The rise of the fearless female: why words matter

26 August 2019

I grew up in an era when women were routinely referred to as 'the weaker sex'. We were expected to be afraid of mice but not of childbirth; we were expected to be capable of raising well-adjusted children (with no days off) but not of running a company. Although true gender equality may still be a long way off, thankfully, some of the rhetoric has changed.

Kristen Visbal’s statue Fearless Girl, which now stands outside the New York Stock Exchange, was commissioned by the asset management company State Street Global Advisors (SSGA) as part of an initiative to encourage companies to put women on their boards. This feisty young girl is 130cm high and has a look of sheer determination. In March 2018, just one year after Fearless Girl was first installed, 152 companies had added a female board member, with another 34 companies committed to adding at least one woman to their board in the near term (State Street News Room).

Fearless Girl

What is fear?

At some point in our lives we have all experienced the natural human response of fear. It doesn’t feel good. The Cambridge Dictionary defines fear as ‘an unpleasant emotion or thought that you have when you are frightened or worried by something dangerous, painful, or bad that is happening or might happen.’ Fearlessness, then, is the absence of this unpleasant emotion.

The other side of fear

But fear is not all bad. Fear, as long as it’s not crippling, can give us a competitive edge. Listen to a performer – whether sportsperson, musician or any other performer – talk about the moments before the race or performance. If they are being honest, they will divulge they felt nervous or even afraid in the lead-up to the event, and possibly even during it. An experienced performer knows how to channel that fear into an energy that can result in brilliance – delivering a performance that truly moves the audience, winning a race, beating their personal best.  

Fear can galvanise ordinary people to achieve goals they never thought possible. My friend Samantha told me how she suddenly became a single mum and sole breadwinner at age 34. ‘I had been drifting through life wondering why I didn’t have a great career and the perfect partner. Then suddenly I found myself with no job, no partner and a toddler in tow. I was terrified – that wasn’t in the plan!’

Even though she was smart, qualified and talented, fear of failure had held my friend back in her younger years. But it was also fear that galvanised her into action more than a decade later. This time the fear gave her the courage to create a profitable business which eventually gave her enough money and flexibility to raise her child the way she wanted, as well as provide personal career fulfillment.

An alternative to fearlessness

Fearless Girl is the perfect name for the New York statue. She inspires me. Yet to be completely without fear is an unrealistic goal for most of us. Courage, on the other hand – the ability to control our fear in a dangerous or difficult situation – may be more attainable.

Whatever our gender, admitting to our fear may be one of our most courageous and honest acts as it exposes us as the vulnerable human beings we all are. If the goal of fearlessness feels impossible, we can change the rhetoric slightly in our own minds and strive to be courageous rather than fearless; to feel the fear but do it anyway. 

To find out more about State Street's Fearless Girl campaign go to https://www.ssga.com/global/en/about-us/who-we-are/fearless-girl.html

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