Guest Post: Neylan McBaine on Statistics and Women’s Stories

On December 4th, the David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies at BYU, in partnership with The WomanStats Project, the largest compilation of data on the global condition of women, sponsored #WeForShe. The event was designed to educate students on the on the 12 “critical areas of concern” in the Beijing Platform for Action, a year-long campaign aimed at raising awareness of an upcoming UN conference in which BYU will participate. Hundreds of students toured informational booths focused on the 12 areas and made pledges to support the global empowerment of women. Neylan McBaine was one of the invited speakers who participated in the evening’s program. We are pleased to publish her remarks here.

It’s an honor for me to be with you here tonight. I deeply admire the work that the WomanStats team and the Kennedy Center at large are doing to increase our awareness of the global condition of women and what we can do to alleviate the pain points. One of the project’s founders, Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, is one of my family’s oldest friends and a personal hero of mine. I have spent most of my efforts over the past five years studying and reporting on the condition of women within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, first by starting my own non-profit called the Mormon Women Project and most recently by writing my book Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact. But it has been impossible for me to study LDS women – their motivations, their choices, their expressions of authority and voice – and not expand that exploration into the condition of women outside of that particular community.

I’d like to talk tonight about storytelling. This may seem to be the antithesis of the rich data we’ve all just consumed at the informational booths this evening. I collected a number of handouts with infographics and charts about women and agriculture, women in the media, women and armed conflicts, etc. These are important and profound numbers, but by the end of my comments I hope that each one of you will consider that it is only through a pairing of data and stories that we can truly internalize the information we seek to understand.

When I started the Mormon Women Project in 2010, I simply wanted to tell the stories of women I admired. It seemed like such a simple thing – it still does. After all, storytelling is an instinctual, innate characteristic of human cognition. It’s how we package our experiences to be delivered to and processed by those we want to connect with. We’ve told stories from our earliest recorded history. Everyone tells stories, either in a tweet or a private journal or when we describe our day to a friend. But since I first launched the Mormon Women Project with a small collection of stories, I have developed a deep conviction that telling stories has a much more profound impact than I could have imagined.

For our purposes here tonight, let me focus on the effect stories have on us and how we can use that effect to aid the cause of global female empowerment. First of all, let me take you to the Sunday night television lineup. Because at the root of all media is an effort to tell a story, and what that media represents impacts the way we craft our own stories. So when I watch Madam Secretary and The Good Wife back to back on Sunday night or whenever I can manage to call up my DVR during the week, I experience a scientifically proven stimulation of neurotransmitters that fuels my curiosity to know what comes next. More importantly, my mind turns the media portrayal back onto myself. At the heart of the power of story lies perhaps the mind’s greatest trick of all: Not only can we feel our own pain and joy, but we can feel someone else’s. We are so familiar with this fundamental human ability that we rarely stop to reflect on how unique, and I would say, divine, it is. Despite reason’s insistence that I will never be Secretary of State or a partner in a law firm, entering into those women’s story world prompts a physiological response that willingly suspends my disbelief and uniquely persuades me that I can take on those women’s characteristics. As Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide Chief Creative Officer Tham Khai Meng has said, “Information embedded in a story is less susceptible to challenge. We enter an altered state where our skepticism is defused. Belief is enabled by entry into this world.” I fully acknowledge going to work the next morning with more confidence in my step as a working mom after I have watched the female protagonists in those shows.

Discussions around women in media often focus on the importance of numerical representation, meaning the sheer number and visibility of women in the media we consume. This focus on volume of representation is crucial in part because it is so shockingly new. The history of the world up until recently has been told mostly through the representation of male voices, shaping our public culture so that our institutions, governments and codes of behavior default to male priorities and ways of interacting. We are currently in the process of digging ourselves out of a deep hole in the sheer volume of role models women today have to look to. Why are role models important? Because they act as a blue print upon which we can pattern our choices and life paths. As Marie Wilson of the White House Project said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” They are a flight simulator for our journeys through life. They are handbooks for how to react if we find ourselves in similar situations. Through representative models, we practice the role from the comfort of our armchairs. In spiritual terms, we might say that they allow us to create spiritually what we then can create later for ourselves physically.  Without this spiritual blueprint, women are most likely confined to repeat behavior they’ve seen patterned within their own accessible influences.

And so representation of women in media is crucial for simply righting the gendered balance of role models. But there is another crucial reason why we need more and stronger role models in media. Men and women today – in developing countries and even here in the United States – expect different levels of influence from themselves and from each other. Even when numerical representation is righted – in the media, in deliberative bodies, in governments and industry – we are stilled saddled with the unequal levels of authority that are expected and generated by men and women. In his new book, The Silent Sex, BYU political science professor Christopher Karpowitz and his coauthor Tali Mendelberg define “authority” as “the expectation of influence” and they prove through their studies that women claim and express less authority than men. In addition, “the types of considerations women tend to articulate, and how they articulate them, are valued less because they reflect ways of thinking and self-expression that have been socially constructed as less authoritative.” (page 26) Women’s devalued communication styles mean that even if we were to solve numerical representation in the governing bodies of our governments and institutions, we would still grapple with the lack of authority women perceive in themselves and men perceive in them.

Storytelling can help. A woman’s perception of her authority suffers when she sees herself as an outsider in an industry, a government, a classroom or even a family structure, and many women do see themselves as outsiders from a lack of representation. Sharing stories of women whose influence and voice are shared, valued and acted upon can create an expectation of influence in both men and women as normative behavior, rather than exceptional, outsider behavior.

Of course it is one thing for me to put on a cloak of authority after watching Madame Secretary or trying on Alicia Florick’s influential stance, but can storytelling also cloak me in empathy for a woman far removed from my own circumstance who has needs I will never know? Yes, and that is the miracle of storytelling. Just as I can take on myself a feeling of empowerment from Madame Secretary, I can, to can extent, also mirror back the persona and experiences of a woman with whom I appear to have even less in common than the Secretary of State. My body responds to the feelings she is having – of desperation, of sorrow, of striving – as if they are real for myself. I can become both emotionally and physiologically bound to that woman’s fate.

One of the things I love about the WomanStats project is that it values storytelling as an artifact of representation and authority in the way that I am advocating here. By engaging with the compilation of research, I have been directed to some rich and compelling sources of stories. The Afghan Women’s Writing Project, for example, is the source for some of the project’s information on the condition of Afghani women. Consider this story recently posted on the Afghan Women’s Writing Project site, dictated by a 40-year-old illiterate woman.

I can tell you my own story. When I was small and went to mosque with my brothers, my teacher said to my father that I had more intelligence than his sons. I wanted to go to school and become a doctor for my village because when I was young I saw my mother die in front of me. There was no female doctor to come during her baby’s delivery. My father would not allow a man to rescue her and operate.

I decided that day I would be a doctor. It was only a dream because when my mother died, my father married again. My stepmother did not like me so my father decided I should marry. Now I have one son and three daughters. I love my daughters. I stand in front of my husband and I tell him, “Do whatever you want, but I just want one thing from you. Let my daughters go to school and study.” Now my only wish is to see my daughter be a doctor.

In this single story, we respond emotionally to so many statistical factors that could just be numbers on a page: the number of illiterate women in Afghanistan, the number of women who die in childbirth, the degree of education among Afghani women. And yet, in this short story, those statistics come alive for those of us half way around the world. In a counterintuitive twist, it is through the individual example of this woman’s personal story that the fate of Afghani women is universalized, larger and more searing than any number on a page could represent.

And lest we think the impact of representative storytelling only awakens us to empathy for those distant from us, let me close with an excerpt of an interview we did for the Mormon Women Project with a woman right here in Utah. Stephanie Larsen came from four-generations of sex workers – from her great-great-grandmother down to her own mother. After describing this family history, we asked Stephanie how the cycle of sex trafficking was broken with her? What was different about her mom from the women before her that allowed Stephanie to escape the same fate? Stephanie responded:

I look at my grandma and great-grandma and have a hard time understanding why they exploited their own children. I know them really well because we’re all so close in age, and they are lovely women; they were so nurturing and loving to me, just like my mom is. But that wasn’t how they treated their own children. So I think about it and wonder, why the difference? And I’m not sure, but I think my mom’s spirit just came that way; she came ready to protect children at all costs. It is literally part of her. My mom just put her foot down and said, “I’ll never do that to children”–and she didn’t. I asked her once why she was different–I mean the stories I’ve heard are just incredibly nuts. The abuse! Her little brother was terribly abused, left for dead when he was seven. My mom cleaned him up and tried to take care of him. She’s just an incredible woman; she’s a nurturer. That’s what it is, that’s what she’s told me. She said, “I just knew how to have a mother’s love because my little brother was like my child. I loved him and tried to protect him.” So, before she had kids she just already had that maternal instinct–it’s fascinating. And she’s raised really successful kids, too! One of my brothers is a dentist, the other one owns a mechanics business, and I have a charity and am an activist, my little sister is a newlywed and just had my mom’s 11th grandbaby earlier this year. Her stats are just incredible–all this from a little street kid!

Incredible stats indeed, but it is only after Stephanie describes the spiritual nature of her mother’s ability to break the cycle that her story goes from being a statistic on a page to a universal story of redemption. And perhaps some woman, somewhere is reading the story of Stephanie and her mother and finding the blueprint, the authority, the voice and courage to stop violence in her own home.

If I have learned one thing over the past five years of collecting and sharing women’s stories, it is that everyone has a story to tell. It may not be about abuse or the inability to read or go to school, but that doesn’t mean the themes in each of our stories aren’t universal and universally important. Tell your story. Read other’s stories. Share stories. And let those stories move you to act.


  1. Perfection as always. I’m a fan of Geena Davis’ work at her Institute on Gender in Media, where there is great work being done to expose the statistics of gender inequality that pervade our everyday media consumption. I was pointing out the inequalities in children’s books, tv, and movies to my sister-in-law, and she made sure I knew not only did she not care about the skewed numbers but that she preferred them. Some women are so hesitant to throw their support behind any kind of gender inequality they are silent in the face of any of it, sadly.

    The power of stories is why I champion the inclusion of more women’s voices and stories in our curriculum and meetings. I loved at the Mormon Women’s History Initiative’s symposium this summer someone mentioned that written history is men’s history, and women’s history is oral history. So many women over millennia, and even today, haven’t had the education, access, or ability to record their stories. Thanks for all the work you do, Neylan.

  2. Great examples of why storytelling changes so many lives. Excellent.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for this.

  4. I love this, Neylan. If I have any conception of the power of heavenly father and mother, it’s that they have the ability to look through the data points of their bazillions of children and understand our individual stories.

  5. outstanding — I echo Kyle’s comment.

  6. John Mansfield says:

    “Information embedded in a story is less susceptible to challenge. We enter an altered state where our skepticism is defused. Belief is enabled by entry into this world.”

    That is a strategy to be used judiciously, the recent Rolling Stone and University of Virginia case being one where it was not. Even in more normal uses of personal narrative, we force the hand of those who disagree with us that if they disagree with us they are insulting our lives. That is in a sense what we also do in choosing to send out young, inexperienced missionaries whose message is principally their personal testimony of their church’s teachings.

  7. memoirmentor says:

    I printed out this article, read and marked it up, made my husband read it, and then sent a copy to Evernote. Enough said.

  8. There are pros and cons to the use of stories. As Neylan rightly points out, they give us an emotional connection that most people don’t get from statistics. However, they’re also subject to error, and even invention, and they can be poor foundations on which to build policy. It’s an old saw that “the plural of anecdote is not data.” (Perhaps the answer to that problem is to have less policy, as someone’s ox is almost always gored, but that’s a different post.) John Mansfield’s comment should be well-taken if we use stories to drive mass action or to make generalizations, as the examples he provides amply demonstrate.

    However, for us as individual followers of the Savior, with the divine commission to “bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; [y]ea, and . . . to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places,” personal narrative is almost everything. It is the way in which we see past groups and statistics and large numbers, and relate to each of our brothers and sisters as an individual. Not as a policy decision, not as a member of a class or type, but as a person precious in the eyes of God. It gets to the core of our individuality and interdependence as children of Heavenly Parents, and helps us see each other as They see us. That, after all, is pure religion and undefiled – to visit the widows and orphans in their affliction, an individual ministry of love in which we share and validate our – well, our stories.

  9. Ditto what New Iconoclast said. Stories and anecdotes are great for engendering empathy, emotion, persuasion, manipulation. But all too often, especially as used in scripture, The Ensign, General Conference, Sacrament Meeting: propaganda–not clear, unambiguous, truth.

    Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me for my first 21 years, shame on you.

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