Marisa Porges, WHAT GIRLS NEED

Marisa Porges, WHAT GIRLS NEED

Zibby Owens: Dr. Marisa Porges is known for her work on gender and education, leadership, and national security and is the author of What Girls Need: How to Raise Bold, Courageous, and Resilient Women. She is currently the eighth head of school of The Baldwin School, a 130-year-old all-girls school outside of Philadelphia that’s renowned for academic excellence and preparing girls to be leaders and changemakers. By the way, Dr. Porges actually went there. Prior to joining Baldwin, Dr. Porges was a leading counterterrorism and national security expert. Most recently, she served in the Obama White House as a senior policy advisor and White House Fellow at the National Economic Council. She also has served as a research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and at the Council on Foreign Relations. She also worked as a counterterrorism policy advisor in the US Department of Treasury and as a foreign affairs advisor in the US Department of Defense. In all these roles, she stood out as one of a few, if not the only, women present, at any given time. Dr. Porges started her career on active duty in the US Navy flying jets off carriers as a naval flight officer. She earned a BA in geophysics from Harvard, an MSc from the London School of Economics, and a PhD in war studies from King’s College London. She’s won a million awards. She currently lives in Philadelphia with her family.

Welcome, Dr. Porges. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Dr. Marisa Porges: Thank you for having me, Zibby. Great to be here.

Zibby: What Girls Need, this is the ultimate question.

Marisa: I think it’s on all our minds, right? All the time.

Zibby: All the time. What do I even need? I don’t know.

Marisa: That’s where it starts. It starts from thinking what I wish I had, what I wish my friends and I, when we think about the real world. We want to give it to the next generation, our girls, our daughters, our kids.

Zibby: Totally. Your career has been so interesting. I can’t believe you were a naval pilot. You were, I don’t even how to say it, naval air force pilot. You were in the White House. Now you’re running a school. You’re just the most badass person I feel like I’ve ever interviewed. It’s so cool.

Marisa: Thank you. I’ll take badass. I hope we all realize how badass we are because we all have our badass moments. I did have a choose-my-own adventure of a career, so there’s that too.

Zibby: It was so great in the book how you just sprinkled it all the way through. Now you’re in the cockpit. You were banging on the fuel gauge. You relate this somehow to the board games that I should be buying for my daughter in my completely boring standard life. Thank you for distilling your experience down to help other people there.

Marisa: Oh, my god, I think we all have these fun stories. We need to think about it in new ways. It was fun in the book to be able to share of some them with readers.

Zibby: Before I go into some of the tips and advice and everything, what do you think it was about your upbringing that got you to this place? What did your parents do right? What led you to accomplish all of this stuff, do you think? Do you think it started with your upbringing, or not?

Marisa: One hundred percent. I think this is part of the lesson that I realized recently, to be honest. I think it came to finally the aha moment when I was here running a school. I run an all-girls school now. It’s actually the school that I grew up at. I went here. Part of it was coming back and then seeing through a new lens as to what young girls can be given and what we need to do from an early age to really help them realize their badass self. I do think it happens young. I think it was that moment where my dad helped me brush my knees off or whatever it was when I fell on the playing field and said, no, go back out. Do it again. Compete. Be healthy. Enjoy competing. The idea that I wanted to fly for the navy when I was a kid, I think it belies our age, it was Top Gun. For those who grew up watching Top Gun, that moment, I wanted to be Maverick. That was my thing. It was an era when the rules still hadn’t been changed and women couldn’t even fly in combat. That wasn’t mentioned. It was just, okay, go for it. Why not? It turned out I was too short for the cockpit, so I had to be Goose, not Maverick. There is that. We figure out a way. This is what I’ve been encouraged to do. It is part of who I am. I see it now in little ways for young girls, particularly elementary-school girls, those moments where we say, no, you can do this. We want them to puff up their chest and say, I got this. I say there’s one picture that was on the wall of our school where a girl drew a picture of herself and said, no one will say no. You think, oh, my goodness, her poor parents when she’s a teenager particularly. I wish I was thinking no one’s going to say no when I was an adult all the time. I’ve had my moments where I didn’t go for that job. I didn’t go for that moment. I could just go on and on about how I think we need to start this early for our kids.

Zibby: It’s so important. It’s so smart to give the parents the tools now to make sure it all happens. Just one last question on your bio, how did you end up back at your school after the way your career was going? What made you come back to Baldwin?

Marisa: I know, that’s the crazy one. I had the good fortune of when I was in the White House, I got a phone call one day, literally. I was working the West Wing. They rang up. I thought they were going to ask for advice or for money. There’s that. But no, it was the head had just retired. They wanted to see if I was interested in leading the community that had given me so much. I threw my hat in the ring, again, because I’d been taught to be a healthy competitor. Had no actual thought that they would take me. Look, crazy thing is I’m now leading the school through a pandemic, so there’s that. I think it’s just a lesson to go for it. It’s a lesson that we all need to remind ourselves and remind our friends. I say this to my girlfriends all the time. Just go for it. It doesn’t matter how crazy it is. The things out of left field are sometimes those opportunities that take you in directions you would never imagine and are the most fun and impactful. It’s totally that lesson of life for me.

Zibby: This is the corollary. This is the just say yes.

Marisa: Yes, exactly. Just say yes.

Zibby: One of the principles that I really responded to in your book is talking about how to make sure our daughters have a voice. How do they build that voice and hone that voice? I feel like I could’ve used this when I was growing up. I was so shy. This was really hard for me. The situations when you’re in the White House and Obama’s sitting there and you regret not speaking up, I was in far less tense situations and felt like I couldn’t talk in work meetings and all the rest. You had so much great advice for girls. How can we help them? Tell us a few basics of how to start. Then I love so many of your specific advice, like even ordering takeout. Let’s start from the broad and go down to more of the specific.

Marisa: The broad is recognizing that these are skills that I still struggle with sometimes. I have to remind myself to speak up in a meeting because it maybe feels too natural to just wait for the perfect moment. There’s never a perfect moment. Any women out there know that a man isn’t going to wait for the perfect moment. They’re just going to talk. We need to as well. We want our girls to remember that and practice it. It’s about finding ways in little, everyday ways to encourage our girl’s voice and reinforce that her voice matters in an age-appropriate way. It’s not about speaking out inappropriately, but saying, no, we want to hear from you. You’re at the dinner table, making sure your daughter’s speaking out when your son maybe is dominating the conversation. Even if it’s an adult conversation, what does she think? Asking her to be involved. This idea that when you’re ordering food — this is a lesson I took from one of our students. She remembers when she was a kid, that her father used to make her order pizza when they called, a reason not to use the app on your smartphone. Not her brother, but she would have to make the order because she didn’t like doing it. It felt totally uncomfortable. Yet then she got older and she said, “It’s not my favorite thing. I’m still an introvert, but I do it. I can do it. I know I can do it.” These are the safe little ways that we just teach our girls to practice that muscle memory of speaking so when they have their aha moment for their career or just that time when they want to tell their boss, “Excuse me,” what they need, they feel empowered to do so.

Zibby: It starts with Chinese food, apparently.

Marisa: Apparently, Chinese food or pizza or whatever, Thai. Take your pick.

Zibby: Take your pick. Also, how you suggest inviting debate, that you should always debate every side and open it up for conversation and say, should TikTok be allowed? Let’s talk about it.

Marisa: These are funny things. Again, it’s not every day. I think sometimes we make it about, it has to be all this, and so parenting becomes overwhelming. Finding a natural moment where you don’t cut the debate off, but where you encourage her to keep going. Frankly, it’s a helpful way to fill time in the car when you’re driving home from the game or something and it feels endless. It’s also just a moment to help your daughter, again, realize that you care, that you want her to practice her voice, that it matters to you, the number-one role model in her life. She’s going to say, I’m going to do it other places as well.

Zibby: Even when you were like, don’t ask how was science today? that you should say, what did you say in science class? How did you handle that? What questions did you ask? These are such great specific tips that are not so hard to implement.

Marisa: Again, it’s little tweaks. The little things make a really big difference. Hopefully, it helps make parenting easier. One thing that I came upon as well is this idea of helping your daughter practice her ask, this idea that you want her to ask. If you practice this in negotiating, the next time she asks for something, anything, even if you decided what your answer is going to be — yes, I’m going to let you have an overnight sleepover; yes, we’re going to go to the amusement park; yes, you’re going to get the thing that you’ve been asking for for ages — say, huh, go back and make a pitch. Give me three reasons why. Come back in thirty minutes. Come back in an hour. Make her practice the art of asking. Then again, regardless, you don’t have to change your mind. The answer could still be no if that had been your parenting decision to start. Maybe you say, well, the answer’s no this time. Here’s what worked and here’s what didn’t when you pitched.

Give her the little bit of feedback. I really liked when you did this. You used your emotion well. God, that PowerPoint was great. I had one kid who actually — a girl at my school showed me the pitch deck. She and her friend used to make PowerPoint decks. This is how clearly her parents helped her spend her time to give her something to do, make PowerPoint slideshows when they wanted a sleepover on a weeknight. She showed me pictures of the cupcakes they wanted to make and the movies they wanted to watch and the tent they wanted to build in the living room. I don’t know if they got their Thursday-night sleepover, but they just loved the process. Candidly, it made them better at this idea of the ask. They had actually come to my office to ask me, the head of the school, for something that everyone else had said no to. I said no as well, but I reinforced that the asking was good. It’s what we want to see from our kids and our girls especially.

Zibby: My daughter did something similar with three friends at her day camp because she was aging out and they wanted them to extend it. The girls all got together. They put together this whole presentation and pitched it to the head of the camp. They extended it for the summer.

Marisa: That’s fantastic. What a fabulous lesson to her because in that instance it went well. She got this positive reinforcement. I hope that you remind her of that. When we get off our call today, say, hey, by the way, I was really proud of you for that. That was super cool. Do that more often.

Zibby: Totally. I should bring that back up.

Marisa: Sounds like she’s great at it already.

Zibby: I remember as a kid my curfew was so much lower than everybody else’s. I went around and I called every parent and asked what the curfew was. I made a whole spreadsheet. I didn’t have Excel, of course, back then. It was like, kid’s name, mom’s name, phone number, curfew. I was like, look at this data. Mine is earlier. It’s not safe. I will be having to get home by myself. And so she raised it.

Marisa: Wow, look at that, analytics from an early age. That’s on your life resume 101.

Zibby: It’s true. I’ve kind of forgot about it until now.

Marisa: This is the art of persuasion. It is such an important skill and something that statistically women aren’t as effective at. It’s not the reason why there’s still a pay gap, but it plays into the nature of how pay gaps continue as well as other things that I think we all continue to see out there. Whatever we can do for the next generation so they don’t face these same challenges.

Zibby: You even pointed out how men have such a higher rate of interrupting women and how there was that one example in the boardroom where people got up and spoke. Maybe it was at Google. Was it at Google? You tell the story.

Marisa: There’s countless examples. It’s funny. When I was looking for stories to include in the book, there’s some places where you could see a hundred examples of men interrupting women in work, in public. The most crazy example was they’ve actually done a study at the supreme court. The female supreme court justices get interrupted more often than male supreme court justices. You think the pinnacle of our judiciary system, and the women are still getting interrupted more often. They’ve done studies, actually, in schools and in co-ed environments. I have the good fortune of leading a girls’ school now. In co-ed environments, boys speak out and interrupt girls more often than the reverse. You take that same young girl and you put her in a single-sex environment, a single-sex play group, and she will speak out and speak up as often as the little boy did when they were in class together. We need to counter that. It’s a social norm. We know our girls want to speak out and speak up. We just need to help them practice it.

Zibby: You also talk a lot about fostering the competitive spirit and how sports play a big role for girls especially because at least they get that experience on the field. You give all these examples of leaders like Meg Whitman and others who are all — she was playing lacrosse and squash at Princeton, which I didn’t even know. Tell me about how fostering that love of sports can really help our girls too.

Marisa: Being competitive is something that in particular right now I think a lot of parents shy away from. We think of competitiveness as a bad thing and it’s a maladaptive behavior. Unfortunately for our girls, a lot of times they read that as, I can’t compete even the things I want to be good at because I don’t want to put my friends down. It’s going to be embarrassing if I win, not if I lose, but if I win. It’s not just on the sports field. It could be the spelling bee or the poetry contest or other places too. Any man or women, father or mother would say, you got to be competitive in the real world. It’s the, go for that job. It’s the, go for the apartment. It’s the, go for whatever it is you want. Takes a little bit of competitive spirit. Every study shows that competitiveness makes you perform better personally. You run faster when you’re running against somebody just by the nature of the adrenaline that gets going. We want to find moments to help reinforce this with our girls. Sports are an easy one because they’re widely available for girls and for boys.

Yet by middle school, most girls opt out of competitive sports. There’s peer pressure and social norms at play. A lot of times, they just give up on it. Whether or not they were going to be the Olympic athlete is just something that goes by the wayside. This is where I’d say, do we let our boys opt out as easily? I remember one mom on the sideline of a sporting event here at school. She says, “We tried four sports for my son until he stuck with swimming. We kept going because we knew it had to be part of his day. For our daughter, we let her opt out. Sure. She wants to do something else. She’s more artsy than not.” I would challenge that mom to say, well, it’s not about whether she’s going to play sports in college or go to the Olympics. It’s about helping her practice being part of a team, being resilient, and being competitive. Or try the poetry contest at the library, the spelling bee at school, any moment where you have to throw your hat in the ring, be judged against your peers, practice winning and losing, and just realize that being your personal best is a good thing even if it’s in a competition.

Zibby: It’s so true. Thank you, by the way, in the book you gave all these boardgame examples for little kids. I was reading the book and I had Amazon open in another browser because I read your book online. It was like, Diplomacy, Catan Junior. What can I get to help my kids? Never too late.

Marisa: Right. There’s little easy ways that we can just naturally — it doesn’t have to be this grandiose thing that makes parenting so much more difficult. It’s just about thinking a little bit differently about what games, what books we have them read, what the daily interaction around the dinner table is like, and just small things we can do to reinforce these key skills for our kids, our girls.

Zibby: I really loved that you said use the things that come naturally to girls as their competitive advantage. Don’t try to make girls have, necessarily, the same skills and then be better at them. Go with what they have that’s great and really blast those things out.

Marisa: We get challenged when we think about how to prepare our girls. You’re try to make them like boys. We’re like, no, no, no, I’m trying to help them own their personal best self. It’s about being your personal best, being competitive in whatever it is that she wants to do and she’s eager to engage in. It’s also about the fact that so many of the skills that come naturally is a generalization, but studies show to our girls are really the advantage that will set them apart when they’re adults in work and at home, this idea that they naturally empathize more readily. Empathy is something that places higher for now. This is what employers want in their work environments, that we communicate, our girls communicate in really helpful, natural ways that build consensus, that solve problems. These are things that are their advantage. We just want to reinforce them so that they really own their best girl self just as young women as adults.

Zibby: There are obviously so many things. Right before I did this, I was talking to a friend of my husband’s who just had a little girl. She’s two years old. He was like, “I need some parenting advice podcasts.” I was like, “Fantastic, I’ll send you this one.” He’s like, “I live with three women and this little girl. What do girls need?” If there was a summary of the most important things for a new parent, dad or mom, to know what they should do a hundred percent, what would that takeaway piece be?

Marisa: It’s about finding little moments to reinforce her voice and helping her speak out because I think that’s where it starts. I think it’s about finding role models. It doesn’t have to be whoever the VP nomination’s going to be, that level role model. It’s the daily role models. It’s her mother role modeling. It’s the aunt. It’s an athlete you see in social media that you’re like, oh, just look. Use those as daily reminders of how we want our girls to own themselves. Always pause and remember to share lessons of our own challenges, failures, foibles, not in the least because studies show that those lessons get reinforced better, they get remembered more often by those listening. These are the times where our girls think, wow, this is what the real world’s going to be. What am I going to be like when I’m older? They sop it up. Particularly our young women, they have ears for miles. They hear everything we’re saying. Now when we’re navigating virtual school for a lot of us, there’s more and more of those moments where they’re hearing and seeing us navigate really challenging times. It’s a perfect opportunity to just be honest with them and say, hey, this is how I’m figure it out. It’s not going so well because… Again, age-appreciate ways. It’ll look different for an elementary school girl, someone in middle or upper school or high school. Just sharing with them how we’re navigating these moments so that we help them do better than we do. That’s the key. That’s the ticket, I hope.

Zibby: How are you navigating this moment? It’s so funny. I’m sitting here talking to you. Usually, on this computer I’m Zooming with all the different headmasters of my kids’ three different schools. It’s the lower school and the middle school and all these different schools because everybody’s back-to-school planning. How can we handle this? How are you getting through this? Do you have to listen to your own internal voice for your school? Are you trying to aggregate consensus? What are the skills you’re using? How are you making up your mind, essentially?

Marisa: It’s a crazy thing. It’s interesting. I was frantically setting up the system for the podcast today. You’ll see I’m no longer in my office. We relocated around campus in order to social distance and spread out all our girls, and so I no longer have an office, interestingly. I’m here in the office next to our gymnasium making sure I can talk to you this morning. It’s hard. It’s hard for all of us. One thing I remind all of our parents, anyone listening, is go easy on your teachers and your kids’ school leaders because we’re all just trying to do our best and make this is safe as possible for our students, our families, and our teachers even as we realize that in-person learning is ideal. It’s where those connections get made between the girls and their friends, the girls and their teachers, and where so much of the learning happens, even as we were fortunate to really have great success with our online virtual program in the spring. I’m sure like your kids, we all went virtual from mid-March. That was that. Like a lot of our peers, you’re really leaning into the data trying to figure out, what are public health officials saying? What metrics can we use? What tools? Can we use masks, social distancing, hand washing to help protect our kids?

Then how do we deliver not just the core academic program, but those other things, those other moments that our kids really need, particularly our girls, to socially/emotionally thrive? We need them to get through this next year. It’s not going to be forever. We need to remember that. We’ll be able to help them catch up. We have the good fortunate here of being able to support a wide diversity of students and families with tools to help them get through the year academically. We also need to find moments that they can connect with each other, that they build those relationship skills that are so important, particularly in adolescence, so that they understand how to be compassionate and empathize and connect with others. For parents to remember that so that even as we’re building the school program of what the day looks like, remote or in person, we’re also finding these touchpoints to reinforce the social/emotional ways of being in relationship, skills that our girls in particular really need at this age to be able to navigate not just the year ahead, but the rest of their lives.

Zibby: It’s so true, oh, my gosh. I feel like my daughter is mostly concerned about lunch. Lunch was her one time to let her hair down and hang out with her friends. Now that is being predetermined who she’s going to have lunch with. Anyway, whatever. I have so much respect for school leaders through this whole process because this cannot be easy, especially dealing with the personality types of all the parents too who have such strong opinions. Hats off to you.

Marisa: Of course, because it’s the most important thing we have. It’s our kids. Candidly, our teachers feel the same way. It’s the students. This is what we do. For that moment, if she’s not going to be able to sit next to her friend in class because we’re doing assigned seating maybe in order to make sure that we can navigate the whole reality, and yet, here’s a perfect lesson in teaching her adaptability. Lean into the change. It’s not forever. It’s just a moment. She’ll have to navigate it. Then also to build in rewards, build in other moments. She can’t have lunch with her friends, maybe. Perhaps this is the time to say, on Saturday afternoons we’re going to have socially distanced picnics with three of her friends at the park outside or over Skype or FaceTime or whatever the natural technological way is that isn’t about school, but is about connecting and is not social media. I think sometimes, a lot of times, our kids rely on social media. That’s not the natural way to connect and build relationships. There is something to be said for real-time interactions like we’re having right now. It’s going to be a strange reality for us all. The more and more we get kids used to that and helping them realize it’s just not forever but it’s for now and it’s what we need to do to keep each other safe and healthy and the community side of that — one thing we’re doing at our school is we’re having all our girls pick at least one person or maybe a few that they’re doing this for. They’re actually going to write down and sign a community compact that says, I am doing this, I’m taking precautions, I’m wearing masks for…their favorite teacher, their grandparent, their mother, their friend who is immunocompromised or otherwise has health concerns. At the end of the day, that’s what we need to do to get through this all.

Zibby: That’s good advice. That’s really nice. I love that, and even what you were saying about sports. We’re not even having sports. Anyway, not to keep talking about mine.

Marisa: We’re not there yet, but it’s a conversation. It’s something that all the school heads are talking about on a regular basis, about what it looks like. We’ve delayed our sports season at the moment. We’re figuring out, what does it look like to have safe sports? We’re seeing what’s happening in Major League Baseball and the NCAA. You think, what does that look like for volleyball for our girls? It’s hard. At the end of the day, safety is paramount. They can train. They can go for runs and get outside. It’s going to be a tough year in that way. We’ve actually built in recess for the day for middle school. It’s an age where they left recess behind. Now suddenly they need to let the energy out and go socially distance, it’s crazy to say, but be outside and run around.

Zibby: Just tell me for two seconds about writing this book. How long did it take to write? When did you decide you were going to write this book? Did you have the whole outline? How did you approach it? When did you do it? All of that good stuff.

Marisa: Zibby, that’s going to be, maybe, more crazy. I don’t know. This may reveal my crazy. I’m just going to warn you. Two years ago about, a little over two years ago, the idea all came together. I teach a leadership class for the seniors at the school. In all the conversations, I started telling stories, some of the stories that are in the book, about my time in Afghanistan, my time interviewing Al Qaeda in Yemen, my time flying for the military. It’s oftentimes lessons of failure that I had in those moments that I was sharing with the girls as they were thinking about, what is life going to be like in the real world? and what skills they need. Then over dinner with a friend, a parent at the school, this idea came together. I had the good fortunate of having a publisher interested right away. I wrote the book. Candidly, there’s the deadline that forced me — I’m a deadline-driven person. For those listening, deadlines help. I had my first child not quite a year ago.

Zibby: Congratulations.

Marisa: There was an impetus of, let’s get it done before the other baby, the book baby finished before the baby-baby arrives. I had the good fortunate of having a very supportive partner. Another lesson for all our girls is having a partner who builds in time and allows you to do that. He was the one who would take the baby and say, “Go write your book at the coffee shop for the morning so we can get it done.” I had the good fortunate of a supportive community. It was something that I was inspired to do.

Zibby: Wow. I don’t think that’s too crazy.

Marisa: Okay, good. Then I won’t share that there was some writing going on in labor delivery.

Zibby: No! Okay, that might waver into crazy territory.

Marisa: I know, but it was extended. I brought my laptop. I just wanted to get it done. That was the moment of pure crazy. Again, it was the deadline. It was the fear of what happens when the baby arrives. It’s also a good lesson of it doesn’t have to be perfect to be good enough. I think moms everywhere need to remember that sometimes, particularly now. A B+ will do often. Then I had good time to edit and things like that. Sometimes we just need to let it go and move on.

Zibby: That’s good advice. Do you have any other parting advice, having written this book, to aspiring authors and also to parents with young girls? You basically already did that, so let’s just say to aspiring authors.

Marisa: This is one that other people have taught me and I’m still working on. It’s the sharing of your stories. Despite me just oversharing about labor and delivery, I’m a very personal person who keeps my stories close to my vest. Lessons of failure, it’s taken a long time for me to share the things that I write about in the book of my transition out of the navy and how that, for me, was something that felt like a failure that I had to grow to accept over time. These other personal stories both are what audiences want to hear, it’s what my students want to hear. I think it’s what makes interactions like this, Zibby, like your stories about your own girls and how we’re sharing that, it’s what makes it most fun. For any writer out there, for me, that was what helped me turn the corner, was when I really got comfortable sharing my personal story and feeding that into the narrative.

Zibby: Awesome. Time is up. We got the phone ringing. You’re onto your next.

Marisa: I know, exactly. Interrupted by reality, which is the way it is these days.

Zibby: Good luck. I don’t envy you having to lead your school through this in this time. They are so lucky to have you. If you ever want to come to New York… No, I’m kidding. I love my headmasters.

Marisa: Philly’s waiting for you, Zibby.

Zibby: Okay, that’s true.

Marisa: It’s a crazy time. I look forward to hearing how your kids do. We all got to get through this together. There’s that.

Zibby: Yes, all get through it together. Thank you for all the tips that I’m going to implement right away. Thank you.

Marisa: If you need more, there’s actually on my website,, there’s resources, reading lists for parents with girls in mind, so other things that we help each other with.

Zibby: Perfect, more for me to do. No, I’m kidding.

Marisa: It’s the distraction.

Zibby: Totally, I need it. Thank you.

Marisa: Great to talk, Zibby. Thank you so much.

Zibby: Great to talk to you. Buh-bye.

Marisa Porges, WHAT GIRLS NEED