This is a Marathon: Dr. Tessie San Martin on Leading for Girls

Editor’s Note: This interview in our Feminist Giving IRL series features Dr. Tessie San Martin, President & CEO, Plan International USA. Dr. San Martin’s career spans public and private sectors, international development, and academia. Here, she shares some insights on gender equality.

tessie san martin
Dr. Tessie Van Martin, President and CEO of Plan International, shares her thoughts on how to stay focused and energized for the global work of empowering girls. (Image Credit: Plan International)

What do you wish you had known when you started out in your profession?

At the risk of sounding smug, I can honestly say that I really have no regrets. That isn’t because I feel as if I always took the right path or made the right decision at the right time, but because I feel strongly that everything I have done has prepared me, in some way, for what I am doing now and contributed in some way – big or small – to what I have achieved with my career. 

As I look back at the long and winding road that brought me to where I am today, I don’t feel like I took wasteful detours. I am happily the sum of all the various parts. And I am the richer for it all. 

What is your current greatest professional challenge?

I always try to attend the yearly Women’s CEO retreat, for women who lead international NGOs. I learn so much and draw so much energy from these women leaders in our sector! When I attended earlier this year, we went through our usual exercise of sharing our highlights and lowlights of the previous year. It is comforting to know that we all face so many of the same challenges, many of which are around the topic of resources.  

This is an era of huge uncertainty if your organization depends on U.S. Government funding for some of your work overseas. This uncertainty damages our collective ability to plan forward and execute projects efficiently. Plan is fortunate that most of our funding comes from private donors, and that has helped fill some holes in programming left by the U.S. Government environment. Nonetheless, the uncertainty affects our ability to deliver impact in a cost effective way. An additional source of uncertainty has been the changes in the tax laws, particularly pertaining to the capping of the deductibility of philanthropic donations. The industry has seen a reduction in retail giving as a result. 

As an industry, we also face challenges when it comes to measuring impact. Donors want to know, and have every right to know, not just how their dollars are being directed but also what impact they are having. This is more than just simply counting how many “things” we do. We want to talk about lives transformed, opportunities unleashed. And measuring that is challenging. But just because it is hard to measure doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be trying to do so and continuously improving how we do so.  

A final challenge managing in a nonprofit environment is attracting and retaining talent. A desire to get as many resources to programs can then mean fewer dollars for attracting, developing and retaining staff, for example. This is not an insurmountable problem. There are other aspects of working at a nonprofit that help you attract staff. But in our industry, we are always competing for talent and it is a fact that the commercial side can pay more.

What inspires you most about your work?

I love working at Plan. As an immigrant, the work we do has particular resonance. My family left Cuba to escape the communist regime when I was very young. We came to this great country with literally nothing and started from scratch. We were blessed to have come into a country that was welcoming and that provided so many opportunities for our family to advance. Perhaps because I know how fortunate we have been to be living in a country with so much, I have always had an interest in helping those who had less. Even before I finished high school I had begun engaging in the type of work we do at Plan. I also learned that just because you are young doesn’t mean you can’t lead. You can always have an impact and make a difference. 

We mobilize nearly $1 billion dollars annually to support work of protecting children in more than 70 countries. For me, a special element about Plan, and from where I draw inspiration, is the focus and priority we put on children’s voice and youth leadership. We believe that programs and activities meant to help children and young people should be designed and led by children and young people. Over the next several years, our strategy will continue to have a special focus on girls. In too many countries girls are marginalized and silenced to the detriment of all. We strongly believe that the key to advancing children’s rights is to be working to advance equality for girls. Giving children and youth a chance to lead is important.

How does your gender identity inform your work?

As I noted above, I make it a point to attend the annual Women CEO Retreat in our industry. I think women lead differently from men. Not better or worse, just different. We balance our duties as leaders, spouses and parents differently. I also believe women listen differently and that ego just plays out differently as well.  

For the first time in my career, I am now mostly working with women. I can genuinely say that working with a majority female extended senior management team doesn’t automatically create a better functioning organization or a more inclusive one. You have to be intentional and work at diversity and inclusion. Focusing on bringing in the best talent and working to eliminate adverse selection or inherent biases should be the focus. These biases are more likely to emerge when the organization is dominated by one gender or another. So for me, it isn’t just about women’s advancement, but about gender equality. It is more about diversity than about giving one gender an advantage over another.  

Ensuring gender equality requires investment. Every few years, Plan does a Gender Equality Self-Assessment (GESA). The GESA examines all of our policies from top to bottom, including our labor policies, our hiring and promoting practices, and also our programming design and execution processes. Every bit of the operations is examined. When we did the first one, we discovered that we were not doing very well and that many policies, such as sick leave, telecommuting, maternity leave and so forth, that were inadvertently discriminating against women (because, for example, they are more likely to be caregivers to children and parents). This led to changes, including providing employees with unlimited sick leave and changing our paid-time-off (PTO) policy to provide more flexibility.  

Do you think your gender identity has affected your career?

It does give me a different perspective. That said, my perspective is not just colored by my gender. It is also a function of my being an immigrant, a minority, my culture, and so on. I am the sum of all these things. The sum of these experiences gives me a unique perspective. That is valuable.

How can philanthropy support gender equality?

There are many, many opportunities to get engaged and have your philanthropic dollars have a real and visible impact, not just in the lives of the girls themselves, but in the lives of their families and communities.  

I’m excited by Plan’s current strategy that aims to transform the lives of 10 million girls around the world. Our strategy isn’t only about making children and girls a little better off. It is also about understanding and addressing underlying norms, attitudes and behaviors that are literally making everyone less well off. We think this is important because if we don’t tackle underlying norms and attitudes, we run the risk of spending a lot of money to achieve things that just don’t last.  

Our 10 million girls campaign supports programs that seek to ensure that girls are safe, educated and economically empowered. Our program approach is one that puts girls at the center of how we design, execute, monitor and evaluate all the work we do. We call this approach GirlEngage. We believe girls should be the drivers of program design and execution. To do this, we engage girls as co-partners and co-designers of sustainable solutions that reflect their priorities, needs, and vision.

Our efforts in these areas require long-term investments. You don’t change people’s attitudes overnight. When girls are not allowed to finish (or even attend) school and are then married at a very young age – in many countries they marry at 13 or 14 and sometimes younger – their prospects for advancement are erased. By tackling a sensitive subject like early and forced marriage, we improve the lives and prospects of these young girls and women but also their communities. When girls are able to realize their full potential and make their own choices, it positively effects their families and communities. 

Here in the U.S., we also have work to do. We’re looking at issues of gender norms and attitudes. For example, our 2018 survey results of U.S. adolescent attitudes towards gender equality illustrate that we face many of the same normative barriers that we see overseas and perpetuate attitudes that keep girls from advancing in school and in careers.  

In short, get engaged in the conversation about gender equality here and everywhere. Even if you don’t contribute money, contribute your voice.

In the next 10 years, where do you see gender equality movements taking us?

I think 10 years is nothing. Gender inequality is the product of hundreds of years of beliefs and attitudes. What makes us think we will change it in a decade? Even in the U.S., we see proof of continuing deeply ingrained biases. Why does the most successful soccer team in the world, our national women’s soccer team, need to fight for equality in pay scales? Why are girls and parents in schools across our country fighting to ensure all schools have feminine hygiene products available? Things are changing, for sure. But change of this magnitude takes time. This is a marathon. 

For more information on Plan International, visit the website here.

Author: Kiersten Marek

Kiersten Marek, LICSW, is the founder of Philanthropy Women. She practices clinical social work and writes about how women donors and their allies are advancing social change.

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