March 18, 2022
Women’s voices have always been important, but they haven’t always been heard. Initiatives like International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month exist to help right that wrong. While we celebrate this year, we know there’s a lot of work ahead, particularly as we begin to assess the lasting effects of the global pandemic. A recent Bloomberg article reported that it will take until 2030 for the number of women and girls living in extreme poverty to return to pre-pandemic levels. The education crisis has been similarly set back. We are now at risk of losing a generation of women’s voices as their world constricts to ever-smaller spheres.
The time for intervention is now. Room to Read is transforming the lives of millions of children in historically low-income communities by focusing on literacy and gender equality in education. We do it in collaboration with local communities, partner organizations and governments.
Together, we’re transforming the world through education, creating a more just, gender-equal society. Part of that work is amplifying women’s voices through events like the two we hosted in anticipation of this year’s International Women’s Day. We brought together Room to Read program participants, leaders and equity champions to share strategies for elevating women’s voices in the workplace, in media and in their communities.
Below are seven takeaways from our International Women’s Day events, discussing why we need new stories and how we’ll get there.
“Gender equality is for everyone, and needs everyone, including boys and men,” said Room to Read CEO Geetha Murali. She went on, “It isn't just about allyship, which is, of course, important, but mutual benefit. I speak a lot about how my mother's decision to fight child marriage led to a different future for me and my family. Just as important were the decisions of my father, the men who teach and encourage me, and those who benefit from our shared contributions to society.”
Boys and men are key to creating gender equality, a fact Geetha also recently called out in a piece in Ms. Magazine co-authored with Dr. Gary Barker, CEO and co-founder of Promundo-US. Room to Read and Promundo-US partnered on a life skill curriculum for boys, and within just a few weeks of instruction, our “facilitators in Cambodia observed how teen boys started communicating more openly and positively, showing greater respect to classmates and sharing more often with girls.”
The same is true on the corporate level. Bloomberg’s APAC Head of Corporate Philanthropy Vandna Dawar Ramchandani shared her belief that corporations need formal programs to achieve gender equality. She particularly advocates for “a male allyship program that has buy-in from the top and includes participation from your most-senior-male leaders. [That way] other men will also aspire to become male allies - because if you don't have 50% of the workforce at the table, you're not really driving change.”
Bloomberg Chairman Peter T. Grauer also joined us, sharing his work to foster more equity at the global financial technology company. For the fourth consecutive year, Peter has been recognized as a leading advocate for women in the workplace, ranking as one of the top senior leaders on the 2020 HERoes 50 Advocate Executives list for creating a more inclusive business environment for women. He shared how important it is for him to have gender-equal teams, particularly praising his chief-of-staff Kate Schroeder O'Neill and the different perspective she brings from him. For Peter, having women on his team has created a “kind of collective wisdom [that] has had a huge impact” on effective decision making.
Peter fosters diverse teams through institutional programs like mentoring a gender-equal cohort of twelve people each year and informally, through simply believing and attesting to his women colleagues that “there is nothing you can't do.”
In addition to advocating for programs, Vandna also spoke to the importance of personal action, sharing a story about a time when Peter called her offering a promotion to Chair the Singapore Office Committee. At first, she questioned whether she was ready for the role, in a move that, when she thought back, made her “cringe.” Peter was “so quick to say to her, "You're going to be great. If you need anything, I'm just a phone call away." And I'll never forget that. And we knocked it out of the park. Now here I am and I really think it stretched me and developed me for the roles that I've taken since.”
Peter certainly serves as a role model and he’s not the only one. Room to Read’s Senior Director of Girls' Education, Lucina Di Meco, spoke of the importance of mentors in developing life skills, noting how Room to Read matches girls with mentors, “helping them to see that a wonderful life is really possible for them.” Prior to the pandemic, Room to Read hosted in-person mentorship programs but that had to change during the pandemic. As Lucina says, “waiting it out, [waiting] for the COVID pandemic to pass was absolutely not an option. We understood from learnings from other pandemics that probably the consequences of this pandemic were going to be dire for girls' education, and we needed to act fast.” Adjusting the existing model, the Room to Read staff made more than 550,000 calls to girls through the pandemic “to make sure that they would not lose sight of the importance of education.” So while mentors couldn’t meet in person, the girls still were “able to access the critical, important content that we provide.”
By age six, girls already believe they’re less capable than boys. That statistic shocked Elena Favilli when she first heard it and started her on the journey to co-founding Rebel Girls, a global multi-platform empowerment brand. When she asked herself how girls could receive that message so early, she began thinking about children’s books. Elena remembers, “all my favorite books, when I was a child were books where women or girls were princesses or daughters, waiting to be rescued and saved by some men. The boys had all these cool skills, jobs, and options, but the girls were always the sidekicks.”
Elena dove into research mode and found that in children’s media today, “the vast majority of protagonists are still male.” So she asked, “What if instead of telling stories, where women just wait to be rescued, we started to tell stories of real women who are actually in charge of their lives and who are doing the most incredible things and leading the most adventurous lives? How could that change the perception young girls have of themselves?” Rebel Girls’ first publication “Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls” collected 100 of those stories, became a New York Times bestseller, and, as Elena puts it, “global bestseller,” translated into more than 50 languages. The real stories exist, we just need to tell them.
When Rebel Girls’ Head of Partnerships Aashi Vel is asked (as Room to Read’s Deputy Country Director, India Poornima Garg did), “how important would you say storytelling is in advancing equality for a new generation of women?” she likes to answer with a personal story. One night she was reading to her three-and-half-year-old daughter and they came across the story of Alicia Alonso, a blind ballerina who won the highest honor in ballet in Cuba. Aashi realized this was her daughter’s first time hearing about a blind person and, as is appropriate for someone her age, her daughter had a lot of questions. Aashi gamely answered them all but there was one that never came. Her daughter never asked, “how can she dance if she was blind?”
With that omission, Aashi realized that “because this was the first time my daughter had heard about a blind person and it was a blind woman doing phenomenal things, she naturally assumed that being blind doesn't prevent you from being an amazing dancer or doing amazing things. A few minutes later, I see her step off the kitchen chairs, close her eyes, and do a little spin, at just three and a half. That's what stories do — they show girls what's possible because another girl or another woman in real life did it, not just a character in a movie or cartoon. Storytelling is our superpower.”
We also heard from two Room to Read participants — 16-year-old Senghong in Cambodia and 15-year-old Kushi in India. They both shared inspiring stories of transformation, reminding us that the potential of girls is limitless. Senghong started off quiet, her teacher remarking that she didn’t even see her socialize with the other girls. But thanks to Room to Read’s programs, she’s come out of her shell, even publishing an anthology of the affirmations she writes to herself. Senghong said, “I hope to continue writing stories and be a role model for other children in Cambodia. A lot of girls don’t have that opportunity and we need to support them in achieving their dreams.”
Kushi also learned how to better speak up for herself and build community. Before starting Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program, she would, she said, “usually be in a bad mood,” assuming that everyone else was wrong about everything and she was right. She’s since learned how “different people have different perspectives” and that she can respect their point of view without agreeing with it. Kushi has since learned productive ways of speaking out and engaging in dialogue. Now, she believes “the real work of a leader is to make his or her team better.” And that’s just what she’s done — for her school and for herself.