Eyes Wide Open About Women & The World

Last week I was sitting in the audience at Purpose, and Paul Hawken was opening the conference with his New York Times Best Seller DrawDown - the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming. It’s both exciting and terrifying that this is also the only plan ever written don't you think?


I picked up a copy of Drawdown on my way down to Tasmania a few weeks ago. I was delighted to see that among the expected themes of energy, food and transport, there was a section about ‘women and girls’. Educating girls and family planning respectively ranked 6th and 7th, in terms of impact, out of 100 solutions proposed.

 Graphic By  Devon Bunce

 Graphic By Devon Bunce

During Paul’s keynote he did something that brought tears to my eyes. He showed the audience that if you combine both of these solutions, they are actually the number 1 thing we can do to drawdown carbon; which is way more exciting than the current number 1 solution - refrigerant management...

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It was a tough choice between going to Purpose or going to Laos with my Mum as part of an education program we have been working on with local women - to educate the next generation about family planning, agriculture and empowerment. You may have noticed that among the other top solutions in Drawdown - food and land use is also right up there in terms of impact. ;)

Our involvement in this project was sparked by a conversation I had with my best friend’s mum two years ago - you can read the full story here. In a nutshell, she had set up a school to educate women in Laos, after seeing that hardly any girls were sent to school. However, some of the girls in the school had gone missing; presumably due to sex trafficking.

Upon hearing this I was shattered. I wanted to help but I didn’t know how. I started thinking about what I could do, and remembering Nelson Mandela’s famous quote, the first lightbulb went off:

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So I started thinking about how we could use education to help these girls. Because we know:

  1. Educated women are less likely to die in childbirth: If all mothers completed primary education, maternal death would decrease by two-thirds

  2. Women with higher levels of education are less likely to get married at an early age: Child marriage would decrease by 14% with primary education and by 60% with secondary education

  3. Educated women are more likely to find work and have a decreased pay gap compared to men.

(UNESCO, 2013)

Then the second light bulb went off. My mum is an obstetrician-gynaecologist – just the person to give the girls invaluable information about female health. Most of the teachers at the school where the girls attend are male. This is a common occurrence in Laos and exposure to empowering female role models and a curriculum that provides knowledge and awareness of ‘sex-ed’ is very limited.  I persuaded my mother to accompany me to Laos - but, in all honestly, I didn’t have to twist her arm!

And as it turned out, she was the perfect person. Check her out, showing the women a role play of child birth: 


One thing I was really mindful of was not going into Laos as a privileged white person who seemingly had all the answers. I spent most of my time listening and observing; thinking about how we could use regenerative design to make this program sustainable. This resulted in teaching through role-play. Whereby, the young women could take their learnings back to their villages. We also taught some of the staff to crowdfund and we even managed to finish building toilets at the local school with the funds. 

I distinctly remember one of the staff doing a survey with the girls about what they wanted to be when they grow up. If you have read any of my previous blogs, you will know this is one of my least favourite questions to ask people. I think we should be going way deeper and uncovering who people want to be, and why they want to do, what they want to do.

Before I digress, what was truly astonishing, was that the first survey revealed that all the girls wanted to be teachers, and by the end of the retreat, the diversity of answers had increased.  Some of the girls now wanted to be doctors, engineers and even farmers. I started thinking about why this was the case. Without even designing for it, we had exposed the girls to other women who held all of these roles within society, allowing them to see those options as a pathway they could now explore. How beautiful is that?

On the flip side it makes me think about all the women who, locally and globally, have had limited choices. I constantly pinch myself at the privilege I have had throughout my life; being able to become both a scientist and engineer. However, to be a bit raw, it has been a tough slog some of the time: from not being taken seriously, to #metoo moments scattered throughout my career. The duality of life huh?

After thinking long and had about the #metoo movement, I wanted to channel my energy into something productive in the space. I hand wrote a letter to all of the incredible men who have helped me during my career, men who have empowered me, listened to me, elevated me, and caught me in free fall. I wanted those men to know just how much that meant to me, and to empower them to keep being the type of man the world needs many more of! A lot of these men were in the room last week, as I touched on some of this during my talk at Purpose, about why I give fucks, carebears and systems change.


This got me thinking about how I even had the space created for me, to do what I do, before these men came along.

I grew up in what was a ‘non’ traditional household. My mum was a bad-ass lady boss and my dad was primarily the stay-at-home legend bringing us up; teaching us about permaculture and doing his very best to try and put my hair in pigtails for school.

The impact this had really hit home a few weeks ago when I was catching up with a friend, who is also a female founder of a start-up. She flicked me this article: about how we have been tricked that “women can have it all”  - because what often goes unsaid is that there are incredible men* behind the scenes using their privilege to support and empower these women who seem to have it all - and to be living their personal and professional dreams. 

In this supplementary piece, written by the husband of the first author about why he put his wife's career first he says:

“The well-being of children, the status of women, and the happiness of men will depend on whether more fathers are willing to take on primary parenting roles.”

My hat goes off to both my mum and dad for going against the grain, and raising me in a way that created the space for me to become who I am; not being put in a box by rules or societal expectations.

Overall, I guess it’s needless to say these problems are complex as fuck and require entire system reforms. However, in light of International Women’s Day today, I took the time to jot down some of my reflections about women, (and men), on a day that was started in the 20th century by socialists in Germany.

I believe the more we work together to empower women (and men) the less we will need such a day. Until that day I will continue to volunteer my time in this space.

Today is a day to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women and also to acknowledge all of the women and men co-creating a future with more role models and equality.



*I would like to acknowledge that although this article is written about "male" and "female" families and relationships -  all combinations of LBGTIQ relationships should be equally celebrated and that this is about us supporting each other as a human species, in all of our diversity individually and collectively. 

Sara Rickards