In a recent episode of the ‘Champions for Social Good’ podcast, the guest — Sharon D’Agostino, a former business executive and passionate advocate for girls’ and women’s empowerment — made the point that storytelling is in our DNA. We’ve been telling stories for millennia to explain the world to each other.
It’s a well known fact that people respond to stories about other people more than they do to numbers, charts and graphs. So it was music to my ears when Sharon made the connection between storytelling and data, which is a principle we are building into the ‘DNA’ of Equal Measures 2030.
“Knowing what the statistics are really helps,” Sharon said, referencing the increasing availability of data that showcase gender inequalities around the world. “But what does that mean? In a company, in a country, where there are not women in leadership positions, what does that actually translate to? How do the women feel? How do the men feel? The storytelling aspect of that is also important.”
Sharon, the founder of Say it Forward, talked about some of the statistics she finds staggering, including the lack of female representation in governments, the lack of women at senior leadership levels in private sector organizations, and statistics around violence against women.
“The fact that the data is becoming available creates advocates,” she said. But what is really critical is translating that data into stories that make it real and combining the stories with people’s desire to bring about change.
“I am an advocate of every person doing something,” says Sharon. “Finding her or his voice, or time, or talent to say, ‘This is what I care about, and here’s how I can help.’”
Sharon spent years in the private sector, including as global president in the consumer group at Johnson & Johnson, before moving into corporate philanthropy. She founded Say it Forward as a platform for girls and women to share their own stories and encourage each other to “overcome the limiting beliefs that keep them from reaching their fullest potential.”
She’s particularly committed to the issue of girls’ and women’s empowerment, which she sees as a truly global issue. Citing recent research from the U.S. that showed that by the time they are 6 years old, many girls feel certain activities are not appropriate for them because they are not smart enough, Sharon highlighted how questions of empowerment are built into social norms wherever we live. “All of us have a responsibility to look at this and say, ‘What can we do to make a difference?’”
One thing we can all do immediately, she says, is to start listening, “Really listening, with our whole being. Because that’s the only way that we can really begin to understand other people’s experiences of this world.”
This active listening also applies to designing and implementing projects and programs that aim to support and empower communities. “None of us goes someplace with the answers — but we go with a set of questions, and perhaps a set of ideas and even an evidence base of something that has worked before,” Sharon explains. “But we still need to approach local leaders and understand what they think will work in their community.”