E11: Woman and Those Changing the World: Asha Dahya, Today's Wonder Women

[00:00:00] Section: Podcast introduction

[00:00:00] Overdub: Hello, welcome to The Story of Woman, the podcast exploring what a man-made world looks like when we see it through her eyes. Woman's perspective is missing from our understanding of the world. This podcast is on a mission to change that. I’m your host, Anna Stoecklein Lau and each episode I'll be speaking with an author about the implications of her absence - how we got here, what still needs to be changed, and how telling her story will improve everyone's next chapter.

[00:00:34] Section: Episode level introduction

[00:00:35] Anna: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the final episode of the season. I am so happy you are here. I thought what better way to end it than by celebrating women and all of their amazing strengths and achievements and how no matter the obstacle put before us, we continue to show up in the world and fight to make it a better place for everyone.

Because for too long, women have either been denied participation or their contributions to the world have been overlooked, forgotten, or contributed to a man. And while we have come a long way, you won't be surprised to know that this isn't a new problem.

 This is a bit of a tangent, but I recently learned a French woman called Christine de Pizan who in 1405, so 600 years ago, wrote a book of stories about famous women throughout history that was called The Book of the City of Ladies. And she did this because she recognized that women's contributions had been overlooked and she thought that it was quote "about time, the female sex was protected and defended." So she thought it was about time in 1405 and here we are 600 years later still fighting that same. But my guest today is helping to change that. Asha Dahya is the author of Today's Wonder Women: everyday superheroes, who are changing the world, which is a compilation of 50 female identifying people who saw something they didn't like about the world, decided to do something about it. It's as inspiring as it is informative. So for anyone looking for a little inspiration in their life, maybe you feel a bit stuck in your career or personal life or considering making a big change. This is a great book for you. And one of the everyday superheroes in this book was also featured on this podcast. You might remember Farida D who writes about Arab feminism. That was actually how I found her was through this book. So if you haven't already go back and have a listen to episode four. 

Asha Daya is an author, TEDx speaker and founder of girl talk HQ. She has spent the last 16 years creating, producing, and hosting content for different networks where she focuses on reproductive rights, gender equality, and the representation of women in media and in our conversation today, Asha and I talk about a few of these women, including one who's tech company in the last year has taught over three times as many women and young girls to code as the entire UK university undergraduate system. No big deal. We also talk about the conditioning that occurs from a young age that teaches girls to wait for prince charming, to save them. And some ways that we can all start to unlearn. We talk about the need to define what success looks like for ourselves instead of going after what other people tell us success looks like.

And we talk about how we can start to show up as our true, authentic selves and be our own superheroes. All of the quotes you will hear read during the interview are taken directly from her book today's Wonder Women. 

I hope you come away inspired to take up space, use your voice and be the hero in your own story. Because that is exactly what you are. All right. Enjoy.

[00:04:02] Section: A word from this episode's supporter

[00:04:04] Anna: This episode is supported by The Know, a new media company you really need to know about. Do you find the news totally overwhelming and negative, but you also don't want to turn a blind eye to important issues? Then the no was made for you, their daily newsletter tackles the biggest issues of the day in an informative yet easy to read way.

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[00:04:47] Section: Episode interview

[00:04:48] Anna: Hi Asha, thanks so much for being here today. I'm so excited to chat with you.

[00:04:52] Asha: Thank you. so much for having me Anna I'm excited about this. 

[00:04:55] Anna: Yeah. So we'll just jump right in. I know that women have been making contributions to society for as long as it has existed, you know, despite our systemic oppression and exclusion, women have written and created and discovered and invented for as long as men have. But we know a lot more about what men have achieved, you know, because they've gotten to participate more fully, but also women's contributions have gone unrecognized or relegated to the footnotes of history, or even credited to a man who came along and made the same contribution a year later. So your book is helping to change that it's a collection of stories, essays, and interviews that celebrate women and female identifying people who are on the ground doing the work, breaking barriers and changing the status quo.

So to start, could you tell us, how did you get the idea for this book and what story were you trying to tell and writing it?

[00:05:55] Asha: Yeah, absolutely. Well, to tell you how the book came about I have to tell you how my blog Girl Talk HQ came about cause that's kind of where it came from. So girl talk HQ, I started a blog series called Today's Wonder Women, and I ended up getting a book deal from that, a book agent found me a couple of years ago and contacted me, but the idea for that series and even the blog came about, it would have been 2012.

I was living in LA, I'm still living in LA, but I was going through a divorce. , I was at a crossroads in my career. I had just left my very fairly large, conservative evangelical church, had no idea where my life was going, but one thing that I really wanted to send to myself with was a community of women and like-minded women that had gone through some stuff that I had gone through. You know, I was about to be 29 and found myself going through a divorce thinking, this was never in the plan. And so I started this blog as a way to find a digital community. You know, my background is in TV, hosting and producing. And so I thought, while I'm figuring out my career, while I'm trying to get my life back on track, let's just do something creatively. And I was drawn to finding stories of everyday women like me who were going through things, but also who are achieving great things and breaking barriers. And it just kind of grew from there. 

And that seed I remembered had been planted in me long ago when I would see the movies that my mom would watch about incredible women breaking barriers. The magazines that I would read as a kid, you know, in Australia, it was Dolly magazine and Girlfriend magazine like Cosmo and all of that here in the United States. But I would rip out all these interviews with, you know, there's all the celebrity stuff and the makeup and the beauty stuff, but every now and then there would be an interview with just an everyday woman, an activist or an organizer or someone who had defied cancer or done something really incredible.

And a couple of years ago, when I went back home, I was going through my old journals and school books and things like that. I found a massive big folder where I had collected just a ton of these interviews that I've ripped out from magazines and kept over the years. So for me, the idea of being drawn to stories of incredible everyday women was a seed that was planted long, long, long ago.

And I had forgotten about it. And I think going through a divorce, being at a crossroads in my career really triggered that, "o let's go back to finding out who I really am." So I started GirlTalk HQ. It has evolved over the years to becoming, you know, a site that really is focused on every day women whose names you don't know, but you should. Then I started a specific interview series on the blog called Today's Wonder Women where women could submit their story and be featured on the blog.

And from there it got the attention of a literary agent and he said, "Hey, have you ever thought about writing a book?" And I was like, no, but keep talking. And yeah, I guess the rest is history kind of thing. We put a proposal together and within two weeks we got two different offers from publishing houses. I was like, what? Okay. I guess this is something I'm meant to do. And so that's how Today's Wonder Women was born. Both the book and the original idea. 

[00:09:28] Anna: That's amazing. Do you think that that's a sign that there's a gap to fill out there and people are starting to recognize that, that you had multiple publishers jump on this type of idea so quickly?

[00:09:39] Asha: I think so. I definitely feel like I'm in that zeitgeisty moment where the culture is really craving more stories of women, more marginalized folks, underrepresented people who haven't been allowed to share their stories, who haven't been given the space or the opportunity. So I am so thankful to have an opportunity to take advantage of this moment, for sure. 

[00:10:00] Anna: So why every day superheroes? Why is that important? As opposed to, women like Gloria Steinem are Oprah.

[00:10:08] Asha: Right. I think there's incredible value to looking at the stories of famous people and the Gloria Steinem's and the Oprahs. And I think there is a point where an everyday person can look at someone, especially like Oprah, you know, she's a billionaire, she's been doing her thing for decades. It can be so hard to maybe see yourself reflected in that journey. Whereas when you look at someone who's just starting out and just launched her network, or just launched a magazine, or has an idea for a magazine to represent people that look like you or me, it becomes a moment of, oh, that's me. Oh, I could do that. Oh, if she's doing it well, I can do that too. And so I think that's really why I wanted to focus on the everyday people whose stories are just as inspiring as people like Oprah and Gloria Steinem, but they don't have maybe a massive platform yet. They've been doing incredible work in their communities, in their industries and so I think it's really important for me to also see myself represented in the stories that I share so that it comes from a place of authenticity. 

[00:11:15] Anna: Yeah, makes sense. I mean, I can only relate to Oprah with so much, so I think to make it a bit more accessible, it's good to be able to see yourself reflected in a more everyday people. It would be a dream to be able to see myself reflected in Oprah. 

[00:11:29] Asha: Totally. 

[00:12:50] Anna: I want to talk about a few of the themes that stood out to me throughout the book. And I once heard, to go back to Gloria Steinem, I think I heard this from her, but I'm sure others have said it, but that all too often with the women's movement and the push for equality and giving women of boys, women are portrayed as victims who need to be saved.

And, sure we are negatively impacted as a result of our gender, but the movement is about women refusing to be victims. It's about standing up to those systems that put us on the receiving end of discrimination and violence, and saying that we won't stand for that. And your book captures that so well. Was that a conscious effort to push back against that victim narrative? 

[00:13:35] Asha: I think so. And you know, I think a lot of the idea of women, they just see themselves as victims or feminism, it's just about playing the victim card. A lot of that comes from, maybe anti-feminist narratives that don't like the feminist movement and want to damage it and use that as a way to disparage what feminists are doing, what women's rights activists are doing.

And so I think it's important to go back to the root of why women become activists or become speakers or make change. And I love that Gloria Steinem quote, I hadn't heard that before, but she's absolutely right. And that is what I tried to do with this book, show that there are so many women in these stories who have had some horrendous things happen to them, and if they never ended up doing the things that they did, that's also okay.

You know, healing is so important and healing is not a linear thing and we don't owe the world anything if we're going through things like trauma or something really difficult. But to show that if you do have opportunity to use your pain, your trauma, your experience, as a way to bring other people in and make them feel less alone and supported, I think that's a really beautiful picture that I tried to paint.

So, you know, when I interviewed Fraidy Reiss, who was the founder of an organization fighting child marriage in the United States, I always have to make sure that it's not some far-flung country out there that people often think when you think of child marriage in the United States, she was a victim of forced marriage at a young age.

And she could have, you know, she ended up escaping that situation, thankfully, and she's okay today. And if she never founded her organization, the fact that she is safe and healthy is enough, but she knew that there were other women like her and, young folks that needed someone to help them and advocate for them. So she used that pain and that experience to help others. So I think, you know, the word victim can be very loaded and triggering in a number of ways, but I just want to remind people that it's okay to go through what you've gone through and not have achieved the Nobel Peace prize afterwards, okay. You just gotta be where you are in your journey and, you know, find comfort in other stories and other people's lives that can perhaps help you along your way. 

[00:16:04] Anna: That's a really good point. It doesn't have to be creating an organization and tackling child marriage, but just getting yourself out of that situation. For people who perhaps want to change their conditioning, because it is true that as women we're taught from such a young age that if we're unhappy or unsafe, we just need to stay put and wait for someone to rescue us. You know, look at every fairy tale, it's a girl or woman that needs to be saved by a boy or a man. It's never about her taking ownership. Rapunzel didn't fasten her hair to the bed and climb down the tower herself. She had to wait for a prince. So, when women are so conditioned in this way, for those who perhaps do want to be their own superhero, as you say, what is something that you think people can do if they agree with the sentiment, but don't quite know where to start or how they can begin to unlearn this conditioning?

[00:17:02] Asha: Yeah, that's a, I mean, that's a complex question and answer, and hopefully I will give enough of a good answer, but you're right in that it is a lot of conditioning and it starts almost from birth. You know, the images that we see as as young girls, the prince charming, rescuing the poor helpless woman on screen and almost every major Hollywood movie where there's a male protagonist, he's rescuing this poor helpless woman and she couldn't have done it without him, obviously that is changing. But those messages happen from such an early age that it becomes very, very difficult at times to unlearn that as adults. So I think it really does start with, what do we focus on every day? What kind of stories do we read? What kind of news do we consume? What kind of movies and books and literature and how much of all of that points us in a very skewed and narrow idea of gender representation. So It is really about unlearning that and there's so many ways to do it. And I think storytelling can be a very powerful vehicle to dismantle the harmful norms.

[00:18:11] Anna: I agree completely which is why I'm such a big fan of there's this book over here in the UK called Gender Swapped Fairytales. I don't know if you would have heard of that. 

[00:18:21] Asha: I haven't, but now I want to read it. 

[00:18:23] Anna: Yeah, it's amazing. It was written by a couple who identified this need for their daughter, but it's just as much for little boys as it is little girls, because it takes all the fairytales that we're familiar with, Beauty and the Beast, Jack and the Beanstalk, and it just swaps the one who needs saving and the one who does the saving. So the titles are like Handsome and the Beast and Jacqueline and the Beanstalk. And you have princesses in shining armor and King's longing for a a 

[00:18:49] Asha: I need to buy that. 

[00:18:50] Anna: I highly recommend it for anyone with little ones. But yeah, I think stories like that can perhaps help as well. 

[00:18:58] Asha: Yeah. 

[00:18:59] Anna: And then of course, on the flip side to all of this conditioning, we know that boys and men are taught from these same fairytales to see themselves as saviors of girls and that they're forbidden from admitting if they themselves need help. So what do you think these types of stories of women can provide for men?

[00:19:20] Asha: Yeah, that's, uh, that's also a loaded question, but it's good because it's something that I have been thinking about a lot. I have a four year old boy and a two year old girl, and we love to read books at night. But he's at an age where I can really see he's understanding the idea of gender and concepts of who does what and what, how things work in the world. And so I've been very conscious, even telling him stories like, I'll look at the construction workers instead of the construction men, or look at the construction men and women over there, look at the teachers. Whether in the illustrations or in the story, they are men or women, I make a conscious effort so that he knows men and women can be whatever industry or career you want. And so I've seen him, I've seen that reflected when he says to me "and mommy, what did the men's and ladies do when they go on there" and I was like, oh, good job, Frankie, good job. They learn it from such an age and it, it really is how you model that to especially young men. And I think it's really important because I really want him to know that he can be his own hero, yes, and also my daughter, Zoe can be heroic, but then also it's okay to feel sad and emotional and not be able to fix everything and communicate with your words.

So I love the push for empowering women, but I think coinciding with that, we have to also bring in the young boys, and the men to be like, this is your fight too, this is all of our movement. This is a movement to better all of humanity. You know, when, when women benefit, everyone benefits. So I think that push you know, among feminists and women's rights activists to encourage men to not think it's weak to admit failure or admit that you don't know what to do and you need help, like you said, and be emotional. I think that push is so, so important. You know, we see so many horrendous examples of toxic masculinity that has kind of plagued the world throughout history, whether it's someone like Hitler or someone like Donald Trump, or, you know, these awful, awful male leaders, you kind of can't help, but wonder, what would have happened if those men had been taught something completely different from a young age, you know? 

[00:21:40] Anna: If they had had Gender Swapped Fairytales...

[00:21:42] Asha: Exactly. If Donald Trump had Gender Swapped Fairytales, maybe he wouldn't such have chip shoulder... 

 And, you know, there are plenty of men in the stories that are featured in these women. They talk about their partners and their sons and their colleagues and I think it just really underscores the idea that equality is not a zero sum game. There is room at the table for all of us, and there is enough opportunity and space and platform for everyone's stories to be shared. I think it's just about how do we find that balance? So I hope the men reading this book will see themselves or their loved ones, their mothers, their sisters, their daughters, their friends, their colleagues reflected in these stories and also be inspired to know that they can join the fight. They can join the women in their lives to help them be heroic and change the world. 

[00:22:35] Anna: We almost need a men's version of this platform and book as well. Not because necessarily need a bigger platform, but a lot of your stories are about how women are overcoming gender expectations. So what if we had a swap for gender expectations for men and they could write stories about times they showed vulnerability or shared their feelings. That'd be something to be celebrated.

[00:22:57] Asha: Yeah. There's a really good documentary called the Mask You Live In, and it was made a few years ago, but it really was about unpacking toxic masculinity and harmful gender norms that are thrust upon boys from a young age and showing these amazing male activists and speakers and leaders who are really trying to change the culture for men in America, all different ages, all different ethnicities and backgrounds. It's a really great movie. 

[00:23:23] Anna: Thank you for the recommendation. Switching gears here, I want to talk about the definition of success for a minute. This was another theme throughout the book. And for you, I know you started in a very objectively successful career working for big platforms like Disney, ABC, MTV, among others, you said you were making great money, having a very successful career, but then you kind of became bored and disillusioned and decided you wanted more out of life. And I think that this is very common for many of us to strive, to be successful by society's standards, whatever that means for our specific profession, that we can forget what success looks like by our own standards.

And I think that this can be particularly worse for women because success has been defined, you know, by men. And we've kind of trained our minds to think of success in a really certain way- getting ahead, climbing the corporate ladder, becoming CEO, this set agenda of tick marks that are often defined masculinity and even whiteness. Could you talk to that idea? Do you think that there is one traditional definition of success? And if so, how did you measure success in the stories that you chose to share? 

[00:24:39] Asha: Yeah that's a good question. I think the idea of success, I mean, even the word itself is very loaded because we automatically think of the male defined version of it and even not just the idea of success, but who created the systems that lead to that very specific type of success is important for us to unpack and look at.

There was a show on FX on Hulu here called Y: the Last Man, it was very dystopian, future driven. The idea was based on a comic where one day set in like present day America, all of a sudden, all of the men suddenly die and the women are left in this futuristic America walking dead type situation to rebuild the world.

And what does that look like? And I was reading a Twitter thread that I know this is a bit of a tangent, but I was reading a Twitter thread that the executive producer had written about what the show is about. It's not just about killing all men. She said it really is about gender and underscoring how infrastructure of this country is so gendered. It is created by men, for men from the way that our prison system operates from education to the corporate world. And you see that with the lack of paid leave in America, the lack of childcare support, the lack of support for women after they have babies to go back into the workforce.

So when you think of success, we're already starting on a bit of a back foot as women because the whole ecosystem and infrastructure that allows for people like, you know, and Oprah is a, is a complete anomaly, but when you think of people like Jeff Bezos or Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, the system allows for people like that and wants people like that to become successful. People like Oprah are a complete anomaly. The system is not designed for Oprah's to flourish and become who she is, especially because she's a Black woman. So when you think of success, there's this systemic dismantling that needs to happen, which is its own mission front, but then there's also the internal, that we need to dismantle, like why do we have to be successful to be considered valuable or worthy in the world? You know, and I think the pandemic for me personally, has really allowed me to analyze, like, who am I? Who am I, if I'm not Asha the achiever, writing a book and releasing that and being on a podcast, you know, all the things that's like, am I worthy regardless of all that stuff and am I still considered successful?

Those are conversations that I'm glad we're having more of, and I also think that for a lot of people and for me on some days getting out of bed and brushing my hair and having a cup of coffee and getting my kids out the door to daycare and feeling like I've done a good job, that's successful. You know, I think there's this hyper capitalistic notion that success means money, power, being a CEO, owning all these things, having incredible wealth. But I think if we just, shift our thinking a little bit, that'll really change the world in a lot of ways. So I hope that all made sense, that was, that was my storytelling hour.

[00:27:46] Anna: Complete sense. And I couldn't agree more, you know, I think definitely on a systemic level, but especially as individuals that we need to define our own definition of success and then go after that, instead of going after what society tells us success is, and what society tells us success is, maybe some people do genuinely want to go after that... 

Um, ...but to be able to come up with that as a decision on your own and...

[00:28:15] Asha: And I mean, that's all the women in this book, they defined success for themselves. They figured out who they were and what was meaningful to them. And the range of success, quote, unquote, that you see in the book is such a variety. And I hope people are encouraged by that. 

[00:28:30] Anna: I definitely was. That's why that was an ongoing theme that stuck out for sure. And there was a nice quote from Sarah Moshman, who is an Emmy award-winning filmmaker. And she said, "sometimes you climb the ladder of success to find it was on the wrong wall." 

[00:28:44] Asha: Yeah. 

[00:28:46] Anna: All right. I want to get into the book and some examples. The book is broken down into eight sections from leadership and activism to arts and women defining the odds and disrupting the status quo. To start with the leadership section, you said in the introduction, you talked about how our default image of a leader is male. Could you tell us what you meant by?

[00:29:10] Asha: Yeah. I mean, if I asked you in three seconds, come up with three names that have changed the world in say technology, who are you going to come up with? Steve Jobs? Mark Zuckerburg? Bezos? Right. You know, why aren't we thinking of all the women who are doing incredible things? And so that's kind of what I wanted people to be challenged with when they see this, it's like, oh, she's a leader. Oh, she did that. Oh, Yeah, that's this is what leadership looks like. It's not just a one size fits all. You don't have to be a crazy billionaire. You don't have to create the biggest tech platform in the world. You can be changing the lives of people in your community. You know, leadership isn't about, look at me, I'm the best. I'm going to create out all this wealth. I'm going to hold all the resources and goods and you need to look up to me. It's, I'm going to show people by my example, I'm going to live by example. And in that I want people to see that as leadership. So that's what I hope people will get out of reading that chapter and seeing the incredible women and what they're doing.

[00:30:16] Anna: I certainly did. And when I read that default leader sentence in the book, I thought about an activity that I'd done before. I've got a fun activity for all of our listeners. If you put "cartoon leader" or "cartoon CEO" or even "cartoon professor in Google images, see how many are women I have done this.. and it is not good.

Or ...people of colour absolutely. Yeah. It's all one color and one gender. And I think that's a pretty good example of the default image, what Google shows us when we search that. 

[00:30:48] Asha: Yeah. 

[00:30:49] Anna: Do you want to tell us about one of the women who are changing this and taking the lead?

[00:30:54] Asha: Yeah. Well, when you said take the lead, it made me think of Gloria Feldt who is she's incredible. She has started an organization called Take the Lead where she really helps women redefine leadership, helps them step into their power and access resources that help them along their way.

But she has a fascinating journey. She was a teen mother, she's Latina, and she really had an uphill battle, in the way that she describes being able to finish college for starters. I believe it is less than 2% of teen mothers end up getting a college degree by the age of 30, because there is just little to zero support for teen mothers. There's a lot of stigma and there's a lot of judgment, but there's not a lot of support along the way. She was able to really, really battle through it, and it took a long time, she ended up getting a degree. She ended up climbing up the, you know, the corporate ladder in the world. She is the former CEO of Planned Parenthood. Now she runs her own company. 

And one are the things about her that I really love is, you know, I was asking her about the fight for reproductive rights and this was a couple of years ago and I wrote this, it was end of 2019 that I interviewed her and reproductive rights was still under attack in the United States then. And I asked her, you know, during your time at Planned Parenthood, how did you approach this issue and how did your company figure out how to fight back?

And she said to me, well, actually I think one of the best things about making change is not this idea of fighting back, but fighting forward, if you want to see progress, fight forward, you set the terms, change the landscape. Don't just respond to what people are doing out there. And I think this is something that I think about a lot and I think it's something that you can apply to any sort of aspect of your life. How will we fighting forward? Like, yes, there's a lot of bad things happening out there, but there's always ways that we can move forward and change the status quo, change the situation, shift the conversation, and shift people's perspectives in that process.

So she's been a real inspiration to me and I love what she's doing now. She's written a few books and really using her personal story and a professional experience to really activate other women, knowing that no matter who you are, where you come from, what you've experienced in life, there is a seat at the table for you and you are a leader, no matter where you are at. So yeah, she's awesome.

[00:33:15] Anna: I love that fighting forward, that that makes so much sense. And it really focuses...

[00:33:19] Asha: Isn't it mind blowing? It's like, Yeah, why are let's fight forward! 

[00:33:24] Anna: I mean, it's the only direction you can go. So it makes sense it focuses you on moving forward and not dwelling on the past and... 

[00:33:33] Asha: Bad happen when you try to go backward. It's it's never a recipe for success. 

[00:33:39] Book excerpt: Gloria Feldt: "The most important thing a woman in a position of leadership can do is to nurture, mentor, and sponsor other women into leadership – to teach women to create a new paradigm for how we think about power. The male model has been a belief that resources are always finite, that there is a pie and if I take a slice of it, there’s less for you. In truth, if I help you and you help me, both can create more of everything: more wealth, more innovation, more pie all around!” 

[00:34:16] Anna: And then I want to talk about the art section as well. So why is it important for women to be represented in creative industries?

[00:34:24] Asha: So arts and creativity is always been very specifically near and dear to me because that's the industry that I come from. It's what I've always wanted to be involved in. And I think no matter who we are, we are, we watch movies, we watch TV, we're influenced by entertainment and media, and our culture is shaped by the narratives we see on screen.

So who's writing the scripts, who's creating the TV shows, who's creating these characters and playing them on screen really has the ability to allow us to think about how we see gender, how we see power, how we see success, all of these things that we've been talking about. So creativity is a very powerful vehicle to allowing people to either see themselves or not, to give people power in the world or not, and to give people a voice. So I think creativity is, is just as important as politics, activism, leadership, all of these things. 

[00:35:20] Anna: To pull it other quote from the book, the documentary filmmaker, Violeta Ayala, I hope I'm saying that right... 

[00:35:27] Asha: Yeah, she's awesome. 

[00:35:28] Anna: She said "the media is the most powerful tool in terms of controlling people by telling the same narrative." And I mean, we already gave the example of fairytales. I hope this, it seems that this is changing, but we have seen how women often get portrayed through the lens of how men see them as the damsel in distress, the sidekick, the girlfriend, not being allowed to have full, complex and real characters, you know, once again, not being allowed to be the own heroes and their story.

So and that's just for women, obviously with minorities and other marginalized groups, it's the same thing. So I was going to ask if you think it's been getting better, but you did put some stats in the book about out of the top 100 grossing films in 2018, women represented only 4% of the directors which is not great... 

[00:36:14] Asha: I there are some years where it takes up a little bit and then it goes backwards. So essentially the status quo is kind of the same. We are seeing change, but what's really gonna push for monumental change is seeing women in all positions, not just on screen, but also the heads of studios, they heads of TV networks, the funders, in all sorts of positions and that that's not just to say across the board, all women are great. I've got to champion other women. There are some that don't, we're just as complex as anyone else, as men as well. But I think there is a general idea that the more varied type of leadership we see in Hollywood specifically, and in the filmmaking world, people of color, people of different genders, people of different abilities, I think we will see more representation and like Violetta Ayala said, she's awesome. I love her. She's such a powerful activist and uses her camera and her voice to really speak truth to power and all our documentary films have been like that. But yeah, you know, the media can be the most powerful propaganda tool on the planet and has been for so many people in different countries and different eras. It really is about how you change who's in power.

[00:37:28] Anna: There's something else in that section that said only 13% of living artists represented in galleries in Europe and north America are women, which made me think about something else that I read recently that said less than 5% of the artists in the modern art section of museums are women, but 85% of the nudes are women. And I think that stat might be slightly outdated, but it just stood out that that is so true, that it's a lot more likely for a woman to be featured as a nude in the gallery than as a painter. 

[00:37:59] Asha: Right. Maybe those stats are changed a little bit, but I wouldn't be surprised if it's generally around the same number and it just goes to show how much women have been seen as tools or objects or their bodies have just been seen as something to look at rather than something that we own and that we have control over. I mean, in 2021, there are still so many countries where women are fighting for the right to determine what we want to do with our bodies and our lives. And because women's bodies were never, they were never our own. They were always under the control of men, of people in power.

And so I think it really is telling, and also pretty much assumes that the majority of women you're going to see an art galleries would be nudes, but that's what we have to change, you know, who has access to autonomy and power over themselves. And that gets reflected in our art and culture. So, yeah, one of the women in the book, Indira Cesarine, she owns a gallery in New York. It's called The Untitled Space and she is really making a conscious effort to promote primarily female artists, but also non-binary artists. They're also men in there as well, people of color underrepresented, but it really is a feminist space.

The exhibitions that she puts on and that she curates really has been focused on the female gaze and women's voices. And what women want to say through art, because a lot of the art world is still very white, very male, and very skewed toward a specific type of audience, but everyone loves art and all different types of tastes should be catered to, and for her, she wants to project a very specific, you know, a very intentional, I should say, very intentional feminist lens into that world unapologetically. And it's really great. I've loved all the exhibitions and I constantly promote the work that she's doing on GirlTalk HQ, but having her featured in the book was a no brainer. 

[00:39:46] Anna: Ooh, The Untitled Space. I'm going to go there the next time I go to... 

[00:39:49] Asha: Yeah. It's like a blank canvas. Like what do you want to put in that space and yeah...

[00:39:54] Book excerpt: Indira Cesarine: "I think it’s important to look at historical narratives that we may have taken for granted, but are equally embedded in our culture and have had lasting impact. In 2019 I presented an exhibition, titled “Eden,” that investigated the story of the Garden of Eden. Aside from the gender stereotypes, role of subservience, guilt, and blame it has placed on women, the story of Adam and Even has positioned women as “inferior” to men since the beginning of time. I felt it was time to take a look at this story from a feminist perspective.”

[00:40:33] Anna: Love it. All right. So one more section in the book that I wanted to go over today was the women entrepreneurs. And you start with some really incredible stats that make me feel like this section is a total success story. You write that every day in the United States, women start 849 businesses. That's incredible. And then you said that a report from 2018 showed that the number of women owned businesses grew 58% from 2007 to 2018. And more specifically, the number owned by Black women grew 164% making Black women the only racial or ethnic group with more business ownership than their male peers. That's incredible. 

Yeah. Yeah. 

But of course there's a catch. 

[00:41:19] Asha: Yes. 

[00:41:20] Anna: Even though there's ample evidence that female founded companies have a higher rate of return on average than their male counterparts, women face significant challenges with funding with only 8% of VC firms in the U S having female partners. So from your perspective, how are women overcoming these kinds of challenges?

[00:41:39] Asha: Yeah, it's it really shows the disparity when you mentioned Black women, a small business owners, and even Latina women as small business owners as well are really outpacing white men, for example. And even though only 8% of venture capitalist partners are women, less than 2% of venture capital funding goes to women entrepreneurs and even less for women of color.

So there's a huge pipeline problem. So having more women in the venture capital seat will definitely change, but it's also like when you think of a business person, you think of, you almost want to just say businessman, cause it's like a word that we know as opposed to business woman, it feels more awkward and clunky and not as it doesn't roll off your tongue.

But the women in this book are just doing incredible things. Amalii de Alwis, she is the CEO, or now she's a former CEO since this book came out, she's gone to do other amazing things, but she was the CEO of a STEM company, a tech company that is helping more women and young girls to code in the UK than any other, than any British University. Like that's incredible. She's a woman of color herself. She's an engineer herself, but I bet most people in the UK don't know her, don't know the company, but they're doing some incredible things. And the company is Code First Girls because they're really teaching girls that this is your industry too. And this is an industry that is growing so, so fast that if you don't have women at the table, if you don't have minorities in these roles that are typically male, we're not going to be able to keep up with progress. So what she's doing is like really is changing the world and changing the UK in the tech industry. And one of the things that kind of pisses me off and wanted to write this book and have it out there, it's always the burden of women and minorities to fix the problems and to fill the gap, you know, and now Amalii de Alwis has gone on to do other things. And so she should, you know, she's been a CEO now she should get to do her passion projects, but in a lot of ways, we really do see women of color picking up the slack, doing that labor and filling those holes that have been left behind by the systems created by men. So, I think we really need to applaud these women, but also like give them the space to do whatever they want. There are a lot of the female entrepreneurs are creating these businesses and ideas to fix a problem and to fill a gap in the world. 

[00:43:58] Anna: I thought that that was really good point that you brought up in your book that they're bringing all of these new ideas and companies to the market because they're stepping into areas that these traditional business world has ignored. So menstrual hygiene companies, breast pumps, technology that addresses sexual harassment, coding and STEM you know, development programs. And it makes sense. And once again, it's an example of how we need to be our own heroes because no one's going to save us and men are not going to innovate our tampons for us. So.. 

[00:44:29] Asha: Exactly. There's the FemTech space in the tech world that has really started burgeoning, but for a long time, it's like, uh, women's health is not really, it's not really a popular area. It's like, what are you talking about? We are more than half the planet. Menstruating people make up a huge population on the planet, and women hold a majority of consumer spending power, at least in America. And I would say that's the same in the UK and a lot of other major economies in the world, too. If you are not catering to women, who are you catering to? A wealthy little elite club that you you don't have circle jerk to excuse my term, but it really is a bit of a circle jerk, like you want to be a business, then cater to the people who have the spending power, who want to be catered to, and want to spend the money. And so the women in this book are doing that. They're really speaking to their community saying, I see you, I'm creating something for you, that's going to benefit you and me and us. And together we're going to change the world. 

[00:45:27] Anna: Yes, and we are all going to support these women owned businesses. I will put links at least to the ones that we've mentioned in the show notes. And then you can find all the rest in Asha's book. 

[00:45:38] Asha: Yeah. 

[00:45:39] Book excerpt: Amali de Alwis: "Ethnicity and culture, and the intersectionality between them and gender, play a complicated role in career progression – especially when it comes to whether people believe tech careers are suitable for themselves or for others. Unconscious bias does play a role, as does self-selection of a career path based on what we grow up with seeing as “normal” or to be expected. It’s why it’s so important that the public narrative we have on tech includes people from diverse backgrounds, as it’s the only way that we can reposition what we expect as “normal” in tech.”

[00:46:18] Anna: All right. So, since you've started your work and sharing women's stories. Have you seen progress been made? Do we recognize women's voices and contributions more? You know, we've talked about how there are more women stepping into these spaces, but I guess as a whole, as a society, are we starting to include and recognize women more compared to when you started this?

[00:46:39] Asha: I would say that the short answer is yes and no. There are some really obvious examples of seeing women in roles that we've never seen before. Seeing the first woman of color as the Vice President of the United States is a huge symbolic progress. And not just Kamala Harris, but across the board on the state level and the local level in the 2020 election, we saw so many women of color. We saw so many LGBTQ people, so many young women of color running for office and winning in margins that show, diversity really is key and demographics really are changing. So that was something really encouraging to see that people really want to see a change in power, shift in power, and want to see themselves represented on a political level. 

But then, you know, when I look at my own industry and entertainment and media, less so maybe. I went to a Emmy's viewing party this year and there's always like a lot of news articles about, oh, the first trans woman of color, MJ Rodriguez to be nominated for her role in Pose on FX. And, wow, this is so groundbreaking. So many other people of color, first category where the majority of nominees have been Black women and people of color and all this kind of stuff. But then on the night, the majority of people that won were white. And so I think that was a really, it was a bit shocking, but also not surprising, but it just really goes to show like, who are the people who are voting, how diverse is the leadership in these voting categories, in the Academy, who are the gatekeepers of the Academy that let in new voting members. So yeah, there's progress, and there isn't, I think the more the spotlight shines on what is happening and the more we speak up and use our voices, I think that's going to help for sure.

I'll go back to, you know, the book, the more women share our stories, the more we speak out and use the platforms, we've got the tools right in our hand, on our phone, social media, whatever it is, whatever platform you have, the more we of speak out, it may seem like change isn't happening, but you know, one person by ourself, it feels like we're isolated, but if 10,000 of us do it, well, guess what? We're an army now. So let's all do it and change the world together. 

[00:48:46] Anna: Yes, love that. Is there any thing that you think that we can do as individuals to help elevate the stories and voices of women other than telling our own?

[00:48:56] Asha: Yes, I think so. I always like to challenge people, think about the women in your life. Think about the incredible things that they've been through, how you can affirm them, how you can support them, how you can create a support network for the incredible women in your life. You know, what are things that you can do to make them feel seen and heard, and include yourself in that circle as well. So I would like to challenge people to do that. 

[00:49:19] Anna: What advice would you give to people listening who might aspire to create change, but don't know where to begin?

[00:49:25] Asha: I think to create change you first, instead of looking outside there, first, you have to look within first, you know, why do you want to create change? Who are you and what are you showing up in the world as, what is something that you are passionate about? What is something that you can't get off your mind, that you wake up thinking about it, you go to sleep thinking about what is something that you feel is driving you, you know? And maybe not everyone wants to make change or change the world. That's okay. But find something that you're passionate about and that will lead you on all sorts of interesting and incredible paths. But I think to create change it's it starts with ourselves. You know, maybe it's finding a local organization you can join and learn more about, maybe it's reading a book about an activist you really admire and figuring out how they did it. Maybe it's attending a webinar or there's so many resources that you can find to help equip you on your journey to creating a change. 

So, yeah, I think just take those small steps, everyday steps. Don't overwhelm yourself, you know, Oprah didn't wake up as the billionaire. She started out, as a local radio host at a time when Black women were not heard on the radio. And so it just really takes, you know, you will find barriers, but that's okay. I think it's, that's, that's why it's important to do the work internally first, when you come up against those barriers, but you know, this is what you're meant to do, how do you rise to the occasion? How do you pivot? How do you go around that barrier? I'll find a way through it.

[00:50:50] Anna: Just take that first step. 

[00:50:52] Asha: Yeah. 

[00:50:52] Anna: If people take one thing away from this conversation today, what would you want it to be?

[00:50:57] Asha: That you matter, your story matters. I mean, I could say more, but I think that really is the heart of who I'm trying to become. You know, someone that understands that I matter. I tried to tell myself this mantra before I go to bed every night and when I wake up, doesn't always happen. But I always try to tell myself, like I am worthy and I am loved and I matter. And so I think anything else is just a bonus. As long as I know that. And I start with that. And that you listening out there know that, you can change the world and do whatever you want. And it's going to be a beautiful thing because you know your worth. 

[00:51:35] Anna: Wow, that's powerful. And speaking of powerful, I did want to end with the question that you asked a lot of the women in your book. So Asha, what makes you a powerful woman?

[00:51:49] Asha: Well, if you'd asked me a year ago, or even a few months ago, I would have said all these things, I've done all these things and I'm, I think I'm so great because blah, blah, blah. But I think what makes me a powerful woman is the recent realization that I need to know my own worth. And maybe that's not a cool quotable answer, but I think what makes me powerful is knowing my worth, knowing my value and starting from that place rather than finding it from someone else or in the world. 

[00:52:21] Anna: Being your true, authentic self. I think that that's absolutely. 

[00:52:25] Overdub: And now for: “Your Story”, the part where you are invited to reflect on this story as it relates to your own life - think about it, write about it, talk about it, and if you wish, share with the community. Whether or not you are listening in real-time, if you send in your thoughts, experiences, questions, and recommendations, they may be included in a future listener-led episode. Check out the link in the show notes, or revisit the Your Story episode, to learn more. Remember, no matter your story, you are not alone in your experience, and there is power in our collective realisation of this.

[00:53:07] Anna: All right. So as listeners come away from this hour with you, are there any questions that you want to put forth to them? 

[00:53:14] Asha: I always like to encourage people to think about who is the superhero in your life, that everyday superhero, and also what makes you heroic, you know, not comparing yourself to someone you see on screen or someone you read about on the internet or in a newspaper or in a book, think about all the things that you've done in your life and remind yourself like, oh my gosh, I did that. Yeah. I'm a bad ass. Like I am, I am my own hero. I did. I made that happen. Like how cool is that? I had that on a vision board one day and today I've done it. Like how cool was that? So yeah. Think about that. Who are the everyday superheroes in your life and what is something in your life that you've done that you're proud of and that you would define as super heroic? 

[00:53:57] Anna: And probably what makes you a powerful woman? 

[00:54:00] Asha: Yeah. Yeah. You know, maybe think about what makes you a powerful women, or what makes you a powerful person.

[00:54:07] Overdub: And now for: the “feminism gets a bad wrap because the narrative has been just a bit one-sided" corner.

[00:54:14] Anna: All right. And then for some rapid fire questions to wrap up, what does feminism mean to you?

[00:54:21] Asha: Equality, all equality. 

[00:54:23] Anna: What is one of your earliest feminist memories?

[00:54:28] Asha: I'm going to say. I mentioned at the beginning, growing up, looking at my mom's example of being enamored by these stories of heroic women in Indian art house cinema, wasn't Bollywood, it was just the independent Indian films. And I always used to be like, whatever, why is she watching that? But to me, that was early example of feminism and seeing my mom recognize the power in these women and what they'd overcome.

[00:54:52] Anna: And what is the story of woman to you?

[00:54:56] Asha: I think the story of woman is still unfolding. I think it's not a singular journey and we are all on it together. And we, each of us has the power to write parts of that journey. 

[00:55:08] Anna: So good. All right. A few more. What are you reading right now?

[00:55:15] Asha: Um, I'm reading Lemons in the Garden of Love. It's a book by Ames Sheldon. Her great, great aunt was the founder of the birth control movement in Massachusetts. She's an author and she had written this book that includes themes of birth control and reproductive rights and abortion. And at a time in Massachusetts decades and decades ago, but it's a fascinating book and a fascinating story because at the time birth control was very, very scandalous and illegal and considered this taboo topic. So yeah, Ames, Sheldon Lemons in the Garden of Love. 

[00:55:48] Anna: Do you have a favorite book? 

[00:55:50] Asha: No, I don't. I I'm, I'm a very, uh, it's so hard Um, I read so many books. I love reading, so I there's no way I could ever pick one unfortunately. Sorry, that's a bad answer.

[00:56:02] Anna: That's fine. That's fine. That's a tough question. Probably the hardest one this whole hour, right? 

Who should I make sure to have on the podcast? And it's okay to be aspirational.

[00:56:13] Asha: Oh my gosh. Um, Amanda Gorman, should get her. She's awesome. 

She used the poets. 

[00:56:21] Anna: Oh yes. I have her from the inauguration, I have that book on my bookshelf and I have read it multiple times since then and it is just... 

[00:56:30] Asha: she's phenomenal. Well side note and kind of fun fact. I used to substitute teach at a school in Santa Monica here in Los Angeles where she and her younger sister Gabrielle both went. So I substitute taught her and her sister at one point. Um, 

[00:56:45] Anna: So you can take a little bit of the credit for...

[00:56:48] Asha: I mean, no, I wish this school 

[00:56:51] Anna: You taught her English?

[00:56:53] Asha: Well, I didn't definitely didn't teach. I was just kind of like stood in and like, here's yet, this is what your teacher left you. And, but it was such a great school and they're all very artistic and intelligent and kind students, and then seeing her do her poetry throughout the years and then seeing her on the side, it's like, whoa, that's incredible. So she's yeah. I recommend everyone read her book. 

[00:57:15] Anna: Yeah, same. Uh, what are you working on now?

[00:57:19] Asha: Yeah. I'm working on a short documentary, it is about three women who are sharing their later abortion stories , the title is going to be changing, so it's still a work in progress, but really, really important and beautiful stories, heartbreaking stories as well. And then I'm also in development on a docu-series with a UK production company called The Format Factory. We are developing a four-part series looking at global abortion laws and really focusing in on the push to decriminalize abortion in a lot of countries, the way Argentina did the way Ireland did, we're seeing a push for that in Poland right now, in Mexico.

And we're seeing steps backward here in the U S so it's a fascinating landscape and, stay tuned for that. It's called Life at All Costs the working title. So that also may change, but we are much further along in the process then the short documentary. So yeah, reproductive rights is definitely a huge theme in my work right now. 

[00:58:13] Anna: And where can we find you so that we can follow along when these are released?

[00:58:19] Asha: Yeah. Well, you can visit my website, ashadahya.com. You can check out my book, todayswonderwomenbook.com and check out all things on my blog, girlTalkHQ.com 

[00:58:31] Anna: And again, this will all be in the show notes afterwards. So... 

[00:58:34] Asha: Yay. 

[00:58:35] Anna: Thank you so much. As the quote goes, I've got to end with this "here's to strong women. May we know them? May we be them and maybe raise them." Thank you so much for being here today Asha it was so great to talk to you.

[00:58:49] Asha: Thank you for having me, Anna. This is wonderful. 

[00:58:51] Overdub: “And now, please enjoy a few more responses from the book to Asha’s question, ‘What makes you a powerful woman?’….

Dannielle Owens-Reid: "Being a powerful woman to me was about dropping every single expectation I was taught about who I need to be. I feel like I grew up understanding I just had to be less powerful. As soon as I knew my gender was up to me and my career was up to me and my partner was up to me, that’s when I felt powerful. I saw what society gave me and said, “No thanks! I’ll be doing this my own way!"

Gloria Feldt: "I don’t always feel powerful. Sometimes I feel vulnerable and frustrated. I try to channel my feelings into my artwork and my exhibitions. A large part of my work is confronting social norms that have held women back. It takes a lot of confidence and energy to rally behind issues that can often be controversial. At the end of the day, you have to trust your instincts, and follow the path that you know to be true. I think that is where we can all find our inner power."

Ana Flores: "Real power comes from choosing which thoughts to pay attention to and trusting our intuition, not the images others create about and for us. I choose every day to trust my chosen path and be guided by my intuition. And that makes me feel powerful."

And Sara Cunningham: "Hope in humanity. Seeking it out like my hair is on fire.”

Thanks you for listening. The Story of Woman is a one-woman operation, with voiceovers done by Jenny Sudborough. 

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Asha Dahya
Asha Dahya
Author of Today's Wonder Women