Speak Up / Speaking Out

The real crowning moment: What Miss Universe 2019 taught us about women in leadership

. 4 min read . Written by Priyanka Sutaria
The real crowning moment: What Miss Universe 2019 taught us about women in leadership

When Beyonce said “Who run the world? Girls!” we felt that.

And we felt it again during the Q/A round of this year’s Miss Universe pageant, when winner Zozibini Tunzi spoke about why we need to teach young girls leadership. “It’s something that has been lacking in young girls and women for a long time, not because we don’t want to but because of what society has labelled women to be,” she said.

She’s not wrong.

There’s a line between boss and bossy: It’s called sexism

Countries around the world (Finland, Iceland, New Zealand) are electing young women to lead them, but we are still bogged down by sexist commentary which questions their ability to govern. We are so obsessed with coddling boys, and turning girls into “model women” (pun intended!), that we fail to teach them that leadership can be learned, regardless of gender.

Women have not shied away from positions of power (they have been heads of state, commanders of change, and leaders in the workplace), but spend more time battling unfair labels than their male counterparts.

These labels – bossy, bitchy, we could go on – are a direct threat to young girls around the world.

Who among us has not designed their lives to avoid being categorised in this way? I would need more fingers on my hands to count the number of times I have been schooled to be more “ladylike” (ugh) while boys and men around me live their best lives!

To top it off, we also have to deal with a society that is obsessed with painting over our individual personalities with the colors of sacrifice, weakness, and dependency. It’s simple ergonomics: women are expected to mould their identities to favour the comfort of men.

Act like a girl

There is nothing wrong with being soft in a tough world, but preventing us from being self-sufficient and strong is plain wrong. As young girls, we are expected to cultivate an “inside voice”. This starts out as a trait, and turns into a lifestyle. We are told to stay in the house, talk only when spoken to, and school our voices (read: volume, both in sound and substance) to match.

Children are particularly vulnerable to such conditioning. A child who is forced by the world around them to think, talk and act in a certain way is likely to adopt these directions as permanent behaviour. Until their teen years, children take most things at face-value, which means that what we say casually and not-so-casually needs to be empowering both at surface level, and in depth.

TLDR; stop raising boys and girls differently!

The dark side of social media

Shut up and make me a sandwich!” How often have we heard this phrase on the internet? The big picture of the patriarchy is built on the foundation of small actions. The translation? Do not think and follow the man’s orders.

The growth of social media has made this sort of harassment (yes, harassment!) commonplace. More shockingly, this sexist stuff is turned into easily digestible quips and quotes which are brushed under the rug of “dark humor”. This rug does not do much to hide the fact that it is just a fancy coat that hides a powerful hatred towards women. Just look at the vitriol directed at young leaders like Greta Thunberg and Meghan Markle on a daily basis!

Like many other women, I too have faced everything from ridicule to threats of violence as a feminist online. And like many others, I made the choice to leave social media for the sake of my mental and physical  safety.

No girl should ever have to choose between expression and survival. Period.

Pretty hurts

There is a reason why Tunzi’s speech has been shared so widely. Powerful quotations by women rarely, if ever, become popular without the context of beauty. We value physical beauty in women over substance, and teach young girls that in order to express their views, they must be attractive as well. Sadly, the spokesperson for women’s empowerment is a better pitch when she’s also conventionally beautiful.

Had Tunzi not been on the stage of the Miss Universe pageant – a long-problematic beauty contest – her words would not be so popular. This is not to take away from the fact that a woman of colour is being celebrated for her beauty (natural hair, et al), but to highlight that she is a victim of a society where her voice would be lost if it a panel of judges had not deemed her beautiful, and a panel of media commentators had not decided that she was worthy of being heard.

I mean, a simple Google search will tell you that the most sought-after keywords regarding the Q/A rounds of beauty pageants are the ones where contestants mess up. We would rather focus on the failures of these women than soundbites from even runners up!

The short version of all the above is a single word: erasure.

As a society, we are training girls for a life where they are pushed towards the edge of disappearance. We are teaching them from a young age that they do not have the ability to impact our lives. Young girls need to be nurtured, not told that they do not matter. As Tunzi said, “[W]e should be teaching the[m]… to take up space. Nothing is more important than… cementing yourself.” The human reaction to being made to feel strong is to physically and emotionally grow, and that is what we should be doing for our young girls!

So how do we combat this problem? We redirect resources to help girls unlearn this behaviour. We speak out about it (ditch that inside voice!). We empower others to do the same, and we pass the mic onward.

And when someone asks us what our favorite position is? We take the Lauren Conrad route and say “CEO!