The recent headline of the Forbes profile of Debbie Sterling, the dynamo founder of GoldieBlox, a startup focused on creating math and engineering-friendly toys for girls, describes Sterling's goal as "turning princesses into engineers." Now let me be clear, I am a big fan of the company and their focus, but I've publicly stated before and will say it again -- it is a pity to have a national platform and perpetuate the swinging of the pendulum in the opposite direction where we send mixed messages to our daughters that if they like being "girly" or dressing up as a princess, then engineering is likely not going to be a good fit. Our little girls shouldn't have to give up one dream for the other. I've also noticed a trend in the advice shared on a few of the sites that focus on women's issues that paint the idea of little girls pretending to be princesses as a bad thing. My reaction is the same every time, "Why? Why can't I call my daughter a princess? When did princess become a bad word?" My opinion is probably not going to be all that popular and is likely going to sit wrong with some of the folks with whom I usually agree. But if it takes me not calling my daughter a princess in order for her to be a successful woman in life, well, there's a lot riding on that one word, don't you think?
I was recently invited to sit on a panel at the National Association of Business Women of New Mexico. The topic was how women succeed in male-dominated fields, and my two companions on the panel were Susan Zubiate Grace, who owns a local running store, and Jessica Eaves Mathews, a lawyer and serial entrepreneur. Jessica is also the author of a soon-to-be-released book, Wonder Women: How Western Women Will Save The World. One topic that took up a great portion of the time during our panel discussion was the idea that up until now, women have been expected to and have had to be willing to leave a good portion of themselves at the door of their office every morning in order to succeed and have an equal playing field with their male counterparts -- no blatant femininity, no conversations about worrying about sick children or about changing diapers, no mention of dieting or an appointment to visit a colorist or manicurist.
This is the reason many women choose to be entrepreneurs and start their own businesses -- that desire to be themselves -- all of themselves, the parts beyond businesswoman -- the mother, the wife, the girly-girl, the tomboy, the artist, the baker, the gardener. And if we, as women are ever going to get to the place where we create a new environment, a new way to build an economy that embraces the totality of being a woman, it seems rather counter-intuitive to begin saying that we can't call our daughters princesses. In fact, I think the biggest thing we can do to inhibit confidence and the willingness to embrace male-dominated fields like math and science and engineering is to teach a young girl that if she is going to be good at those things, she'd better put her imagination, her whimsy away.
I believe that because of the experience I've had raising my own daughter, Rachel. I called her princess. A lot. For the longest time when she was little, she was so completely enamored with all of the Disney princesses (as well as Mickey Mouse) that it was all she wanted to talk about or pretend to be. She wanted the books read to her again and again. And when we went away with friends on a skiing vacation, they brought along the videotape (yes, I'm dating myself) of the new movie, Beauty and the Beast, and our poor friends were forced to watch that movie over and over for three solid days. Rachel cried every time when the Beast died. And then wanted to watch it again.
I didn't just call her princess. I sewed her a Cinderella dress for Halloween one year. It was silky powder blue with white lace and took me a ridiculous number of hours to put together. But it was worth it, because she wore that dress for Halloween and to the grocery store, to the doctor's office, to Grandma and Grandpa's. Between her Cinderella dress and a ballerina set I found at a garage sale, Rachel spent a great deal of her time in that fantastic world of princesses, castles and dancers, complete with all the whimsy and drama that goes along with it.
And, then just as soon as her deep fascination with princesses started, it ended. She discovered rock climbing at the age of 9 and begged to join the climbing team along with her brother, who was two years younger. It was an unconventional sport, and she took to it with enthusiasm and a fierce drive to be the best. She not only joined the team but competed with climbers her age from across several states to earn a bid to nationals that first year she started climbing.
She went on to compete at a national level all the way through high school, earning a rank as high as sixth in the nation. She was fierce, fearless, tough, competitive and an amazing athlete. Sponsors for several climbing gear companies approached her about sponsoring her competitions and climbing gear and trips. She definitely grew out of the princess phase, but she never lost her whimsy, she imagination, her belief in a world where better things were possible.
She's currently a senior in college earning an art degree and already supports herself as a graphic artist. She painted the art that hangs on the walls of our office, and she worked at one time for me, creating digital images for the mobile apps we were developing. It never occurred to Rachel that she might not be good enough at math or science to enter one of those fields. Instead, she did what we'd always encouraged her to do -- follow her passion and work hard.
If I remember correctly, most of those princess stories have the ladies facing down evil, running through forests and climbing towers -- and they manage to do it all in a dress.
What is it actually that we want to teach our daughters? For me it is this: Be brave enough to embrace and develop your entire self. Until we are OK teaching our daughters that, we'll perpetuate women having to leave a large portion of their true selves at the door every day at the office.
This post originally appeared on Lisa's Mama Ceo blog.