Equity & Diversity Opinion

Are We Preparing Girls to Be Leaders?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — October 20, 2013 4 min read
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The International Leadership Association Women and Leadership Affinity Group held their Inaugural Conference in June 2013. They are a network of leadership scholars and practitioners dedicated to enhancing their knowledge, expertise, and research in the area of women and leadership and to the advancement of women in leadership. The conference chair, Susan R. Madsen, is the Orin R. Woodbury Professor of Leadership and Ethics at Utah Valley University. A product resulting from that gathering is a report entitled, The Asilomar Declaration & Call to Action on Women and Leadership which includes declarations and calls for action around five sections including one called ‘Helping Girls and Young Women Become Leaders.’

Reading this report made us wonder, again, whether this is a priority in our nation and in our schools. In the September issue of the Harvard Business Review, editor Adi Ignatius writes “Although women have made many gains over the years, they remain distressingly underrepresented at the top levels of institutions around the globe. In corporate America, for example, women hold only about 15% of C-suite jobs and 17% of board seats.” Even in schools where women are well represented as teachers and building level administrators, the top positions, such as superintendent are still held by a great deal more men than women. The lead article of the Harvard Business Review issue confronts the access to leadership and preparation for the role. Authors Herminia Ibarra, Robin Ely, and Deborah Kolb report on

...the often fragile process of coming to see oneself, and to be seen by others, as a leader. Becoming a leader involves much more than being put in a leadership role, acquiring new skills, and adapting one’s style to the requirements of that role. It involves a fundamental identity shift. Organizations inadvertently undermine this process when they advise women to proactively seek leadership roles without also addressing policies and practices that communicate a mismatch between how women are seen and the qualities and experiences people tend to associate with leaders.

Are we creating schools and district policies and practices ...and cultures.... where women in leadership roles can contribute and succeed? Are we developing this generation of girls to see themselves as leaders? In Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work, and The Will To Lead she states,

For decades, we have focused on giving women the choice to work inside or outside the home. We have celebrated the fact that women have the right to make this decision, and rightly so. But we have to ask ourselves if we have become so focused on supporting personal choices that we’re failing to encourage women to aspire to leadership. It is time to cheer on girls and women who want to sit at the table, seek challenges, and lean in to their careers (p. 159).

We know that leaders emerge in schools and that some have opportunities to get real recognition for becoming leaders before they leave us at graduation. Student government, extracurricular activities and athletics all offer early possibilities for students to begin leading. Yet, do we work toward developing leadership capacities in all of our students? If we are to encourage our young people to develop leadership skills do we need to do it differently for girls? And what will this generation of female leaders need to know if they share the office and the board table with female peers?

Gender defines us more than most any other descriptor. And it is modeled in a myriad of ways from more sources than ever through our media. If we are to develop leadership capacity in our young girls, from where will our own capacity come? What do we know about teaching leadership to girls?

In her Forbes article on ‘Why Successful Women Terrify Us’, Jenna Goudreau, asks, “The real question isn’t who the scariest woman is or why she scares us; it’s how as a society do we plan to face these fears and put them behind us?” This may be our beginning point. Whether we call it facing our fears, our bias, our orientation, or our core beliefs, facing how we feel about women in leadership and about developing that in our students, is a place to begin. Schools can model inclusive leadership, if we choose. As teachers and leaders, we can benefit from asking ourselves what we know and what we believe about how we inform our students about gender roles and leadership. Some questions that arise are:

  • What messages do our actions send our students?
  • Is the infamous ‘old boys’ network’ still at work when searches for leaders are conducted?
  • Are we being purposeful in our attention to developing young leaders?
  • Are we focused on the way we attend to this process differently for girls?
  • If we are not doing this well, how and where do we begin?

We think a good place to begin can be found in Sandberg’s words,

...we must decide that true equality is long overdue and will be achieved only when more women rise to the top of every government and every industry. They we have to do the hard work of getting there. All of us - men and women alike - have to understand and acknowledge how stereotypes and biases cloud our beliefs and perpetuate the status quo. Instead of ignoring our differences, we need to accept and transcend them (p.159).

Sandberg, Sheryl (2013). Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. New York: Alfred A. Knopf

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