Rock climbing teaches girls to be brave, take risks, and use their voice—even if that means yelling to be lowered. Here's my daughter climbing in Australia's Grampians National Park.
This is the second blog in a series on what I learned during one year focusing on gender equality in my life and work.
Want to hear something great? There are a lot of organizations devoted to women and girls. Scroll through the hashtag #PressForProgress or #IWD2018 and you’ll be hit with a stream of inspiring messages and images.
And a lot of these organizations need money. So I was happy to give some cash to two.
When I decided last year to reduce my rates by 25 percent for gender-focused projects, I also committed to donating 25 percent of my fee for those projects if my client paid me my full rate. A couple of clients did, so I split my donations equally between two organizations that support women and girls: one, Girlventures, that helps girls build strong, resilient bodies, and one, the OpEd Project, that helps girls and women develop a strong voice. I have worked with both organizations and I fully subscribe to what they do. Here’s why.
Strong Body: Why I Gave Money to Girlventures
Half of my donation went to Girlventures, a San Francisco-based organization that teaches adolescent girls outdoor adventure sports like rock climbing, kayaking, and backpacking. I discovered the organization shortly after I moved to the Bay Area in 2000 and volunteered in the “Girls Climb On” program, which teaches girls how to rock climb. I remember one girl’s excitement after finishing her first route in San Francisco’s Mission Cliffs: “I just climbed a 58, ya’ll!” she shouted, not yet understanding (or caring about) the weird Yosemite decimal system.
Girlventures was founded more than 20 years ago by a couple Harvard School of Education grads who understood that the great outdoors has a lot to teach us about strength, bravery, self-confidence, risk-taking, resilience, achievement, failure, voice, perseverance, leadership, self-reliance, problem-solving, cooperation, and trust. Mother Nature (or as my son would put it, Mother Nature and Father Nature) doesn’t care if you are a girl or a boy, black or white or brown, rich or poor, big or little, progressive or conservative. Everyone is treated equally outside.
But bafflingly, the outdoors is not equally accessible to everyone. According to one U.S. study, preschool girls are 16 percent less likely to be taken outside than preschool boys. The U.S. Outdoor Industry Association found that only about 55 percent of girls and young women between the ages of 6 and 24 participated in outdoor activities, compared to about 66 percent for boys and young men. The same study found that fewer and fewer kids are getting outside.
Presumably, these rates are trending downward because kids are spending more time behind screens than they are among the trees. A writer I love, Florence Williams, wrote about this in her wonderful book Nature Fix: She cites a study that says preschoolers get only 48 minutes of exercise a day in school, including only 33 minutes outside, when the recommended amount is two hours. On top of this, Williams writes, kids are spending an increasing amount of time “in car seats, high chairs, and strollers, and then shift into sedentary media consumption.”
This is worrying from a gender perspective for a few reasons: Girls are missing the opportunity to go outside, where they can build physical strength, as well as self-confidence and self-esteem. And instead, they are spending time online, where they are more likely to encounter internet trolls who bully them based on their gender.
By contrast, here’s what girls get out of Girlventures’ outdoor programs:
- 90 percent of girls say they are better able to identify and express their needs, take care of themselves, and trust themselves to make good decisions.
- 92 percent say they feel more confident to try things that “some people think girls can’t or shouldn’t do.”
- 93 percent say they believe they can be leaders and feel more confident, regardless of what others think.
- 92 percent say they are more likely to say what they really think or feel.
Getting outside to run, telemark ski, climb, and backpack has given me these same feelings. I was raised by my dad, and he, like Mother and Father Nature, turned a blind eye to gender, taking my brother and me skiing, mountain biking, windsurfing, and backpacking, and always expecting both of us to pull our own weight—quite literally: When we wanted to join the Mt. Ashland ski team, my dad agreed as long as we followed a weight-lifting regimen during the off season. At 10 years old, I was carefully marking down my reps on my dad’s hand-drawn exercise chart, and I marveled at the little muscles I was building after a few sets of lateral flies. (I was also proud that I was the only kid I knew—girl or boy—who knew what a lateral fly was.)
A strong body gives girls power, ownership, and presence. When girls are told their bodies are weaker, or when girls are sent the message that their bodies are objects for others to use or desire, physical strength gives girls possession of their bodies. It helps them move through the world with force and strength. It helps them march.
And it opens the door to adventure and possibility. In Gutsy Girl, Caroline Paul offers an appropriate epilogue to her book of adventure stories: “As you embark on a grand journey of leadership, bravery, humor, intermittent failures, repeated successes, serial resilience, sporadic embarrassments, exhilaration, connection, and utmost joy, it’s only fitting that I omit the usual words THE END. Instead, I leave you, Gutsy Girl, with: THE BEGINNING.”
Strong Voice: Why I Gave Money to the OpEd Project
As a writer, I always say stories matter: Who’s behind them, why are they told, and how they influence us. All too often, media narratives are shaped by men. In 2017, the #MeToo movement revealed that some of the powerful men shaping these stories—men like Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., and others—were sexually harassing women.
In addition to a strong body, I believe girls and women need a strong voice, which is why I gave the other half of my donation to the OpEd Project, a U.S. organization that gives women the training, tools, and networks they need to shape important conversations about politics, culture, business, and society. Noting that 85 percent of global conversations are led by men, the OpEd Project asks: “What is the cost to society when so many of our best minds and best ideas are left out?”
To change the ratio, the OpEd Project holds workshops and fellowships teaching women how to understand their position of authority and build a strong argument, backed up by evidence, to influence some of the important issues of our time. Since having a voice is not just about having something important to say, but about having access to the platform to say it, the OpEd Project also connects participants with mentor-editors who help refine and place their columns.
Since the OpEd Project was founded in 2008, the ratio of women featured in public opinion forums has grown from 16 percent to 26 percent. This is great progress, but this ratio is still too low. It’s even lower in Australia, where I live now. According to a 2016 study of major newspapers by the Women’s Leadership Institute of Australia, women represented only 21 percent of sources during the research period, and women authored only 17 percent of commentary articles and only 28 percent of editorials.
The issue of gender in popular narratives is not limited to the adult world. Media and pop culture also influences little girls and boys. Most of the TV shows and movies kids watch send a very particular message: Superheroes are for boys, and princesses are for girls. It’s true that more movies have emerged with strong female leads: Moana, Frozen, and one of my favorites, Brave, featuring Merida, a strong young woman who stands up to her parents and spends her time doing healthy things like rock climbing and horse-riding and eating healthy foods like apples and fish with omega-3 fats.
But even in these movies, the heroines are princesses, and they have very little voice. Here’s what researchers Carmen Faught and Karen Eisenhauer said about this in their 2016 research, which is aptly named the “Princess Project”:
“Overall, male characters in Disney films spoke 61 percent of the total words, and in the Pixar movies they spoke 76 percent. Our quantitative analysis of compliments showed that female characters in Disney films were more likely to receive a compliment on their appearance than on any other topic. In addition, they were more likely to be complimented on their appearance than on their skills (35 percent versus 29 percent), while for male characters the trend was reversed. In the Pixar films, male characters received only 7 percent of compliments on appearance, with 52 percent on skills. Female characters received 25 percent of compliments on appearance and 30 percent on skills, which is comparable to the trend in the later Disney movies."
This academic research really hit home for me last May. Marvel and Woolworths Australia had partnered on a campaign, giving away superhero disks to the children of harried shoppers and selling books for kids to store their collections. As the mom of twins, I always make sure each kid gets an equal number of cards. Since I do the bulk of the grocery shopping in our household, I’m fairly sure we stuck to this rule. So I was surprised to learn that my son had 64 disks and my daughter had only 15 disks. I asked them why. “Because there aren’t as many girl superheroes,” Madeleine told me. She had given the boy ones to Jackson. The next time we went to Woolies, the kids counted the superheroes and discovered that there were 35 boy ones but only seven girl ones.
These messages contribute to cultural gender norms that influence what girls believe they can and cannot do. Last year, Plan Australia published a wide-ranging study that found that girls’ confidence decreases by age, with the number of girls describing themselves as confident dropping by 12 percentage points between the ages of 10 and 17. Eighty percent of girls surveyed said people were more concerned about how girls look than how boys look. The report authors indicated media and pop culture are to blame and called on the government, as well as the media and advertising sectors, to address unhealthy gender stereotypes.
The good news is that some media organizations are paying closer attention to coverage of gender. Last year, the New York Times appointed its first gender editor. In time for International Women’s Day this year, Bloomberg announced plans to create the “definitive global database of women executives in business and finance.” Here in Australia, the “Women for Media” list includes more than 200 women from across sectors who are available for quotes and comments. Tracey Spicer, whose funny and candid book The Good Girl Stripped Bare chronicles her time as a broadcast journalist, launched a firm called Outspoken Women to coach professional women on how to become more influential and powerful leaders. I even maintain my own Twitter list of organizations and people focused on advancing women and girls. (Folks, making a list and sharing it is not hard!)
I’m particularly delighted to see that some organizations are filling the media void with stories about strong-bodied girls. Noting that female athletes get only 4 percent of all sports media coverage, the Malala Fund launched a series of stories on 18 female athletes that ran during the Winter Olympics and Paralympics. In March, GirlTrek, an organization focused on health through walking for black girls and women, led a 100-mile walk along the Underground Railroad in honor of Harriet Tubman, promoting it with beautiful photos across social media.
Also in March, Australia’s ABC broadcast network announced “Fierce Girls,” a new podcast featuring adventurous girls with guts and spirit. One of the first stories was about a 16-year-old girl who endeavored to sail around the world on her own. I’m pretty sure Mother and Father Nature never asked about her gender.
In case you didn’t get my subtle hints above (hyperlinking to Girlventures and the OpEd Project’s donate pages), you should give them money. Or find a group that resonates with you and give them money, or volunteer. You can donate to Girlventures here and donate to the OpEd Project here.