The English poet Southey suggests that little boys are made of frogs and snails, and puppy dog tails while little girls are made of sugar and spice, and everything nice. This is but one example of the historical, cultural, religious, and even literary norms that contribute to a set of expectations for young girls.
Fortune 500 companies like Audi and P&G recently promoted iconoclastic sentiments that conventional social norms may no longer be acceptable because they simply are not fair to young girls. For example, P&G’s Always brand engineered the successful #LIKEAGIRL campaign. Data shows that girls’ self-confidence plummets when they reach puberty – only 19% of girls have a positive association with “…like a girl.” This is a serious problem that continues to contribute unnecessary barriers and obstacles to young girls as they mature.
It doesn’t take a kinesthesiologist to prove that there is a physical difference between women and men, but that difference should not preclude the emotional and social potential of girls, who are consciously and unconsciously peppered with gender-based conditions. If such conditions aren’t obvious, take a peek at the magazine covers beside you during your next visit to the grocery check-out line. Instead of extolling values such as courage, innovation, and kindness, we propagate shallow non-virtues, mostly related to appearance, of which many girls, and many people for that matter, have little if any control.
As a father of 3 daughters, and founder of ChangeSmith (an organizational change, culture management, and leadership development firm), I believe that a more intentional, purpose-driven change of behavior is critical. “A culture is defined by the worst behaviors that are deemed to be acceptable.”
If we act in a way that makes women or girls inferior, even unconsciously or unwittingly, we’re part of the problem. Our example is then taken as a model by young people, and for girls, it is the validation of the negative messages they’re already receiving. The first step is to consciously build better habits when we characterize the social roles and potential of members of our society.
To adopt the quote, “first we build habits and then habits build us.”
Girls on the Run (GOTR) is an organization that is working hard to build great habits.
GOTR creatively leverages the platform of a running club to deliver and instill joy, health, and confidence in elementary school girls. Even if only for a brief period each week, the girls and their coaches shift the spotlight from the magazine covers to a well-conceived program of activities meant to enhance confidence. Their vision is outstanding: We envision a world where every girl knows and activates her limitless potential and is free to boldly pursue her dreams.
WE BELIEVE THAT EVERY GIRL CAN EMBRACE WHO SHE IS, CAN DEFINE WHO SHE WANTS TO BE, CAN RISE TO ANY CHALLENGE, CAN CHANGE THE WORLD. CAN.
If the above does not convince you, I support Girls on the Run for four additional reasons: impact, positivity, service, and discipline. 1) a proven program of delivering joy, health, and confidence has a fantastic impact on the girls, 2) the rigor with which coaches are vetted ensures that girls have great examples and positive role models, 3) each team participates in a service project, which plants seeds in young minds about the importance of contributing to society and in the community, and 4) the 5K race lends itself to the discipline of preparation, both as individuals and as a team, for a distant and challenging target – an exceedingly valuable skill in life.
Through my work and as a member of Compass’ pro bono strategic consulting team, I am actively supporting Girls on the Run – Northern Virginia chapter as they refine their strategy for their next generation of girls. Non-profits lend themselves quite naturally to deliver on a “purpose”. The Girls on the Run purpose is: ‘We’re going to help girls to grow and thrive.’ But what comes next? I collaborated with GOTR NOVA to ask themselves a fundamental question: ‘Do we help more girls or do we help girls more?’ Such a subtlety represents a big difference when an organization moves from planning to tactically deploying resources and weathering variable conditions such as participation and fundraising. Is it quality or quantity – or both, and if so, in which order?
In my experience, in any organizations that support women (or any company for that matter), it is critical that they assess their key strategic decisions through the lens of purpose, which ensures that purpose, strategy, and values, through culture, all maintain a natural alignment. The result is that organizations can execute against a strategy that is consistent with their character and their identity, adhering to self-evident values and behaviors in an environment designed for their unique experience, and driven by people who are invested in a success not based upon financial reward, but upon the quality of the pursuit of their shared ambitions. In this sense, an organization like Girls on the Run can streamline its pursuit of a better experience for young girls by finding and leveraging its own unique balance between aspirational ambitions and operational goals.
As a father, I am thrilled that Girls on the Run exists and is constantly looking to see how they are performing and making adjustments as needed. Every organization that is making an impact should do this as a best practice. Get involved with Girls on the Run in your area, find a location here: https://www.girlsontherun.org/Find-a-Council. I am honored to be able to work with them.
This article was originally published on April 23, 2017 by the Georgetown University Women's Leadership Institute.