Friday, January 22, 2010

by Steve Leveen, for the guys: I'll bet you know women in your world whom you can support

Why men should read this book about women, then help make it the most influential book of the decade

At any given moment it's easy to identify successful books. All you need do is scan the bestseller lists or check out the winners of awards. What's hard to identify are the new books that will have lasting influence as agents of change. Who knew that Silent Spring would be celebrated as a game-changing book so many years after its initial publication?
But what if we could have known in 1962, the year of its publication, that Silent Spring would contain a message of change necessary to save our very world? My guess is that we would have acted faster to head off what we're desperately trying to fix today.
So it's important to try to fathom which books will become the most influential books of our time, in order to add force to their nascent power. In this hazardous task, I hazard a prediction: the most influential book of the decade will be Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.
Of course I don't know that Half the Sky will be the most influential book, but I believe it should be. And in my own small way, I'm going to help make it so. More important, I invite you--especially if you're a man--to do the same.
It's not (just) about women
The oppression of women is breathtakingly evil, it's frighteningly pervasive in the developing world, and it is alarmingly consequential in its damage--those messages come across vividly in the able hands of authors Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. They write from first-hand experience as reporters, and also from a deep understanding of their subject through years of research.
Reading their book is like being taken on a frightening but irresistible ride. You don't want to see what you're seeing, but you can't close your eyes either. When the ride is over, they help you understand what you saw and what you can do to make a tangible difference.
The curious thing is that while the book is about the oppression of women, it's not a book about women's problems to be classified under gender studies. Half the Sky is about human rights. The authors argue (successfully, in my opinion) that women's oppression is the human rights issue of our century -- as totalitarianism was of the twentieth century and conventional slavery was of the nineteenth century.
I say "conventional" slavery since it's likely that today's global sex-slave trade is larger in absolute numbers than the transatlantic African slave trade of the nineteenth century.
What's more, helping women not only helps the most humans--women and men--but it is an almost magical leverage point for tackling the dark domes of suffering afflicting the world today. This is especially true when women are given access to education. Two examples: educated women have children later and fewer of them, and they have more opportunities to earn money. Thus the problems of overpopulation and poverty become a bit more surmountable.
The female half of our human capital is desperately needed to understand and effectively fight obstacles facing developing nations, not only overpopulation and poverty but even disease, terrorism and calamitous climate change. The way to hold up our whole sky is to free women to take part in the lifting.
The education of an average white guy
I wouldn't have thought a book about women's oppression would, or should, be the most influential book of our times. I've lived only in the United States, and at 55, I'm smack in the middle of the boomer generation. I've witnessed first hand the progress women have been making. I'm the son of a well-educated professional woman, the brother of strong sisters, and the husband of a beautifully caring and capable woman who founded Levenger as an equal partner with me some 22 years ago.
I've traveled to a good number of countries, including underdeveloped ones, and met professional women in all of them. From my vantage point, things seemed to be working out pretty well for women.
But in truth, I've lived a sheltered life.
My limited education in the oppression women face began 15 years ago when I saw Bandit Queen, a movie from India based on the life of Phoolan Devi and directed by Shekhar Kapur. In 1995 I introduced Kapur at a conference in what was then Bombay, shortly after the movie came out. (He is a celebrity in India, something akin to Robert Redford in the U.S.)
Kapur's movie rocked India with its depiction of sexual brutality as told through the true story of Phoolan Devi, a girl married off at age 9 who fought back with a brutality of her own. The movie deeply affected me, as it did millions of other viewers in India and elsewhere. (The real Devi was imprisoned for murder, pardoned, became a politician, and was assassinated at age 37.)
But then my education slowed to a stop. I started learning again only in the last couple of years, mainly through books that I read about efforts to build libraries around the world. The first book was Leaving Microsoft to Change the World by John Wood, and then Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea. Both men saw with their own eyes the lack of schools and libraries in remote areas of the world, and learned the powerful leverage to be gained by helping girls. Girls help educate other children at rates far exceeding boys.
Those books led me to Paul Polak's brilliant Out of Poverty, and then Muhammad Yunus's inspiring Creating a World Without Poverty. A common theme in all these books is the leverage to be had by educating girls and financially empowering women, since they pour their knowledge and earnings back into families.
But not until Half the Sky did it come together for me. Kristof's and WuDunn's mix of riveting storytelling and fact-based expository writing, topped off with practical calls to action, is a potent mixture. Their book is engineered to elicit action, and it's working.
Nadereh Chamlou, Senior Advisor for the Middle East and North Africa at the World Bank, praises the book for its call for education and micro-finance, while at the same time cautioning that even more is needed: what she calls
"a paradigm changing shift in society... eliminating any kind of legal and institutional discrimination."
Chamlou says in her region, girls are getting comparable educations to boys, and even more so in college, yet gender roles and laws keep women far from economic and political parity. Here is a link to a video from the World Economic Forum's Gender equality report.

Will Sky's influence grow or die out?
From their pulpit as Pulitzer-winning reporters at The New York Times, Kristof and WuDunn were able to launch their book with force. Oprah has endorsed the authors and their cause, and so has Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Yet even with these and other media powerhouses behind the cause, it's amazing to me how many of my friends--women and men--have heard of Going Rogue but haven't heard of Half the Sky.

Might this important book be lost in the noise?

Despite every reason why it should influence great action in the years to come, it's quite possible that Half the Sky will not be the agent of change its authors, and so many others, hope. That's why men, in particular, should step up to make sure it does.
Why men?
The men reading this are not the men oppressing women--at least, not in the worst ways. Yet millions of men are. (And so are women, by the way, as so much of the oppression is baked hard into culture.) Consider this from page 61: "Women aged fifteen through forty-four are more likely to be maimed or die from male violence than from cancer, malaria, traffic accidents, and war combined." Isn't that stupefying?
Yet we know men are also capable of heroism, self-sacrifice and even, I hesitate to say, chivalry. If I'm not mistaken, men still control most of the power and money in the world. So let's use what we've got--and show what we've got.
We need to cover their backs while women walk through saloon doors, kick some ass, take names, and then walk out. After the dust settles, it would be nice if we picked up the tab at the bar and set the chairs back down on the floor.
Here's the paradigm shift, guys: Seek out women you can help. Then do.
More than just blue sky
Start at home. As the senior Bill Gates says, "...what I find remarkable is that more men around the globe don't realize how much stronger they would be if partnered with a strong woman." That's just what his son has done with his wife in the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Next, seek out other women whom you see doing great things wherever they might be. Here are some examples I've seen in the course of running a business.
Laura Roberts-Niner is the CEO of a green chemical company in the U.S. that is growing rapidly by showing how sustainable practices can help big companies make better profits. After reading Half the Sky, she refined her focus even further.
"I loved the last part of the book--about what you can do now. It inspired me to change our charities inside the company to focus on feet-on-the-street organizations overseas, and in this country, that are doing miraculous things for children and women. When women get to the table, things improve--including sustainability."
Roberts-Niner is also launching a website featuring women's charities.
Reading, then doing
Sometimes the women to support work at large public companies, such as Ann Marie Bushell, Group Executive Vice President of R.R. Donnelley.
Bushell personally supports Heifer, which promotes buying cows and other animals that keep on giving to those in the developing world, as well as SIFE, which joins students with pros to bring sustainable business practices to developing countries.
"But Half the Sky stopped me in my tracks," says Bushell. "It's just staggering to me that I can spend $25 for gift wrap, or I can use that same $25 and make a tangible difference in some girl's life--and not even as a gift, but a loan." Bushell went to Kiva to make a micro-loan and then personally recommended Half the Sky to 10 people, "friends, co-workers, even a friendly competitor."
Were any of the 10 people men? I asked.
"Actually, no."
After a moment's hesitation, she added: "I wanted people to act on the book, and there's no way a woman can read this book and not act."

Other women lead nonprofits, such as Darlene Kostrub, CEO of the Literacy Coalition of Palm Beach County, for which I volunteer.
Gwenny So owns a leather-goods business in China that makes some of the best-constructed leathers I've ever seen, including for Levenger. Most of her executives are women and, like our other Chinese manufacturers, she employs more female workers than males. As Half the Sky points out, with all the very bad parts of communist Chinese history also came very good parts. The freeing of girls to go to school and to participate in the labor force on an equal standing with boys has been a critical component of China's economic miracle.
I'll bet you know women in your world whom you can support so that their influence becomes magnified.
Looking backwards in 2059
Fifty years from now I hope college professors assign an anniversary edition of Half the Sky to their students so that they can see the amazing progress that's been made. I would like to believe that those students will shake their heads and say, "Can you imagine when the world was actually like this?"
But that won't happen by wishing it. It's time for men to open the doors for girls and women, and help make sure it does happen.
Watch this 2:23 minute video called The Girl Effect.
Visit the Half the Sky website.
But most important, read Half the Sky, and see if it doesn't galvanize you. See if it doesn't become one of the books you buy lots of to give away. See if you don't want to discuss it with your buddies. (My all-guys book group is doing that.) See if it doesn't get you to take action.
There are a whole lot of women who could use our help.

by Steve Leveen @HuffPo


TKP said...

I couldn't put down Half The Sky. Kristof was really nice when we met him at a signing. We found out about The Fistula Foundation through the book and it really moved us about the plight of maternal deaths and dangers. Thanks for posting this!

Anonymous said...

"Silent Spring" has come under attack for causing the death of many people because of restrictions on DDT.

JJT said...

congratulations on missing the point, anonymous.

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