By Lisabeth S. Medlock, Ph.D.
Equal Pay Day is the day of the year when the average women working in the U.S. finally earn the same amount as men did in the year before. It takes women an average of 15 months to earn what men earned in 12 months. White women earn about 82 cents for every dollar a white man earns; for Black women, it’s about 65 cents and for Latina women, it’s about 60 cents. Women don’t get the top jobs or the top pay. In the US, women have finally achieved 28% representation in Congress – it took 247 years. With studies from the Harvard Business Review showing that “women score[d] at a statistically significantly higher level than men on the vast majority of leadership competencies,” we must continue to ensure programs for girls are valid and effective.
We are beginning to address the need for leadership programs to prepare girls to emerge as leaders in politics, business and their communities. Programs exist, both nationally and internationally, to empower girls to become leaders. Girls, Inc., Girls In Politics, Teach a Girl to Lead and CARE International are just a few. In addition, research efforts like that of Amplify Girls to measure programs that impact girls’ agency will shape programs in the future.
In this article I want to focus on seven core components of comprehensive programs that develop leadership in girls. These are informed by evidence-based practice guidelines developed by institutions such as Harvard and the HUM School at Princeton.
1) Programs should expose girls to career options and explore possibilities for leadership fields. In adolescence girls begin to explore who they are and what kind of person they want to become. Girls should be presented with options for their future. That could mean going to Capitol Hill and meeting women representatives, spending a day shadowing a female executive, participating in science camp with female researchers, or volunteering with a female community leader who is addressing community issues.
2) Programs should empower girls to use their voice and have a vision. In addition to access, a lack of self-confidence is one of the key barriers to girls becoming leaders. Part of building that confidence is having girls identify and use their words. Programs should empower girls to articulate thoughts, make decisions, ask questions and be assertive. Girls need to learn they have a right to an opinion. Programs should also help girls articulate a vision for the future and set goals. Lastly, girls should know they can play an active role in the community and can organize themselves and others to achieve goals by putting ideas into action.
3) Programs should develop core skills that are the foundation of leadership. Leadership comprises a myriad of core and transferable skills. Programs should address specific obstacles that prevent girls from taking leadership roles, such as fear of public speaking or being perceived as bossy. Core skills include public speaking, conflict resolution, effective or assertive communication, problem solving, networking and self-advocacy.
4) Programs should provide opportunities for collaboration and networking. Having a robust network is key to any leader’s success. Forming connections means that a diversity of girls and women can rely on and support one another. Leadership programs should allow girls to share lived experiences and gain different perspectives. Programs should build a sense of solidarity and a chance for coalition building. Collaboration and teamwork are necessary skills that require empathy, respect and perspective taking. Team or group-based projects/activities, relationship building experiences and opportunities to work with diverse groups (i.e., ages, cultures, identities, etc.) are key.
5) Programs should develop mentoring relationships for girls. Good leadership programs connect girls with older, more seasoned girls and women who can model, inspire and guide them in navigating barriers they face to pursuing leadership. Mentors give girls an opportunity to see themselves represented in positive ways in the world and opens possibilities. Mentors not only foster leadership, but can also be important models of ethical values. Programs should include formal and informal mentors, peer leadership, counselor- in-training, big sisters, or other program elements that connect girls with older girls and women.
6) Programs should set high expectations and provide meaningful opportunities that are girl-designed. Good programs hold girls to high expectations and provide them with real, meaningful opportunities to take responsibility for themselves and others. Girls will develop confidence and the desire to pursue leadership when they take on problems that are meaningful to them. Programs should include youth-led projects and initiatives that give girls opportunities to choose causes that matter to them and provide opportunities for girls to teach and lead others.
7) Programs should view issues through a gender lens: Those developing content and curriculum decisions for girls’ leadership programs should view those materials with attention to gender imbalances or biases in what is being presented. Using a gender lens reveals the ways in which content and approaches are gendered, that is, informed by, shaped by, or biased toward men’s or women’s perspectives or experiences.
Girls Leadership Program Checklist: https://mcc.gse.harvard.edu/resources-for-educators/girls-leadership-program-checklist
Why Girls Leadership Programs are Essential: https://www.hunschool.org/resources/why-girls-leadership-programs-are-essential
Research: Women Score Higher Than Men in Most Leadership Skills: https://hbr.org/2019/06/research-women-score-higher-than-men-in-most-leadership-skills