We shouldn’t stop fighting for women just because it’s 2016

This article was originally published in The Hamilton Spectator on March 9, 2016.

Mentoring makes a difference.

A study by the Canadian Women’s Foundation found that 83 per cent of mentored young women believe they were more confident because of it.

The study suggests that self-confidence can lead to positive life outcomes for girls, including better physical health, improved school grades, a stronger voice against bullying and harassment, more career choices and higher earning potential.

While the conversation on mentorship is not new, the need is even greater for young women and girls.

Females make up more than half the population of Hamilton but they face a daunting list of gender-specific challenges.

Studies have shown that the early years affect their lives as women. Although young women (aged 15 to 19) perform better academically than young men, they experience higher levels of stress and are out-earned by their male counterparts in the labour market.

Approximately 12 per cent of females between 12 and 19 have experienced depression, more than double the rate for males in the same age group, says a study commissioned by Hamilton Community Foundation.

But when young women take part in mentoring with women, they build confidence, learn to identify their strengths and envision the kind of female leaders they can be.

Common models of female mentorship involve older seasoned professionals mentoring young professionals.

Yet having a younger mentor can be just as beneficial.

In a pilot program between Hamilton HIVE and YWCA Hamilton’s Young Women’s Advisory Council, young women professionals partnered with young women in high school to provide advice on the transition to post-secondary education and, for recent grads, into the workforce.

This female peer-mentoring model allowed young women to learn from someone closer to their age who had faced challenges they could relate to.

The challenges included stress at school and work, body image, mental health, isolation, thriving in STEM fields and peer pressure. The HIVE-YWCA pilot project involved five pairs of young women and showed that mentorship can take many forms and is not limited to age.

Beyond mentorship, what do Hamilton’s young women need to succeed?

Social support — educational and emotional — at home, at school and in the community is critical for young women to thrive, reports Girls Action Foundation.

Young women must be encouraged and given the opportunities to lead and shape policies that better reflect their needs.

For the Conference Board of Canada, this means eliminating “unconscious bias” and doubts about young women’s ability to take on leadership roles, ensuring that organizations can identify and develop the best talent regardless of gender.

Since the first International Women’s Day in 1911, Canada has come a long way — from gaining the right to vote in 1921 to achieving gender parity in cabinet last year.

We shouldn’t stop just because it’s 2016.