My favorite aphorism might be "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime". It's a useful idea to incorporate into your life philosophy, both for yourself and others. It's nice to offer help to someone with a problem that you can solve, but far better to teach them how to do it.* On the flip side, when there's something you don't know how to do, I encourage you to find someone who will both help you solve the problem and teach you how to solve it for yourself in the future.

This is especially important and undervalued for women and girls. Guys often go out of their way to help women solve problems. This is a nice gesture—who doesn't like it when someone offers to change your tire for you or build that flat box IKEA shelf?—but over time it's pernicious. In the long run, it can breed helplessness. Women tend to have a lot of little annoyances resolved for them, and by not having to find solutions to these problems themselves they don’t get to exercise that muscle.

There are lots of micro challenges in day-to-day life that, when overcome, build confidence that you can solve problems. They also build intuition for how to think about how to approach problems. Each individual experience doesn't give critical insight into future problems that one might come across, but over time they build instincts that are important. I suspect this plays a role in the relative scarcity in numbers of women in engineering. (Are you aware of any research on this subject? I’m speaking from anecdotal expereince and deduction here and would love to learn more on the topic.)

Imagine a group of friends is setting up a movie on a projector, and there's some trouble getting it to work. Who gets up to fix it? In my experience, it's almost always a guy in the group, even if the women are capable of solving the problem. I don’t mean to say that this is sexist—the guy is doing a nice favor, and if anything it's a sign of respect so the others don't have to get up. However, this is a prime opportunity to build up experiences tackling problems. When someone gets up to fix the projector and realizes that it’s just the input source (and it’s always just the input source…), that person will feel that much more confident that they’ll be able to get to the bottom of the issue next time that (s)he runs into a problem. Plus, it may help the person to start building a mental model of the user interface or electronics, which they can then bring to the next technical problem they run into. Note that this is on the girls as much as the guys. It's totally within their power to offer to fix it!

What I like about this mindset is that it's optimistic and actionable, for both women and people who want to support them. For women, when you run into a problem that you don't know how to solve, first try to figure it out yourself. You're likely to receive help when you ask for it, but don't let that tempt you! Try to push through on your own as long as possible. And if you do need help, which all of us do at some point, don't let the person just resolve the problem—ask them how it's done.

Feminist allies are always asking about ways they can help, and it makes me sad that most of the suggestions they get are useless, costly, condescending, or just come from a bitter place. "Teach a girl to fish" is none of these things:
  • It's helpful, in that the woman will walk away with real skills and confidence afterwards
  • It doesn't take much more time than just doing the thing yourself, and it might even save time down the road because now she can solve it herself
  • It's empowering to the person you've taught, whereas some suggested solutions to gender imbalances condescendingly make it artificially easier for her (which has a host of other consequences that I won't get into here…)
  • The suggestion doesn't imply that you're a bad or sexist person, just that a small behavior change could be helpful

It's also fun to teach people, and it can help you get better at the thing yourself! It's a win-win.

Note: We should teach men to fish, too. But we tend to do that more often anyways, so that's not the focus on this post. :)

* Obviously this is not a pure rule to apply across your entire life. If your taxes are really complicated, it probably isn't worth it to spend months working through the tax code to understand every nook and cranny of what you owe. If you've been charged with a crime, you should probably not try to defend yourself in court but instead get a defense lawyer. Heck, it might even make sense to buy pre-chopped vegetables if you have a tendency to cut yourself by accident when cooking with sharp knives. (Not that I’m speaking from experience or anything…) Specialization is real and valuable, and I don't mean to undercut that. My point is that we should not create a mindset of helplessness in ourselves, but rather build confidence that we can figure things out if we have to. This does not mean you have to reinvent the wheel.