Inspire young girls today to become leaders tomorrow

Ayça Cakmakli

Every year on March 8, International Women’s Day celebrates women’s social, economic and political achievements while also calling for greater equality and empowerment. Violence against women, unequal pay, a dearth of female leaders in both the public and private sectors … these are just a few of the issues we’re struggling with today. While many of the conversations and issues have more urgency than others, all are important, and all matter.

To pay tribute to this important day, a group of us at Smart Design got together to talk about what we could do to join the conversation and start to tackle some of these challenges, both through the work we do here and in our personal lives.

We’re particularly passionate about how we can positively influence the next generation of great women. To do this, we have to focus on today’s kids and adolescents. In the past few years, we have worked on some exciting projects that have had direct impact on young kids – working with hospitals to facilitate better and more trusted relationships with their adolescent populations, rethinking the way we talk about and present food to young kids, and imagining the future of play, where the analog world successfully combines with the digital world to create unique learning experiences.

Through this work, we’ve learned some great ways to interact with and inspire young girls. Here are three small steps that will help make a difference. We hope you will join us.

Start talking to girls differently.

Specifically, shift the focus from her appearance to the content of her character. As a design researcher, I spend a lot of time with kids, visiting their homes, schools and playgrounds to learn about the types of experiences that bring out the best in them. In order to gather meaningful insight, it’s important that I communicate with them in the right way.

When interacting with a young girl, many of us begin the discussion by commenting on her appearance – how cute she looks or how beautiful her new sweater is. Over time, this approach can teach her to find self-worth through appearance and material goods. Instead, if we encourage what she likes doing, we can empower her to develop her own sense of value through her actions and, over time, discover her own unique identity. When I meet a young girl for the first time, I emphasize her intelligence, point out her talents, and highlight her great sense of humor. I’ve found that this technique creates a rich dynamic where she is excited to show me her other interests and what else she can do.

Promote her creativity with open-ended play.

All little girls destined to become princesses are covered. For the rest of us, we need new storylines at playtime. After a little girl wrote a letter requesting that Lego let her have adventures just like the boys, Lego decided to try something new. The boys’ toy experiences allow them to swim with sharks, save people’s lives, and have interesting jobs, like an astronaut. This girl was bored of what Lego offered girls – mainly, shopping and time at the beach. She wanted to have the same adventures as the boys. Lego took her letter seriously and created a special edition of what they called “The Research Institute,” where girls are scientists and wear lab coats.

When we are out in the field discussing future products with kids, we encourage them to build ideas and invent alongside us. At times, it can be surprisingly challenging to get them to think outside of what already exists and imagine something new. Of course, children have wonderful imaginations, but they tend to work within the parameters we establish for them.

We get the richest feedback when we support their out-of-bounds ideas and encourage them with some of our own. If we want to get the best out of our kids, it’s important to be conscious of the parameters we create through the storyline we provide for them. Open-ended play allows kids to create their own unique storylines and realize their potential.

Be who you wish her to be.

This one may be a little tough to hear as it points the finger right back at you. As designers, we have the ability to shape the world through the products and experiences we create. If we aspire to live better, it’s our responsibility to help create that world. This understanding motivates us to work closely with our users and clients alike to create the best solutions.

Young girls are extremely impressionable and look first to their parents, especially their mothers, for guidance. The best way to create positive behavior in your children is to improve your own. If you want your child to read more, pick up a book. If you want her to have less screen time, put your phone down. If you want your daughter to get creative, sign yourself up for some classes. The best way to effect change is to show her first-hand how it’s done.

After all, these are our daughters. Aren’t they worth it?