When a daughter looks at her mother, what does she see?

A lifetime can depend on it. 

Does she believe the whole horizon is open to her? Or only part of it? We can only become, after all, who we believe we can be.

As anyone who’s ever raised a family knows, children don’t miss much. Maybe they can’t articulate the specifics of what exactly their parents are up to, but they see, and they feel, and they learn how things work. Like, for example, who does what. No matter where the household is in the world or on what rung of the economic ladder, daughters watch. Sons do too, of course. What do they see?

I thought about this a lot throughout the pandemic. I would look at my daughter, and I would wonder what she was experiencing, and what children everywhere would take away from this time. We know now just how much anxiety there has been for our young people. 1 in 6 children likely had a mental health issue in 2020, compared to 1 in 9 in 2017, according to the National Health Service in the UK.  

During the pandemic, my daughter and I were in the same place, day and night, perhaps more than since she was a baby. She, my husband and I were shut-in, like billions of others worldwide. She watched me multi-task, from laptop to lunch, not that one excluded the other on many days. My husband and I were among the fortunate, able to keep working. This gave her stability many didn’t have. But there were so many other disruptions for her, and for others. School continued, but on-line, with all the special challenges that entailed. The familiar street right outside our home near London became completely deserted. The playing in parks that we loved, was off limits.

What did my daughter, and all daughters everywhere, learn about who she is and who she can become?

What we know is that Covid-19 hit the livelihoods of women and mothers more dramatically than men and fathers. Of course, the crisis was felt by everyone. But in the UK, women were 1 ½ times more likely to lose their jobs, be furloughed or quit, according to the World Economic Forum’s Institute for Fiscal Studies. Women in paid work in February 2020 were 9 percentage points less likely to be working for pay by the summer. 

What did their daughters see? Certainly, bravery and devotion amid the challenges of an extraordinarily difficult time. But also, stress, and maybe, in some families, an imbalance between what men and women are expected to do. 

In the US, emerging statistics are similar. According to the US Census Bureau, 10-million mothers living with school age children, more than a third of all moms, were not in the paid work force. That’s 1.4 million less than were working during the same month the year before. 

None of this is surprising, perhaps. On average, in the best of times, Moms carry a heavier burden of unpaid domestic household chores and childcare. That was only, maybe inevitably, exacerbated by the pandemic. The predictability that women would be set back more dramatically than men during Covid should give us pause. And it should encourage us to action. 

This is a moment for renewed attention to how our daughters see us and how they see themselves. The crisis of the past year and a half has thrown new light on how entrenched traditional gender roles remain. As a woman in technology, my concern has long been how to bring more girls and young women to the industry. From coding to design software, to hardware engineers to shape the mechanics of the devices the world runs on, to the creative intellects bringing AI to virtually every aspect of life, to the near limitless potential of even more advanced technologies like quantum computing, this where the jobs of the future will be. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, job growth out to 2030 will be largely in STEM: science, technology, engineering, and math.

But, as is well known, many girls and young women have concluded that such work is not for them. It’s for the guys, which I continue to hear even today. I fear that many of our daughters, noting how gender roles played out in their households during Covid, only cemented these role models in their psyches. 

What is especially troubling is that our daughters don’t start out that way. Recent studies, especially landmark research undertaken by Microsoft and KRC, indicate that girls see themselves as perfectly well suited to STEM up to approximately the age of 11. By age 15, there is a huge drop-off. No one is exactly sure why. 

I would hazard a guess. When it comes to STEM, too many girls, even with great parents and teachers, end up feeling like they just don’t belong. A 14-year-old girl walks into a classroom of all boys to study advanced placement physics. She’s not intimidated by the subject. But she feels out of place. I know it because I’ve been there. I loved science as a young girl, and I was put into AP physics. But I skipped the class. It was not “cool.” None of my girlfriends would be there. I had everything I needed to thrive in a classroom focused on something that fascinated me. Except confidence. If I could talk to my 14-year-old self I’d say, ‘Take your place. This is exactly where you belong. Trust me, you want to be there because you belong there.’ I can’t guarantee that I would have listened back then. But, in any event, I never heard those words.

Now, we need to make sure that our daughters do. It’s all about confidence. As simple as that, and as daunting. It was a different time when I was a teenager, but not nearly enough has changed since then. We are still in a confidence crisis. According to research compiled by my foundation, Inner Wings, in the UK, fully 70-percent of high school girls believe they are not good enough. Only 21-percent of girls believe they have the qualities to lead. Confidence levels among girls fall 30-percent between the ages of 8 and 14. 

What poignant, and unacceptable, statistics these are.

We can change it. It is so critical right now to empower our daughters with the conviction – the inner wings – to believe in themselves. At our foundation, we’ve designed an array of approaches and programs to do it. But can confidence be learned? My response is another decisive yes. A lack of confidence was learned. It can be unlearned. Again, I know it because I’ve seen it happen, the transformation when girls and young women are simply offered a new level of trust in their potential. Wings are formed when the world around you believes in you, but those wings take flight when she believes in herself.

The time is now. Amid the impact of Covid, this is perhaps more urgent work than ever. My vision, shared by so many others, is of a definitive, generational shift in how our daughters see the power of their intelligence and the rewards of will power and hard work. Working together, worldwide, we can make this real. 

During the pandemic, I hope my daughter saw her possibilities in me. But I also thought of all the other daughters, everywhere. My hope, and my commitment, is to help them see the whole, wide horizon too and to believe that they can not only reach it, but surpass it.

You just need that superpower. Confidence, the indispensable step. There’s nothing more important because, truly, nothing less than a whole lifetime can depend on it.