Friday, November 21, 2008

When women can dream big dreams

From MY PAPER, Home, My News






OBAMA-MANIA has gripped the world. There’s no gainsaying the significance of President-elect Barack Obama’s win, especially in the light of African-American history.


A barrier has been broken, and it’s clear that for the United States and the world, at least one thing has changed for the better.


Am I the only one, though, to think of the other barrier that has yet to be broken?


The world’s superpower came within a hair’s breadth of being led by a woman president or, at least, a woman vice-president.


Consider this: In the US, the 15th constitutional amendment guaranteeing voting rights to black Americans was passed in 1870, whereas women gained voting rights only in 1920.


Almost a century later, a recent World Economic Forum survey of 130 countries showed that while women have achieved near parity with men in education and health, the gap in economic participation and political empowerment remains large.


“What’s the big deal,” you may ask. “There have already been women leaders in India, Israel, Germany, Britain, New Zealand and the Philippines...”


Sure, but I believe that the recent US presidential elections highlighted some difficulties that women still face on the road to power.


Take vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, for example.


She was ridiculed not just for her lack of experience or foreign-policy savvy, but also for her personal appearance.


No male candidate would have been subjected to such scrutiny.


As for Senator Hillary Clinton, it seemed that in this particular election, people were looking not just for competence, but also for a dream-maker.


There are many competent women around, but not many who have the self-confidence to stand before a crowd and share their dreams.


A few years ago, a friend told me about her struggles with her only child, a teenage daughter.


Her daughter’s dream was to study music but, like many pragmatic Singaporean parents, she did everything she could to point the girl towards a more practical direction.


“Anyway,” she concluded, “it doesn’t really matter what she chooses, because she’s only a girl.”


Her daughter is now studying nursing.


Just the other day, my son came home from kindergarten and reported how his teacher got his class to talk about their ambitions. Most of the boys aspired to be firemen, doctors and such.


“What about the girls?” I asked. “Oh,” he shrugged. “They all want to be nurses.”


Now, I would be the first to agree that nurses fulfil a vital vocation. They deserve our highest respect. But, obviously, there is a gender stereotype at work here, even among five-year-olds.


I look forward to the day when such gender stereotyping is swept away, when the barriers preventing girls and women from dreaming big dreams – and having the confidence to live up to them – are broken once and for all.


Maybe next time, Hillary.

The author is a freelance writer and editor who lives in an HDB estate in the north of Singapore. She worked in the financial sector for 10 years before taking a break to be a full-time mum to two young boys. 


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