What We Know and What We Don’t: What, Why, How

OK, so it’s a goofy picture. But here I am at the American Club in Hong Kong, carrying THE BOOK. This is the hard copy of the #DoubleXPetition, signed at Power Shift by everybody, starting with the Vice Chancellor. I thought maybe these folks would want to sign the original. They did!

In addition to delivering the keynote at the 35th global conference of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, I was invited one evening to address a small group of corporations and foundations who are interested in the whole initiative behind investing in girls and young women.  Big names who have already invested heavily and totally “get it” were there, such as UPS.  Newer programs were represented, such as MetLife’s financial literacy program being delivered by the Girls Scouts in the USA.  (Big potential here.) Also evolving programs like Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, which began as a commercial initiative and has now joined forces with WAGGGS to deliver a global self-esteem program for girls in order to boost their confidence to engage with a wider range of activities.

The American Club is at the top of the Exchange Building in Hong Kong. As in the stock exchange, the belly of the beast, and so on.

It seemed a good chance to talk candidly about where we are with the whole initiative of women’s empowerment.  And I only had ten minutes.  But no slides.  I decided to group the message into three’s.  First, the state of knowledge:

We know what we need to achieve:  Inclusion and equality for women across the entire global economy.  This includes everything from retaining girls in education (at least to the secondary level) to getting more women on corporate boards.

We know why we need to achieve these goals:  We can achieve greater prosperity through higher female labor force participation, more startups, and the better business performance that comes from diversity at the top.  We also have the chance to stop abuses on the darkest side of gender inequality:  human trafficking, domestic violence, andearly marriage have their roots in the perceived limited economic value of women–and also have massive economic and social costs to the whole global society.

But we still really don’t know how to do it:  Sorry if I am bursting anybody’s bubble here.  Yes, we have a general idea that equal pay will help the leaky pipeline problem, that greater access to capital would help women entrepreneurs.  Getting there (lawsuits? quotas?) is another challenge.

(Ed Martinez, president of the UPS Foundation added, in his speech that followed, that we also know who must be engaged: that is, everybody.  Public sector.  Civil Society.  Private Sector.  Churches, synagogues, temples,  and mosques.  Once again, that would be everybody.)

So, I outlined a couple of areas that need more work, again conveniently packaged in three:  translation, innovation, discernment.

Translation.  Here I explained that there are programs like financial literacy that we know are important.  We know women are behind men, therefore vulnerable.  But financial literacy is generally measured, executed, and taught in completely “first world” terms–it’s all about money, interest, and time.  In remote rural areas, cash may be scarce for everyone.  Goods may be bartered.  Debts may be paid in marriage rather than interest. Time is short for women everywhere, but the notion of a future value for money is foreign.  So, a different translation, not just in language, but in material terms, may be necessary.

Innovation. Many times, unexpected practical barriers demand innovative solutions.  The whole problem of sanitary pads for poor school girls was my example. We know providing them will help girls stay in school. It seems like an easy matter to address, but it is not.  Disposable pads are the best option,  but they are hard to deliver to remote areas on the monthly basis required.  People in the West prefer cloth pads (for the poor Africans, not for themselves), but these present hygiene issues due to the lack of clean water and soap.  So we need to invest in new solutions, perhaps like the papyrus-based MakaPads from Uganda and the no-fuel incinerator invented by the same professor.

I mentioned that I have a new project coming along that looks at violence and microlending.  All the loans are made in cash, so the women have to walk home through urban slums carrying way too much money to be safe.  What we need in that case is pre-paid ATM cards, it seems to me.

Discernment.  OK, I admit it, I used “discernment” in order to avoid the word “metrics.”  People think “metrics” are only for academics.  But we all want to know whether the things we do have the impact we hoped.  And there is no way to know that if we don’t design appropriate measures.  Currently, we really do not have good measures, especially for gender effects.

What I said next was somewhat speculative.  It seems to me that an organization like WAGGGs would be well positioned to step in and help fill this gap.  They have boots on the ground everywhere.  They are in touch with all ages of female, but are focused on the ones that have the most potential (girls and young women).  They have credibility.  They have organizational skills.  They have a sense of mission.  They’re all about leadership.  They communicate in two directions.  They know what the conditions are on the ground and understand the goals on a global level.  It seems to me that this organization is in a perfect position to make a major difference.

Jim took this gorgeous photo from the balcony of the American Club at the Exchange Building in Hong Kong. I never got out there–too many interesting conversations going on inside!

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