Find a Female Mentor

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Much can be said of how women are portrayed in the media and the impact it has on society. Amal Awad looks at how women can overcome superficial representation.

I recently attended a charity screening for a documentary called Miss Representation. From the trailer, we’re promised Michael Moore on steroids, but even better – no Michael Moore annoying famous actors and just, you know, being annoying.

The film’s underlying premise appealed to me: it looks at the overwhelmingly negative portrayal of women in the US media. The filmmakers even ask you to take a pledge to spread the film’s message and challenge the media’s limiting portrayal of women and girls. From body image and salacious celebrity gossip to the mean-spirited, misogynist tropes bandied about in relation to female politicians, it’s a global problem many will identify with, including Muslim women, who are yet to see meaningful representation in media.

And the media world portrayed is one drenched in negative imagery. Whether it’s in Hollywood, reality TV or news coverage, it’s not generally a realistic or empowering deal.  Vacuous female heroines who have little purpose beyond finding love with a hero; females in positions of authority who are derided on their appearances to castigate them; and, of course, sex.

Are women their own worst enemies, and why aren’t we helping each other more to climb that good old ladder?

Women are used to sell sex to sell cars and drinks and just about anything else you can think of. Women are relegated to ‘Hottest Woman Alive’ lists and bikinis with great frequency, yet rarely publicly recognised and applauded for achievement in the less ‘sexy’ and ‘unfeminine’ areas of business, science or philanthropy.

The film quite rightly suggests that girls start to measure themselves against unrealistic Photoshopped standards. Somewhat crucially, so do boys, who are disappointed when reality delivers girls with different shapes and attitudes.

There’s no refuting the unhealthy focus on women’s bodies and overall appearance – from querying the size of Sarah Palin’s boobs to sniggering at Hilary Clinton’s wrinkles and, meanwhile, demanding toxic levels of June Cleaver-ness from professional women.

Miss Representation links society’s ills, at some points a little tenuously perhaps, to the media. Case in point: while I fear for a generation that (if left unsupervised) has easy access to porn and virtual gaming worlds that are saturated in violence and scantily-clad women, the film doesn’t adequately relate how media actively contributes to violence against women.

It’s not that I don’t think it has or will (like I said, lots of porn and lots of killing), but rape and domestic violence aren’t a by-product of the MTV generation. They’re as old as time, symbols of power and denigration. The attitude of a woman’s inferiority, notions of purity and a place in the home are deeply rooted ones. I suppose this is where the media is being asked to step in and rip out the poisonous roots through fresh, positive portrayals. I’m in total agreement with that.

But what are we doing to change matters? Are women their own worst enemies, and why aren’t we helping each other more to climb that good old ladder? What will it take to see more women on boards and in positions of power? And to see female protagonists developed as fully-fleshed out, purposeful characters, rather than the love-starved romantic comediennes or damsels in distress? There’s certainly a trend for both, in films and television.

As I get older, somewhat wiser and only slightly more cynical, I’ve been able to learn from other women who are getting things done

For starters, I think mentors – both male and female – are a great step towards a society more inclusive of women. I’ve had the privilege of being mentored in my career more than once. In the first instance, it’s what I like to think of as Liz Lemon/Jack Donaghy/30 Rock dynamic – somewhat apathetic male mentor provides professional and life lessons to the slightly awkward, says-everything-she’s-thinking-without-thinking female mentee. I might have made him cringe once in a while, and his apathy is yet to rub off on me, but it’s truly been a beneficial learning experience, and one for which I’m deeply grateful.

Along the way, I managed also to grab the attention of a highly regarded woman in an executive position who wanted to encourage me in my own career progression. She is a wife and mum and one of the most successful people I know. She took me under her wing and, like my Jack Donaghy, generously shared her wisdom, making a profound difference to how I approached professional and personal matters. There’s no recipe for success but experience is a valuable instructor. Mentoring addresses the spectrum of life experience. It delves into work, relationships, health and spirituality.

There was also something different about looking up to a female achiever. I felt inspired, not just more knowledgeable or wiser. She understood my life situation and empathised with the challenges I faced as a woman, including as a Muslim in a Western setting. She has since told me that the learning goes both ways in a mentor deal.

She’s not the only female I’ve been blessed to take my cues from. In fact, as I get older, somewhat wiser and only slightly more cynical, I’ve been able to learn from other women who are getting things done.

Still, we are not victims, despite challenges. We just need more. We need a greater focus on women who are doing great things. We need more solutions. We need to engender the change that we seek.

So long as we continue to build networks and to empower youth, we’re not left to the mercy of ubiquitous media. My mentoring experiences remind me that there is a place for women in the professional realm, which doesn’t entirely sacrifice personal life. We’re limited in media, perhaps, but not in our Real World potential. It’s an important message that gets lost in the vitriol.

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