We need to stop fearmongering British girls!

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New research from Plan International UK has painted a shocking picture of what it’s like to be a girl in Britain. A thousand aged 14 to 21 were surveyed and reported feeling unsafe in public, held back by sexism and that boys were given better treatment than them. In total, 60 percent think males are treated more favourably.

Speaking about the results, Rose Caldwell, CEO of the organisation, said they were “extremely saddening but not surprising” and I’m with her, but not for the reasons you might expect. It seems to me that this state of affairs – where girls perceive that they are held back to such a prolific extent – has been engineered by a society that sends overwhelmingly negative messages about female identity.

Don’t get me wrong, incidentally, I’m not saying that sexism doesn’t exist, or that life isn’t horrible for some girls. From the evil grooming gangs in Manchester to everyday incidences of sexual harassment and gendered statistics on eating disorders, it’s clear there are injustices that inordinately affect women and need remedying.

But the issue is when a feeling of disempowerment becomes mainstream, so that girls who’ve faced little to no adversity feel hopeless about the future. The truth is that it’s never been a better time to be a woman, with opportunities richer than ever before, from rising numbers of female parliamentarians to prominent TV presenters to the fact that we constantly beat boys in academia. It concerns me that stories of women’s success are being buried among pessimism about our gender.

In fact, girls have been subjected to what could be called Feminist Project Fear, whereby they are constantly given terrifying messages about their fate. This is conveyed through numerous ways, one of which is simply overuse of the word “patriarchy”. Although once confined to the world of academia, it has now become normalised in discourse, with celebrities often throwing it into interviews and conversations. Most of what it does, though, is suggest to girls they are at the mercy of external, invisible and evil forces, over which they have no power.

The news is full of stories about women, too, but the ones that get the most traction always seem to be depressing. Case in point: Me Too. The gender pay gap, which is a nuanced and complex area, is also conveyed as evidence of endemic discrimination; that men have decided women should be paid less, when there is evidence women in their 20s actually get paid more. This information is being fed into a media and political narrative that our existence will be unavoidably terrible.

So it’s no wonder that girls feel overwhelmed and disempowered. Why bother trying, after all, when you’re told everything is going to be a struggle from the outset? Yes, there are hardships in life, but the expression “ignorance is bliss” comes to mind. Sometimes it’s good to be oblivious to societal ills and made to feel like you can do anything. Often I wonder if girls could do with their very own Ant Middleton, the TV personality and former soldier, who is popular among men for his series SAS: Who Dares Win. His success is namely because he champions and challenges others, but I’ve noticed this sort of fighting talk literature isn’t handed as much to girls.

But imagine it. Imagine if hearing about the patriarchy, Me Too and the pay gap 24/7 girls heard more empowering messages. Think Sport England’s “This Girl Can” mantra, but every day and from different teachers, whether at school or otherwise. Or if they were taught that the only thing that really mattered was their determination. It would be such a different world, I bet.

Charlotte Gill is a writer and journalist whose work has appeared in The Mail on Sunday, The Times and The Telegraph. Follow her on twitter: @CharlotteCGill

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