Tuesday, March 12, 2013

‘Lean In’ and ‘Girl Rising’: Superheroes are not enough

Posted by Tessie San Martin - Plan International USA CEO

It wasn’t even out yet, but it seemed that it was all that blogs and pundits talked about this weekend: Sheryl Sandberg’s new book: “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.” Sandberg is the very accomplished Facebook COO, who catapulted from being a successful female executive to becoming the face of female achievement through a series of recorded talks that went viral. Her theme: do not become an obstacle to your own success and do not be overcome by self-doubt. To quote her best known line: do not “leave before you leave.”

Sandberg’s credo has been often juxtaposed with Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic: Why Women Still Can’t Have it All. Slaughter is a highly accomplished professional: a Princeton University professor and former senior State Department official. Her point: “It is time for women in leadership positions to recognize that although we are still blazing trails and breaking ceilings, many of us are also reinforcing a falsehood: that ‘having it all’ is, more than anything, a function of personal determination.“ I suppose there are many ways to interpret Professor Slaughter’s statement. In my view, it is about recognizing that women face unique obstacles and enabling them to move forward with their ambition requires more than giving them the opportunity to “win” like a man; it requires that we make it possible to succeed like a woman. So as empowering as the dictum “lean in” is for the individual, it is also important to acknowledge that there is an “enabling environment” – a collection of family, culture, organizational, societal structures - which affects whether and how women progress to positions of leadership.

I now contrast this to the stories in a recent movie called Girl Rising. The movie is a remarkable project, telling the stories of nine girls in nine countries. It is meant to illustrate: (a) the unique challenges facing girls – who are much less likely to attend or complete school, and much more likely to be trafficked and abused; and (b) the unique value of investing in girls (we know that investments in girls’ education, for example, are more likely to translate into improved health and other quality of life outcomes for their children). What I liked most about the movie is that it does not depict girls as victims but as change agents; as the movie’s own tag line states: “one girl with courage is a revolution.” The “superhero” is a recurring theme throughout the movie. In fact, in one segment -- the story of Yasmin, a young Egyptian girl who is sexually abused -- this is quite literally how she is presented. Indeed, it is hard to see the movie and not walk away believing these young women are superheroes: daring to buck societal pressures, daring to speak out, daring to think differently – and by helping themselves in this way, they pave the way for countless others.

As much as Sandberg’s message was never supposed to be directed to Yasmin, Sokha, Ruksana, and the other six girls whose lives are depicted in the movie (and the millions of disadvantaged girls they represent), I think that the premise of the film has much in common with Sandberg’s theme. It is a message about never doubting your abilities, despite what everyone else says (and as we saw in Pakistan, despite real threats to your life), and of the importance of grabbing opportunities to lead.

But if girls and women need to think differently, we should not, we cannot, believe that this is enough. It is exhausting to always have to be the superhero. To paraphrase Slaughter’s recent New York Times review of Sandberg’s book, we need not just tell young women to “lean in,” but their families, communities, and societies must also begin to “lean in,” and recognize that until the unique challenges facing girls and women are better understood and addressed no one progresses.

This is of course the work that Plan does, and why Plan is so pleased to be part of the Girl Rising project. Plan’s programs provide girls better opportunities to attend and complete school – not just by building schools, but by working with families, teachers, administrators, and the girls themselves. We build awareness about the importance of girls’ education, and of the unique obstacles facing girls and the options available to address them. Our story is not just about strengthening individual resolve but about strengthening societal resolve, enabling a more positive environment for girls’ aspirations.

Go see the movie, if you have an opportunity. It is a powerful set of tales told beautifully.

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