Advice for girls: ‘Nobody is judging you. Just be yourself’

Three high achievers talk about what motivates them – and why we need a day for girls


Plan International Ireland is a global children’s charity that focuses on girls, which research shows continues to be the single most excluded group in the world. Here three Irish “Girl Heroes” making strides in sport, music and technology tell us why we need an International Day of the Girl.

Ciara Neville (16), athlete: ‘Girls can be very concerned about how they look, so they actually do like exercising, but the team sports seem to put them off’

Ciara Neville lives in Monaleen, Co Limerick. You might have heard of her, but you probably won’t be able to catch her:the fifth-year Castletroy College student is fast. Very fast.

Last year Ciara won gold in the 100m at the European Youth Olympics in Georgia. She had barely finished polishing her medal when she received a national call-up to the Irish women’s 4x100m under-20 relay team.

In July, the Emerald Athletics Club athlete ran a powerful final leg as the Irish 4x100m relay team smashed the national record to finish fifth in a time of 44.82 seconds at the IAAF World U-20 championships final in Bydgoszcz, Poland.

She may emphasise that it is the “junior” team, but it is an under-20 outfit, so Ciara is doing rather well for her age. She also runs the anchor leg, which she says, in her self-effacing way, is just because “we go with whichever way it works best”. In addition to being fast, she is very modest.

So why does Ciara think we need an international day for girls?

“I think that sport, in general, is more directed at boys,” she says. “It is often about team sports, and a lot of boys take part in all that. But I think it is important that girls keep doing sport because a lot of girls give it up when they are 15 or 16.”

She is not sure why this happens, but thinks girls may become “more focused on enjoying being a teenager and going out with their friends than getting all mucky playing in sport”.

So is it about the muck or about girls’ body image?

“Well, girls can be very concerned about how they look,” Ciara says, “so they actually do like exercising, but the team sports seem to put them off.”

She is aware that body image can be problematic for some girls. It isn’t for her, though, which she is glad about. “Yeah it’s good. Some girls always try to keep under a certain weight, but I was always tall so it wasn’t too hard for me,” the 1.72m-tall ( 5 ft 8 in) athlete says.

Shying away from sports was never part of Ciara’s game plan. Being active was a no-brainer for the fast kid on the blocks.

“I liked all sports from when I was young. I did soccer and hockey and everything when I was younger, but I decided to focus on athletics when I was 15 or 16.” Athletics is now Ciara’s main focus.

For the International Day of the Girl, Ciara’s focus is on getting more girls active. “I want to try to encourage girls to keep up their sports rather than give them up as they get older. Keep the sports up until you get to college – and then hopefully through that.”

It’not just about your body, but your mind as well, she says. “Sport gives you a break from study and really helps with your mind.”

It also hooks you up with people who will become friends. “All my friends are within running, and they are all over the country as well. Sport is definitely the place to go for friends. Even in individual sports like athletics, team members will support and encourage each other. It is amazing because you see each other all the time at competitions and you just keep in contact.”

The friends she collects along the way give Ciara the perfect incentive to keep running. “I will keep going, for as long as I can.”

So what is good about being a girl in Ireland?

“It has been great getting to do all the girly stuff like going shopping and hanging out with your friends. There is probably not that much difference from being a boy, I suppose, but I wouldn’t really know.”

Ciara does not think there is that much difference between being a boy and a girl. “That in itself is progress,” she says. And she has friends who are girls and friends who are boys, so the friendship playing field is pretty level.

“I haven’t had any experience where being a girl has impacted on me negatively,” says Ciara, who felt she was treated equally while she was growing up. “Particularly in a mixed school and with an older brother who is 18 and a younger sister who is 12.”

The equal treatment they have all received has been welcome, she says, and makes questions about inequality redundant. At home there is no difference.

So does Ciara have any advice for girls in Ireland?

“I would say to them that they shouldn’t get caught up on their image. Obviously everyone wants to look nice, but don’t get caught up on wearing loads of make-up or wearing fashionable clothes. No one is judging you. Just be yourself.”

Is she glad she is a girl?

“Yes I am,” she laughs. “I just like getting dressed up and going shopping with my friends. I am always at the track, so it is nice to go out, get dressed up and have a good time with your friends.”

Lauren Boyle (11), coder: ‘Coding is a very powerful tool that allows you to do things that you never thought were possible’

Lauren Boyle has packed a lot in to her 11 years, but there is probably even more to come for the European Digital Girl of the Year 2014. And she is still only in sixth class at Dublin’s Teresian School.

Lauren has already created, coded and designed Cool Kids Studio, a series of life-skills sites for 3-12 year olds. She even included a healthy eating site but, not content with merely getting kids to eat their five a day, she has moved on to another website and an app, Cool STEAM Kids, which aims to keep the kids entertained while also informing them about science, technology, engineering, art and maths.

She is not one to rest on her impressive laurels. “This year I created Skye, a maths study aid for kids in classes 3 to 6. I made video tutorials for each topic on the maths curriculum where I explain how to do, solve the maths problems. Skye, then, gives you maths problems for each topic to test you on what you know.” A maths hero at age 11 – you read it here first.

In her spare time, which we are trying hard to imagine, Lauren goes to Coderdojo, a programming club for kids.

“In Coderdojo, kids can learn how to code, build a website, make an app or even a game and learn about technology in a fun way. I like writing code because it makes all your ideas come alive. Whether your idea is big or small, coding will let you explore technology to make that idea happen.”

Lauren says coding is important because, after 2020, many jobs could very well be done by robots. “People are going to need to be prepared for this,” she says. And this is one 11-year-old who deserves to be listened to.

“Coding is a very powerful tool that allows you to do things that you never thought were possible,” Lauren says. More and more girls are attending.

“I think this is because girls are realising how exciting coding can be. A coding club has started in my school and it’s great to see many girls getting involved. With your coding skills, you will be able to create a website, app, game, build a robot, code and print something cool from a 3D printer and anything you can come up with in your imagination.”

Last year Lauren went to Government buildings to teach the Taoiseach how to code. “I really enjoyed it,” she says. We hope he was a fast learner.

Lauren thinks it is a good idea to have an international day for girls.

“It can be a day to highlight and encourage girls,” she says, “but we need to keep this up and continue encouraging and highlighting girls every day. It’s kind of like a birthday for every girl in the world.”

Sibéal Ní Chasaide (18), singer: ‘Everyone has challenges, but everyone has great things about them’

Sibéal Ní Chasaide’s paternal grandmother celebrated her100th birthday last week. Her maternal grandmother and one of her great-grandmothers, together with her mum and two sisters, are all part of the lagoon of positive female mental attitude that surrounds her.

“I’m absolutely delighted to be a girl,” she says. “Probably if I was a boy, I’d be delighted too, but my experience of being a girl has been great my entire life.

“I have always been pushed to be the best I can be, and I just hope that all girls get the same opportunities that I did,” Sibéal says. “That’s what I found great about being a girl. Maybe some places it isn’t like that, but in the world I’ve grown up in, I’ve always been encouraged.”

All that encouragement is paying off. The young woman from the Gaeltacht in Rath Chairn, Co Meath, is preparing to release her first solo album on Universal Ireland in the New Year.

Sibéal has been singing in competitions since she was six. She appeared on RTÉ on Easter Monday singing Mise Éire, a newly composed piece by Patrick Cassidy. The song was originally written for Rebellion, the Coco Television documentary on the Rising with a voiceover by Liam Neeson. Sibéal recorded the piece for the documentary in April, 2014, when she was 16.

This is the first album she has done that is just her, she says. “I think this is a new take on traditional music. The music being written now is more evocative. It triggers emotions.”

Sibéal loves writing music, so she wants to do that as well as sing. She recorded a song, Lost at Sea, with Ferdia Walsh Peelo (of Sing Street fame), which they played at Electric Picnic this year.

Are girls as musical as boys?

“Of course they are. I think that girls are just as musical. I am in a music class with boys and girls and there is so much talent in my class amongst the girls and the boys.”

She goes to Coláiste Iosagáin school in Stillorgan, Dublin, where she is in her sixth year and preparing for the Leaving Cert. The girl from her school and the boys from Coláiste Eoin have been mixed together since fifth year, so she is used to boys now, she says.

Did coming together change things a lot? “I think the boys became quieter, but the girls also became quieter.”

Does Sibéal think we need an international day for girls?

“I think that everyone needs an international day. I don’t think that girls alone need an international day; I think that boys should have one too. It’s a great way for girls to come together and realise our worth, though, because girls are great. I am very proud to be a girl.”

And she is grateful too.

“I can’t give out about my life because there are girls in far worse situations that have affected them in far worse ways. I am very grateful for how I have been treated as a girl, and I’m very grateful for where my life has taken me and the opportunities I have had.”

Does she have any advice for girls?

“Let yourselves be inspired. Everyone has challenges, but everyone has great things about them. So if you like it, do it, but do it well.”

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