Changing the Future for Gen Z Girls: Why They Need Better Female Role Models

It’s 13 years since the launch of Facebook. Since then we’ve seen a flurry of other social media launches, shaping the way an entire generation (Gen Z), connects, interacts and feels about one another and themselves. Where the norm is to be “always on”, continually receiving and checking their social media feed. What they’re viewing isn’t reality but a perfect ‘curated’ life, and we’re all guilty of doing it.

There’s no denying the many benefits of social media; we’re more connected than ever, we can share our feelings more openly without the risk of being embarrassed, and access information and advice. It’s ultimately democratised self-expression. But there are unintended consequences of excessive activity for young Gen Z girls.

A recent poll of 1,500 14-24 year olds published in May this year shows Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter increased feelings of inadequacy and anxiety, with Instagram & Snapchat having the most negative impact on their mental well being (perhaps not surprising as these platforms are very image focused).

Research reveals that “Girls are more adversely affected than boys, as online networking makes them feel less happy about specific areas of their life, particularly their appearance”

Research by the team at Sheffield University, looking at how social media makes Gen Z feel about different aspects of their lives, reveals that “girls are more adversely affected than boys, as online networking makes them feel less happy about specific areas of their life, particularly their appearance”. Is it just a coincidence that 1 in 4 girls are now suffering from depression (vs 1 in 10 for boys), double from 12 years ago, alongside a 40-year high suicide rate for older teen girls?

As someone working in marketing and advertising, I wonder if my industry is complicit in this worrying trend, or doing enough to address the problem.

In my training with Girls Network (a charity helping empower girls from the least advantaged communities by connecting them with a mentor and a network of professional female role models), they showed us a poll asking female students to name male role models they follow on social media. The response was varied and included actors, sports stars, scientists, singers – a healthy collection of people for inspiration. When they asked the same question about their female role models, the response couldn’t have been more different. They recalled a number of reality TV stars with no identifiable ‘talent’, with Kim Kardashian and numerous TOWIE stars at the top. It’s clear that these young women had identified female role models by what they look like, and male role models by what they do.

“The pressure girls suffer as a result impacts negatively on their mental well being and happiness. It would be wonderful to have more realistic role models.”

This was reinforced by Kathyn Loughnan, Director of Enterprise & Unique Ethos at my former secondary school, Avonbourne. I’ve worked with Kathryn before, when I went back and addressed sixth form girls on where my career has taken me since school. She says “my greatest concern is that present-day role models, even when known as being ‘fake’ by young women, are still revered. Most are reality TV stars who undergo all types of treatment to maintain their ‘look’ which is not at all natural. I believe this sets unrealistic goals, and they lack confidence because they can’t match the images they see. The pressure they suffer as a result impacts negatively on their mental well being and happiness. It would be wonderful to have more realistic role models.”

It’s not that female role models don’t exist – they’re everywhere, from Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill to Sheryl Sandberg and Malala Yousafzai. But many of our young women aren’t relating to them. They aspire to be famous, through being a figure on social media.

I’m not the first to raise these issues, but feel personally involved through my mentoring work and being a mum to girls. There may not be a quick and easy solution, but I believe there are actions we can take. All women (mothers, sisters, teachers, friends, colleagues) can start playing an active role in supporting and encouraging our young women every day by:

  • Openly discussing the benefits and pitfalls of social media with girls from a much younger age. Girls aged 11-13 display a “gender-specific vulnerability”, triggered by the onset of puberty, making them more likely to worry about their appearance
  • Providing girls with the right ‘survival’ tools so they can navigate it for themselves – helping them build resilience and courage (mentally, intellectually, emotionally and morally)
  • Celebrating & encouraging campaigns aimed at Gen Z’s that build positive role models, similar to Samsung “Rethink Role Models” in Australia (created by my agency, iris), Always “Like A Girl” or Sport England “This Girl Can”
  • Connecting them to a wider cross section of influencers on their social media channels, who portray ‘real’ life in a positive, aspirational way
  • Encouraging them to follow a passion – to build their self-confidence, feel a sense of worth and experience achievement outside their home/school routine
  • Providing access to more female role models in their community

We can all do this, whether at work, home, school or community, for example by joining one of the many charities and organisations that provide mentors for young women. Karren Brady, one of Britain’s most high-profile businesswomen believes strong female role models are essential. “Our next generation of successful and influential women needs strong role models if they are to match and hopefully surpass the current generation.

“This doesn’t just apply to the business world – it’s true in all walks of life. Strong role models at home and in the local community are vital in showing girls and young women that they are capable of achieving great things.”

Love it or hate it, social media isn’t going anywhere. But It’s clear that we have a reframing job to do, so these smart young people have more valuable and rewarding aspirations than gaining 1000 likes on their latest post.

Who knows what future generations of women can achieve, invent, solve, if we encourage and support them to flourish. One day we’ll achieve equality – but only when every young woman sees and believes that there’s more to life than what she looks like, or showing off what she’s got.

Elisha Roell

Elisha Roell

Board Director at iris
Elisha Roell
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