If you want to empower girls, you have to let them fail.
After a week of cool but unusually sunny weather in southern Scotland, I arrived in Fort William, ready to hike Ben Nevis. I needed to get my first lungful of Highland air, and stock supplies for the next 7 days on the Great Glen Way.
The rain hit first thing in the morning. A sprinkle at first, then sheets of icy drizzle, then a downpour. This did not surprise me. It is Scotland, after all. I had rain gear and waterproof hiking boots and a good supply of single-malt.
What did surprise me was the number of young parents with little kids out on what was now a treacherously slick path, especially headed uphill. One family, obviously on holiday, was picking its way up the rocky slope. Mom and dad, boy and girl and baby. Right out of a Norman Rockwell painting.
The girl, who looked to be about 10 or 11, was constantly bombarded with advice, directions and cautionary commentary.
“Watch out!” they yelled at her. “Be careful!” “Don’t hurt yourself!” And my personal favorite: “You’re getting mud in your hair!”
The boy, who was younger and smaller, received far different guidance.
“Did you fall? You’re all right. Get up, keep moving.”
“Wow, isn’t that mountain big? Look at that!”
“Tighten your boot laces. Adjust your poles. The rocks are slippery.”
We made the crest at roughly the same time, all of us cold, wet, muddy and miserable. (I was perhaps not as miserable as the rest. I had the scotch, after all.) The little girl was asked again and again if she’d been scared, and told how brave she was, and reminded to fix her hair.
The boy got a high-five and a “That was pretty cool, huh?”
(Full disclosure: all my righteous indignation for this little girl evaporated when she turned to me and asked, “How old are you anyway?” But that’s not the point.)
The point is that this is how boys and girls learn about their capabilities.
Boys learn to make their decisions in spite of fear.
Girls learn to let fear make their decisions.
Boys learn to keep trying, to endure pain or discomfort, to stand their ground.
Girls learn to hesitate, to react to the smallest discomfort, to stand and wait.
Upon my return from Scotland, I gave a speech about women hiking solo to a group of professional managers.
The men in the room asked: How did you train for that? What amazing things did you see and do? What was it like? Are you glad you went? Where are you going next?
Women wanted to know: How did you get off work? What did you do about your kids/elderly parents/pets? How much did it cost?
Weren’t you afraid?
Have I been afraid, lost in the woods with darkness coming on? Have I been afraid, realizing I’m on the wrong bus to the wrong city? Have I been afraid, crossing a bridge with no guard rails and traffic zooming by?
Of course I have.
Would I trade feeling safe for feeling accomplished?
Not a chance.
The only antidote to fear is action. We teach that to our boys, relentlessly. Why not our girls?
Want to empower girls? Take them trekking and let them fall! Let them get wet and hungry. Let them discover the right trail after 3 false turns. Let them see that magnificent view from the top of the mountain. Let them figure out the bus schedule in a foreign city. Let them live on cheese and apples and cold showers for a few days. Let them strike up conversations with interesting strangers.
Let them discover for themselves how capable they are.
Let some little girl in the future watch them hike up a mountain, and ask, “Just how old are you, anyway?” In failure, there is power.