Girl problem

Documentary filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom, pictured here at the Sundance Channel HQ, gave a lecture at Elmwood, a private Ottawa girls’ school.

You would think there was never a better time to be a girl. You would be wrong.

In a deal that had tongues wagging last week, 26-year-old Lena Dunham got a $3.5 million-plus advance for an essay collection called Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s Learned. Dunham is the creator and star of an edgy HBO series called Girls, loosely based on her own life after college. Dunham also stars as the central character, Hannah, who is drifting in the 20-something landscape in New York City.

Hannah wants to be a writer but she doesn’t write much and her parents have quite justifiably cut her off. She has frequent no-strings sexual liaisons with Adam, an actor who can’t be described as a boyfriend.

Her friends are also confused. Even Marnie, who seems to have her career act at least somewhat together — she has a job at an art gallery — but vacillates over whether or not to dump her gormless college boyfriend Charlie. Until Charlie dumps Marnie and she wants him back.

You would think that there was never a better time in history to be a girl. You would be wrong.

There are two young women for every young man enrolled in Canadian universities today and in schools of medicine and law more than half of those registered are female. However, women are still in the minority in the medical specialties. They are holding their own in the biological sciences, but not the hard sciences.

Engineers Canada has reported that female enrolment in undergraduate engineering programs reached a peak of 20.6 per cent of enrolment in 2001. In the decade after that, it fluctuated between 17 and 18 per cent. Young women are smart and ambitious. But they are either unwilling or unable to push past certain boundaries.

Oct. 11 was the first International Day of the Girl. Newspapers all over the world reported sobering statistics about girls.

Lena Dunham is the 26-year-old creator and star of the edgy HBO series called Girls, loosely based on her own life after college. Photograph by Alex Gallardo, REUTERS

“Girls throughout the world face higher rates of violence, poverty, discrimination. In Canada, girls have higher rates of depression, sexual harassment and dating violence,” according to Status of Women Canada.

Earlier this week, documentary filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom gave a lecture at Elmwood, a private Ottawa girls’ school.

The title of her talk: “Where have all the smart girls gone?”

Maybe they’re in hiding because they see just how hard it is out there in the boardrooms and the highest levels of politics, suggests Siebel Newsom, whose documentary Miss Representation debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and was aired on Oprah Winfrey’s network.

Siebel Newsom has a Stanford MBA. She is married to former San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom.

She is also as slim and elegant as a thoroughbred racehorse, and has had a career in movies and television — appearing in Mad Men and The Valley of Elah, among other projects.

It would seem that Siebel Newsom has been a winner in the lottery of life. But she worries about the future for her own three-year-old daughter. The cultural environment for girls has become a toxic soup of hypersexuality and aggression.

Siebel Newsom watched the second Obama-Romney debate while she was in Ottawa. “I was really uncomfortable with the aggression,” she says. “Romney was being a jerk.”

In order to “win”, a leader has to be not just commanding and authoritative, but also dominant. Women on leadership roles are also expected to be all of these things, but at the same time, they are also held to the same standards of feminine beauty as entertainment figures. A woman who seeks power has to be as assertive as a man and look like Britney Spears.

Part of the problem, says Siebel Newsom, is the lack of good role models for girls. It starts with mothers who have a responsibility to their daughters to spend their time doing things other than shopping, getting manicures and going to the gym.

“You can’t be who you can’t see,” she says.

In a 2011 interview, Yahoo! president Marissa Mayer, then a Google executive, said she worried about the low numbers of women working in technology. Partly, it’s an image problem.

To be a techie, you don’t need to be a geek who spends hours playing video games in a sunless basement, said Mayer.

“The No. 1 most important thing we can do to increase the number of women in tech is to show a multiplicity of different role models,” she said.

“The stereotype of that very complete and rigid picture of what being a computer scientist means really hurts people’s understanding and ability to identify with the role and say, ‘Yes, this is something I can be in and want to be in.’ ”

You could not fault Mayer if she wanted to back away from the spotlight. She has been held to different standards than a man in her position.

Mayer was criticized when she announced that she was pregnant when she was named president of Yahoo! and said she would only take a few weeks off. She was criticized again after she gave birth to a son and said she was going to crowd-source the baby’s name.

Growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, my role models included my mother, Rhoda Morgenstern, Jo March, Wonder Woman and my Grade 6 teacher, an energetic and wonderful raconteur who juggled a classroom, six children of her own and university courses in anthropology. Three of these women are fictional characters and one of them fought crime in what was essentially a gold-trimmed strapless bathing suit and red riding boots.

Wonder Woman was also on Siebel Newsom’s list of role models, too, along with her father, an investment manager. And Nancy Drew.

In the past week, there was a lot of grumbling about the wisdom of paying Lena Dunham $3.5 million.

I think it’s good news that a 26 year old with a degree in creative writing who isn’t a model or a pop star is making that much money to write a book poking fun at the grim truths of being a young woman in 2012.

Especially a writer who, in character as Hannah, says she’s tried to lose weight, but has decided not to dwell on a bit of flab. “Because I decided I was going to have some other concerns in my life.”

I think I might add Dunham to my list of role models — as long as Hannah continues to ignore the flab. And promises to do the smart thing and stay away from Adam.

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