage and critical thinking — skills that will not only help them navigate the troubled waters of adolescence, but also to succeed as an adult.

At one of the organization’s programs in Fort McMurray, girls were asked to draw a picture of a leader. Although most were from Aboriginal communities, they drew pictures of white men with briefcases. Asked the same question a few weeks later, after they had learned to appreciate their own strengths and abilities, they drew pictures of their grandmothers, their mothers and themselves.

In another program, 85 girls met once a week for the entire school year, creating a supportive network and participating in activities such as writing a Dating Bill of Rights for girls. At the end of the program they were asked, “What was the most important thing you learned?” One girl answered, “I learned that I matter.”

In these programs, the girls play sports, learn about science and technology, attend media literacy workshops, organize community actions and explore their emerging leadership abilities.

Beth Malcolm, director of the Girls’ Fund at the Canadian Women’s Foundation, says the programs are “really fun, exciting and holistic.” The programs are designed for girls aged nine to 13, as research shows that as girls enter adolescence their confidence declines sharply and they experience higher rates of depression. If girls do not overcome these challenges before their teen years, they are far more likely to experience long-lasting negative impacts on their education, future relationships and career choices.

The Foundation also targets its work to communities with high numbers of immigrant, refugee or Aboriginal girls. Each project is customized to its specific community.

In Winnipeg, the Butterfly Club offers weekly get-togethers for Aboriginal girls who are often isolated and disadvantaged. The girls learn about their traditional cultural ceremonies and can choose to partake in a ceremony where they are given a special spirit name.

“They feel pride, a sense of connection and a sense of belonging,” says Leslie Spillett, executive director of Ka Ni Kanichihk, the nonprofit group that runs the club.

This club can also help in other, sometimes unexpected, ways. Spillett recalls a disturbing incident when two girls from the club were injured as innocent bystanders during a shootout between rival gang members in their neighbourhood. The club was an important part of their recovery. The trust and familiarity of the group allowed the girls to share their experiences and heal emotionally. It also provided the organizers with a way to talk about broader issues facing the community.

“It was an opportunity to talk to the girls about real issues facing indigenous populations and racialized peoples,” says Spillett.

Some of the programs have a particular focus, such as the Media Smarts program in Northern Alberta, which helps girls confront and critique the barrage of highly sexualized media messages they see on a daily basis in television, movies, video games and advertisements.

Other programs provide a safe, all-girls’ place to learn about science and technology. Free to explore and ask questions without worrying about what boys will think, many girls discover, often for the first time, they have an interest and aptitude for this kind of work.

“Girls get into school and there’s pressure on them that science and math aren’t necessarily cool subjects to be really good at,” says Mara Fontana, director of I.T.S. for Girls, a monthly science club run out of Dalhousie University in Halifax.

In this club, girls are matched with female mentors who work in science and technology. Fontana says the club doesn’t push girls to enter a particular career, but helps them to develop self-respect and know their career options are unlimited.

“We are building their ability to picture themselves in careers in science, engineering, technology. It’s hard for young girls to picture themselves in a career where they don’t think they belong.”

At the Canadian Women’s Foundation, Malcolm says they invest in girls’ programs because they work. Their research shows more than 80 per cent of the girls who attend one of their programs feels more confident, has better critical thinking skills and feels more like they belong. Malcolm adds, “And their parents can clearly see changes in their daughters,” attesting to the difference these clubs make.

“Girls say, ‘When I come here, I can be myself,’” says Malcolm. “For us, that’s what it’s all about.”