Teenage girls have it very hard.
Anyone who has ever been one knows this instinctively. Navigating your newfound emergence into the contradictory social and sexual politics and expectations, where your body is weaponized against you and your value dictated by its degree of conformity to a Barbie doll, where you're either a slut if you have sex or a prude if you don't, where eating disorders are tacitly encouraged and you're constantly told to be quiet, be small and meek and always complaisant, and stay out of the way – it's a lot. Their argot is maligned, their speaking habits policed, their manner of dress demeaned and insulted as vanity, and their interests automatically deemed shallow, frivolous, and intellectually deficient by their mere association with them. In short, being a teenage girl isn't easy.
But Greta Thunberg, named this month as TIME Magazine's Person of the Year at the young age of sixteen – smack in the middle of some of the most difficult and complicated years a girl can have – is proving something we've long ignored: that teen girls are amazingly influential drivers of cultural change.
This is documentable. To cite one of my favorite examples, we need only look at the English language, which teenage girls have been on the bleeding edge of defining for literally hundreds of years, as linguist Gretchen McCulloch argues. You may remember the way mallrats and Valley girls were derided back in the 1980's for using "totally," you know the way we totally all do now. And it's so much more fundamental than that; the demise of words like "ye" and the shift from "hath" and "doth" to "has" and "does" are all first documented in the personal letters of teenage girls hundreds of years ago. It's so well-documented to the point of being actively a cliché; women, far more than men, drive innovation in how we speak to each other, and even what we speak about.
That's been true in the twenty-first century as well; the place feminism has in our public debates owes itself to young women hanging out on the internet and sharing their experiences. And so it should come as absolutely zero surprise that the leading light of this day and age's climate change movement is a teenage girl who is 100% finished with being dismissed and insulted – even by the president.
Greta amazes me. I think of myself as a pretty future-oriented, driven, focused person, but I didn't have a fraction the initiative, follow-through, and bravery she has, singlehandedly turning the solitary protest into a global following behind a voice that presidents, prime ministers, and princes all must acknowledge. And she's done it in less than two years.
Perhaps that's a testament to the anxieties of the age; climate change looms for younger generations in a way those of us who won't live to see its most devastating consequences probably can't entirely understand. Similarly, the last twenty years have been the story of declining faith in institutional responsibility, and that's true on all sides of the political spectrum. From clergy sex abuse scandals to the Iraq War to Brexit to the "liberal media elite" and Donald Trump, we've been buffeted on all sides as the ongoing crisis of the twenty-first century has unfolded around us. And it is undoubtedly true that Greta tapped into that. There would be no public movement without a public ready and willing to join.
But I would be remiss if I failed to highlight how remarkable it is that it's been spearheaded by the clarity and resolve of a teenage girl. She's succeeded where every climate activist group, every climate lobbyist, and every politician has failed by galvanizing public opinion into public, clear-throated, take-no-prisoners action.
Greta is also unbelievably canny. She has had the foresight to know that putting her up on a pedestal gives you permission to ignore the things she's actually saying and to keep the focus, as much as she's capable, on her generation rather than on her. She's spoken, forcefully, about how the people who will be most affected by rising temperatures are the ones without the power to do anything about it. In other words, she is beholden to no one and doesn't give a single damn about what you think about her. Or even what I think about her.
She's been compared to Joan of Arc, which isn't much of a reach; both teenage girls who stuck their heads in where they were profoundly unwelcome to force through action. And both did it from positions of profound social weakness; if women are second-class citizens, girls are doubly, with all the burdens of girlhood atop those of youth. Yet despite that, she is fomenting rebellion and anger and, thank goodness, hope.
It's theorized that the reason young women drive language change is because women learn language from their peers and men learn it from their mothers. That women, historically, build stronger and broader social networks, and so are able to exercise under-the-radar influence. Maybe both of those things are at play here, too: that young women are uniquely situated to internalize new facts, new politics, new ideas, and then to mobilize those things into action. That's a power history has willfully ignored, and which we, in the slimmest of silver linings, are lucky to have the opportunity to witness on a grand scale.
If nothing else, I am grateful for that.
During a recent meeting on Microsoft Teams, I couldn't seem to get a single word out.
When I tried to chime in, I kept getting interrupted. At one point two individuals talked right over me and over each other. When I thought it was finally my turn, someone else parachuted in from out of nowhere. When I raised and waved my hand as if I was in grade school to be called on (yes, I had my camera on) we swiftly moved on to the next topic. And then, completely frustrated, I stayed on mute for the remainder of the meeting. I even momentarily shut off my camera to devour the rest of my heavily bruised, brown banana. (No one needed to see that.)
This wasn't the first time I had struggled to find my voice. Since elementary school, I always preferring the back seat unless the teacher assigned me a seat in the front. In high school, I did piles of extra credit or mini-reports to offset my 0% in class participation. In college, I went into each lecture nauseous and with wasted prayers — wishing and hoping that I wouldn't be cold-called on by the professor.
By the time I got to Corporate America, it was clear that if I wanted to lead, I needed to pull my chair up (and sometimes bring my own), sit right at the table front and center, and ask for others to make space for me. From then on, I found my voice and never stop using it.
But now, all of a sudden, in this forced social experiment of mass remote working, I was having trouble being heard… again. None of the coaching I had given myself and other women on finding your voice seemed to work when my voice was being projected across a conference call and not a conference room.
I couldn't read any body language. I couldn't see if others were about to jump in and I should wait or if it was my time to speak. They couldn't see if I had something to say. For our Microsoft teams setting, you can only see a few faces on your screen, the rest are icons at the bottom of the window with a static picture or even just their name. And, even then, I couldn't see some people simply because they wouldn't turn their cameras on.
If I did get a chance to speak and cracked a funny joke, well, I didn't hear any laughing. Most people were on mute. Or maybe the joke wasn't that funny?
At one point, I could hear some heavy breathing and the unwrapping of (what I could only assume was) a candy bar. I imagined it was a Nestle Crunch Bar as my tummy rumbled in response to the crinkling of unwrapped candy. (There is a right and a wrong time to mute, people.)
At another point, I did see one face nodding at me blankly.
They say that remote working will be good for women. They say it will level the playing field. They say it will be more inclusive. But it won't be for me and others if I don't speak up now.
- Start with turning your camera on and encouraging others to do the same. I was recently in a two-person meeting. My camera was on, but the other person wouldn't turn theirs on. In that case, ten minutes in, I turned my camera off. You can't stare at my fuzzy eyebrows and my pile of laundry in the background if I can't do the same to you. When you have a willing participant, you'd be surprised by how helpful it can be to make actual eye contact with someone, even on a computer (and despite the fuzzy eyebrows).
- Use the chatbox. Enter in your questions. Enter in your comments. Dialogue back and forth. Type in a joke. I did that recently and someone entered back a laughing face — reaffirming that I was, indeed, funny.
- Designate a facilitator for the meeting: someone leading, coaching, and guiding. On my most recent call, a leader went around ensuring everyone was able to contribute fairly. She also ensured she asked for feedback on a specific topic and helped move the discussion around so no one person took up all the airtime.
- Unmute yourself. Please don't just sit there on mute for the entire meeting. Jump in and speak up. You will be interrupted. You will interrupt others. But don't get frustrated or discouraged — this is what work is now — just keep showing up and contributing.
- Smile, and smile big. Nod your head in agreement. Laugh. Give a thumbs up; give two! Wave. Make a heart with your hands. Signal to others on the call who are contributing that you support and value them. They will do the same in return when your turn comes to contribute.
It's too easy to keep your camera turned off. It's too easy to stay on mute. It's too easy to disappear. But now is not the time to disappear. Now is the time to stay engaged and networked within our organizations and communities.
So please don't put yourself on mute.
Well, actually, please do put yourself on mute so I don't have to hear your heavy breathing, candy bar crunching, or tinkling bathroom break.
But after that, please take yourself off mute so you can reclaim your seat (and your voice) at the table.