“We were shown who we should emulate, even if that conflicted directly with who we related to.”
I had always been curious about gender roles and expectations while growing up. I was as fond of G.I. Joe as I was of Barbie, and struggled to understand why certain toys were for boys, others for girls. I loved sports, and I guess you’d say I grew up a ‘tomboy’. With a few growth spurts early, I was taller, stronger, and faster than a lot of others at times. So, I didn’t limit myself to any activity because of my gender when I felt more capable than others. But as I got older, I began hearing from all kinds of people about what girls couldn’t do, how we shouldn’t behave, and what we needed to learn to make good partners for our eventual husbands. This seeped into us as little girls, where my friends and I often played MASH, giggling over questions about who we’d marry, what kind of house we’d live in, and how many children we’d have when we got older. Thankfully, there was always the question of the type of job we’d have!
I am the younger sister to a brother, but I also have a big extended family with a lot of strong female cousins. We played everything together; so, when the social norms of how we were supposed to behave and what we could play together started changing as we got older, I struggled to understand why. No one really had a good enough answer. Maybe for this reason, for the frustration I felt by being boxed into a certain societal role for no other reason than my gender, I began molding myself after role models who were strong, intelligent, bold, free to behave and say whatever they wanted — it may not be a surprise that those role models at the time were mostly male. I wanted to be authentic and speak the truth like Peter Jennings, be charming like Bill Clinton, and clever like Zack Morris. I never wanted to be Kelly Kapowski, and preferred Jessie Spano or, better yet, Laura Winslow. I thought I had to want to be a Kelly, and this lack of role models played into the lack of power we as girls were able to build for ourselves as we got older. We were shown who we should emulate, even if that conflicted directly with who we related to.
I continued to struggle with my identity throughout high school and into college, where my strong, assertive, and direct personality got me into a lot of conflicts with certain people, and I was reminded often of how women should behave. I made friends selectively — or maybe people selectively made friends with me — because I noticed that it was difficult to be independent and free in my choices within the South Asian community at college, and I integrated more with others where I felt better accepted as a person. It felt as if a lot of the social limitations that we are taught growing up carry with us into adulthood, and I knew that if I wanted to break free of these gender expectations and really be who I wanted to be, I had to surround myself with people who had already done that self-reflection and awareness work or never had those barriers placed on them to begin with.
I didn’t have a lot of South Asian female role models growing up who could help me appreciate the personality that I had and who could guide me through the choices I was making as I got older. So, when I was 23 and came across a young South Asian woman who we’ll call ‘Amy,’ and who was experiencing similar internal conflicts as I had when I was her age, I knew I was destined to pursue something that helped others feel comfortable with themselves in a way I never had growing up. I wasn’t entirely sure of the path that I was taking into education, entrepreneurship, or advocacy, since I lacked role models, but I let my natural instinct to serve as ‘Amy’s’ coach and mentor guide me. However, there’s just so much cultural and gender related conflict that I hadn’t even unpacked within me at that point, that I now realize limited my ability to truly help ‘Amy’.
A few years into my career as an educator supporting students’ academic needs through my first startup, I met a young woman who we’ll call ‘Laura’. I worked with ‘Laura’ for four years and she was always a straight-A student — bright, brilliant, and gifted. In March of 2013, I finally met ‘Laura’s’ father for the first time. He came to my office and threatened ‘Laura’ with marriage because she got her first 80% on an assignment — one of the highest grades in the class.
She was 12. 12!
Laura was an excellent student, a powerhouse of bold, and she also reminded me a lot of myself growing up – but her father thought women could only go so far because of the secondary role they’re supposed to play in society. Her first 80% meant she wasn’t perfect, and to him, her education wasn’t worth investing in if she wasn’t perfect.
I was well into my 20s at that point, and had experienced a lot of doubt around my own worth — from guys I dated who told me that I could be a housewife or that I would never earn as much as they would, from being told I would have to be flexible and live life according to those guys’ career progress, and from people who did not believe women entrepreneurs could succeed because if we get ‘too educated’ we may not find a guy to marry. So in that moment, when ‘Laura’ became less bold and broke down crying in my arms, I was reminded of all the times when I was 12 and felt I had to hide my body, my wit, my intelligence, and my strength. I had held back pushing ‘Amy’ to make choices that were truly her own, but in that moment, I couldn’t hold back what I knew needed to happen for young women like ‘Amy’ and ‘Laura’; they need to be empowered to make their own life choices. If I could transfer what I knew in my late 20s to ‘Laura’, and if others could also connect with young people who are experiencing so many conflicts that stifle them from becoming their best selves, then this is what we need to do to get to a world where ‘Amy’ and ‘Laura’ are truly equal and free.
That’s how I started SPEAK, where we now enable and empower young people by connecting them with visible role models who can guide them towards becoming their best selves, to make independent and informed choices around their own lives. I wish I had a role model to help me understand the advocacy that was always within me because, in this fight for others, I’m also fighting for myself — I’m fighting for that collective win of individuality. To get to that win, it will take a community effort to make huge cultural shifts in how we raise our young people to become free-thinking individuals.
Hetal Jani is the founding executive director and board chair of SPEAK, a non-profit program that aims to develop “the social and cultural capital of youth from immigrant families to become leaders in the workforce.” SPEAK is currently seeking motivated individuals to serve as role models for their next generation of workforce leaders in 2021. They encourage those interested to reach out at https://www.speakmentorship.org/.