Filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom on why gender bias hurts girls—and boys

Jennifer Siebel Newsom is a social justice filmmaker, CEO and Founder of The Representation Project, which inspires individuals and communities to challenge and overcome limiting gender stereotypes. Newson is an advocate for women and children, and a proud mother of three. This interview is part of the #MotherlyMakers series, featuring the women remaking our world.


Motherly: Was there a moment when you realized that you needed to start The Representation Project? What clicked for you?

I founded The Representation Project in 2011 in response to the overwhelming public demand for social action and ongoing education in support of Miss Representation, my first film, which exposes the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence. People were hungry to use their voice to speak up and out challenging toxic cultural norms, and I wanted to foster that community with The Representation Project.

Motherly: How have gender norms changed in America over the past few decades?

Gender norms have almost gotten worse over the past few decades, though I’ve noticed some real momentum towards change over the past few years. I am seeing many more people take on the issue of gender inequality, and I think a large part is due to more people having mainstream conversations around equality and gender stereotypes. People like a father I met a few years back, who marched Miss Representation into his finance firm’s HR office when he noticed that all of the people being let go were working moms. Or, the advertising executives who took responsibility for their own admonitions and pledged to be a part of the gender equality solution. These everyday examples of people taking on the issue of gender equality makes a huge difference, particularly when men join the conversation as well.

Motherly: Why do you think the issue of stereotyping matters so much for girls and boys?

Gender stereotypes most certainly affect both girls and boys. My latest film, The Mask You Live In, takes a look at the effect of gender stereotypes on young men, and the resulting “boy crisis” in our country. Compared to girls, research shows that boys in the U.S. are more likely to be diagnosed with a behavior disorder, prescribed stimulant medications, fail out of school, binge drink, commit a violent crime, and/or take their own lives. Those are some pretty startling statistics that aren’t going to be solved by telling young men to “man up.” We need to have a serious conversation about what healthy masculinity looks like and model it for our boys, just as we need to reinforce in our young women the understanding that their value does not lie solely in their youth, beauty, or sexuality.


Motherly: What's the best piece of advice you've ever been given?

A piece of advice my father gave me years ago has been particularly useful throughout my career: it’s better to be respected than liked. I carry his words with me when I’m publicly advocating about issues or sharing facts that challenge the status quo and sometimes make people uncomfortable.


Motherly: How has motherhood transformed your career? What’s your secret to integrating work and family?

Motherhood has been both difficult to balance with my career, but also extraordinarily educational. It’s taught me how to prioritize and build a team I can trust - it certainly takes a village to do it all. It’s also helped me learn to laugh at my shortcomings more and to build a sense of flexibility (ie some days, I need to work outside of the 9-5 framework in order to balance work and family). I’ve also had to learn to prioritize my boundaries and myself (particularly not over-scheduling myself, and making an effort to get a good night’s sleep on a regular basis.)


Motherly: What keeps you inspired and excited every day?

I’m inspired by the millions of people who engage with The Representation Project on social media every week – our community of active and conscientious people who know we need to change our culture. I am also incredibly inspired by the folks who come up to me after speeches or screenings, and tell me the ways Miss Representation and The Mask You Live In have positively impacted their lives. Those conversations are incredibly meaningful and it’s always nice to hear the real world impact our work has on individuals’ lives.


Motherly: What are your words of wisdom for other mothers wanting to turn their passion into a professional project?

Learn to trust your gut and surround yourself with others who believe in you and have similar values. That supportive community helps turn that dream into a reality, and nurtures it along the way. Further, there’s always a way to achieve your dreams. It’s never perfect, nor, perhaps, what you envisioned, but at some point, it’s worth diving in.

Motherly: What are your big dreams for The Representation Project?

My big dream for The Representation Project is that it doesn’t need to exist in 20 years! I hope we can engage enough people on these issues, so as to achieve gender equality, and transform culture for the better.

Motherly: What does “Motherly” mean to you?

You have a line on the Motherly homepage that says “Motherly goes beyond the debate over how to ‘have it all,’ to help women have whatever it is that they want and need.” I couldn’t agree with that sentiment more: mothers are doing it all, so let’s figure out how to give parents the tools they need to raise happy and healthy kids, and also to do it in a way that nurtures themselves, as individuals, members of a community, parents and working families.

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