Teaching Girls to be Leaders: a MAHB Dialogue with Author and Artist Caroline Paul

Geoffrey Holland | October 7, 2021 | Leave a Comment

Geoff Holland – What has held back women from becoming great leaders within the human culture?

Caroline Paul – Leadership qualities like taking charge, stepping up, and commanding a presence so that people will follow you and listen to you are not qualities that women have been encouraged to pursue. In fact, it was dangerous for women to pursue those qualities. 

Instead, we have learned to step back, show that we were not a threat, certainly not command a strong presence or believe fervently in our decisions, because for so long our culture and our laws did not protect us. We weren’t protected in the home against domestic violence, and we certainly weren’t protected at work. If we were to keep those jobs, remain safe, remain in the good graces of those in power – in this case, men, and more specifically white men – it was better to adopt qualities of deference, not leadership. So, there were really good reasons why women didn’t become great leaders, or at least cultivate those qualities because it kept us safe. But now, in the 21st century, we do have a lot of legal protections. Now is the time to embrace those leadership qualities. Timidity and deference aren’t qualities that protect us anymore – but attributes like self-confidence and bravery will.

GH – Is gender equality an essential element of creating a positive playing field for nurturing female leaders?

CP – I was a San Francisco firefighter for many years. I was the 15th woman to enter the department of 1500 men, so I worked almost exclusively with men for the first few years. These male firefighters were super smart people, really good people overall, and with only a few exceptions we got along. They respected me, they liked me. Yet it was clear that every time I walked into the firehouse they did not think I could do the job

I ran into fires without hesitation. I hoisted ladders, I easily wore the 35-pound air pack on my back while wielding an ax – this prejudice persisted. No one could argue that there I was right alongside them, doing everything they were doing. And yet, still, this illogical belief that I was unqualified permeated everything. 

A lot of energy goes to just mustering the strength to face down unnecessary negativity. Now you don’t have a lot left over to really shine. That’s why equity off the bat is so vital – too much of our potential is drained fighting just to be seen and heard fairly. I’m white, and it’s difficult. How much more difficult it is to be a woman of color, dealing with an unimaginable barrage of microaggressions day in, day out. Wow, just think of the magnificent things that we’d accomplish if our energy wasn’t so fractured. So, it benefits everyone, men and women alike, to make sure gender equity is there at the beginning.

By the way, it wasn’t just the men – many women also didn’t think I could do the job. Once I was carrying an elderly lady downstairs during a fire. She was as light as a feather. I mean, it was easy for me. But I could tell the way she was looking at me that she was thinking, could you please put me down because I’d like to have a male firefighter carry me, please, because I don’t trust that you’re going to be able to do this. 

I once pulled a German Shephard dog out of a fire who weighed more than this woman! And he was much scarier – huge and scary looking. But I did my best animal mind meld, and I picked him up, and I didn’t get a squeak from him. He was just, like, I get it. I’m in trouble, there’s smoke, there’s glass all over the place. Thank you for taking me, taking me away from this danger. (Laughs). Truth is, that dog hadn’t been brainwashed by sexism – he knew I could rescue him, and I did.

GH – What do you believe are the traits of a great leader?

CP – I would say the ability to listen, the skill to delegate, and the commitment to a really diverse team. Diversity is really important in leadership. We need people who think differently from each other, and who can pull from different life experiences. And there’s bravery. When I say bravery, I mean a willingness get outside your comfort zone. I also mean a willingness to be vulnerable. People who lead think they have to look like they’re invulnerable. But trying to be invulnerable can also make a person unapproachable, There’s certainly a time for projecting invulnerability, but there’s also a time for vulnerability. Now you’re more open to information and understanding, which helps make a person a better leader.

GH – Are traits like courage and perseverance, more likely to emerge in one sex or the other? Or is it just about inspiring those traits in kids, regardless of gender?

CP – There’s a huge cultural mechanism at work to encourage bravery and perseverance in boys. A similar cultural mechanism discourages bravery and perseverance in girls. We actively encourage fear in girls instead. 

There’s a lot of reasons for this. One of them is we think the world is more dangerous for girls. So, we want them to be alert to danger. Parents have been instilling fear in girls for a long time, and it’s supposedly because they want to protect them. But that can backfire, because success in life really depends on having the courage to get outside your comfort zone, learning to recognize and assess risks, learning to trust your own instincts, learning to trust your own decision-making. Developing those abilities prepares girls to respond to the scary situations that parents fear so much for their daughters. Instead, we’re cautioning girls all the time. We’re not setting them up to practice bravery and all those skills that come with it. 

GH – How do we nurture courage and perseverance in girls?

CP – We need to reframe how we relate to girls. There is so much messaging that says that females, especially young ones, are frail and less able to make decisions and learn skills than boys. We have to look closely at our own beliefs in those falsehoods. And we really have to start encouraging bravery. We have to start reframing bravery as something fun and exhilarating. So, maybe encourage her to put on some rollerblades and try that little hill that she’s been scared of. Yes, she might get hurt, she might skin her knee, but she’ll see it’s also a blast to be whizzing down a hill! And a boost in confidence to get outside one’s comfort zone.

GH – Does nurturing courage, character, and leadership skills work the same way with girls as it does with boys?

CP – What’s really important when we speak to men and women about leadership is to understand how differently males and females are raised. Women are raised to maintain parity, while men are raised to see hierarchies – someone is always up and someone is always down – and to make sure he’s the one who’s up. Those are two opposing behaviors! When in leadership positions, women who try to maintain parity in a room – making everyone feel okay – can be seen as weak by men. Men who practice hierarchy are seen as jerks by women. 

That’s just the beginning of the misunderstandings. I suggest reading the sociolinguist Deborah Tannen’s book Talking 9 to 5: Men and Women in the Workplace to go deeper here. It’s just fascinating how women and men define leadership and bravery so differently. Neither is wrong, by the way. Hierarchy and parity both have their place in leadership roles.

GH – Can you give a couple of examples of great female leaders on the world stage today and talk about why they are successful?

CP – I immediately think of one person in particular: the brilliant gymnast Simone Biles. I was so struck by the way she supported her fellow gymnasts in the recent Tokyo Olympics. She could’ve chosen to view her teammates as competition, especially the young women who took her place in the events she dropped out of. Women, in general, are told that they have to fight each other to get whatever attention or accolades are offered. Our culture successfully keeps women from supporting each other and so ultimately from occupying leadership positions. Simone Biles went against that. 

She was also very vulnerable. She allowed herself to come right from the heart when explaining why she pulled out of the Olympics events. She didn’t have to speak out, but she did. That vulnerability shows great leadership and bravery. Finally, Simone Biles believed in her own judgment. That is the mark of a true leader. There was so much pressure for her just to continue even though it’s such a dangerous sport. She resisted that, which I find just amazing.

GH – What examples are there today that suggest that women are gaining equal access to the levers of political, social, and economic power?

CP – I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say “equal access.” But much of our culture just isn’t working well these days – from our failing financial promises to our racist underpinnings to our climate chaos. In these kinds of civilization-scale crises, it’s plain as day that old leadership structures and beliefs have failed. I think Americans, especially young Americans, are open to new ways of thinking and leading. The world is more open to the idea that women and especially women of color, can and should pull on those levers of political, social, and economic power.

GH – So how does the human culture reinvent itself to empower girls to achieve all they can do with their lives?

CP – We need to look deeply into our own psyches – men and women alike – and examine the wrongheaded beliefs we hold about girls. Then we need to actively dismantle those beliefs, replacing them with an understanding that girls are powerful and brave. When those positive messages permeate our culture, empowering girls is already well on its way. 

Caroline Paul is an award-winning writer, artist, and former firefighter with San Francisco California Fire Department. She also has delivered a TED Talk titled, To Raise Brave Girls, Encourage Adventure.

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