Professional Learning

Helping Girls Unlock Their Leadership Potential

July 30, 2013
Image credit: iStockphoto

Women make up approximately 51 percent of the U.S. population. Yet in 2013, they make up just 18.3 percent of Congress -- and this is the highest proportion to date. They make up just 22.8 percent of the statewide elected executive offices across the country (down from 27.6 percent in 1999 and 2001) and 24.2 percent of those serving in state legislatures (the peak: 24.5 percent in 2010).

It is not only in politics that women find themselves underrepresented in leadership roles. It is the case in business -- in 2012, women made up 14.3 percent of the executive officers of Fortune 500 companies (though as of 2013 they held the CEO role in only 4.2 percent of those companies) and held 16.6 percent of the Fortune 500 board seats. It is also the case in education, where in 2010 just 24.1 percent of superintendents were women (though that proportion is up significantly since 2000).

And women continue to be underrepresented in the entertainment industry. In 2012, women comprised just 18 percent of all directors, executive producers, writers, cinematographers and editors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films (and 38 percent of those films employed zero or one women in the roles considered). And they made up just 26 percent of the individuals working as creators, directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and directors of photography on broadcast television programs during the 2011-12 prime-time season.

The list goes on, but the leadership gap in the entertainment industry is particularly noteworthy. As the film Miss Representation puts it, popular culture is sending the message that "a woman's value and power lie in her youth, beauty, and sexuality, and not in her capacity as a leader." As a result, the filmmakers argue that current portrayals of woman make it difficult 1) for women to achieve leadership positions, and, 2) for the average woman to feel powerful herself. The film cites a number of troubling statistics that it suggests arise from the portrayal of women in the media, including that 65 percent of American women and girls have disordered eating behavior and that liposuction surgeries nearly quadrupled between 1997 and 2007 among youth 18 and younger -- and breast augmentations among that population increased nearly six-fold.

As a woman, educator and mother of a young daughter, I find this information both depressing and overwhelming. Where should we even begin when it comes to addressing these issues?

One School's Strategy

At the American School Counselor Association's recent annual conference, I learned how one school is attempting to change the way tween and teen girls view themselves. In a session entitled "Help Girls Unlock Their Leadership Potential," Julia V. Taylor, dean of student services (and a certified school counselor) at North Carolina's Wake Young Women's Leadership Academy, discussed the cornerstone of her school, an advisory period "Girls Leadership Class."

Do not be misled by the fact that their program is a "class." While her all-girls environment lends itself to such a structure, as Taylor pointed out, the main elements of the program can be adapted for group counseling sessions, co-ed classrooms, or any other environment in which educators are interested in improving the leadership potential of female students.

Recognizing common characteristics and tendencies of middle- and high-school girls, both developmental and culturally imposed, the Wake Academy program is organized around work in the following five key areas:

  1. Communication and non-fiction literacy proficiency, including critical thinking skills, the ability to articulate abstract concepts, and thinking before speaking.
  2. Empathy development, including the difference between understanding and agreeing, how to listen without judging, and genuine apology skills.
  3. Controversial issues, including how to disagree, how to clearly assert thoughts without aggression, and the value of diversity and the opinion of others.
  4. Advocacy and activism, including the importance of righting wrongs, how to confidently stand up for core beliefs, replacing self-defeating speech, and embracing failure.
  5. Social responsibility and global awareness/citizenship, including the importance of developing a personal point of view, intercultural competencies, and behaving consciously to effect positive change in the world.

How do they help students develop the skills desired? Wake Academy has a regimented weekly calendar that includes "GirlTip Monday," "TEDTalk Tuesday," "Women In Leadership Wednesday," "Think Tank Thursday" (dedicated to journaling) and "Bookend Friday" (dedicated to sustained silent reading). Tying everything together is a semester-long group project in which explore, research, debate and present a topic of choice.

Getting Started

But even if you aren't able to develop such a calendar, these same concepts can be used to guide work in many different contexts, including group counseling sessions, after school enrichment programs, and co-ed classrooms. And so can other supporting elements of the Wake Academy program. Consider these:

    1. GirlTips

    Rachel Simmons is an author, educator and coach (and another presenter at the ASCA conference, who unfortunately I had to miss) whose books include Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls and The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence. One of her projects is GirlTips, which she describes as "bite-sized advice for girls and women on how to navigate difficult friendships and communicate with class." These tips can be used as conversation starters that allow girls to explore and develop some of the aforementioned skills of interest

    2. TED Talks

    TED Talks are done often by ordinary people who, as Taylor pointed out, make great role models -- they are the types of people we should inspire girls to be like. At Wake Academy, on Tuesdays each teacher selects a TED Talk related to women's leadership and other women's issues to show and discuss in class. To see some of the TED Talks used, check out the WakeGirlsLead TED Talk Pinterest board

    3. Regular readings in leadership

    On Wednesdays, each teacher at Wake Academy selects an article related women's/girls' issues to read and discuss in class. Issues range from news of 160 Afghan girls being poisoned at school to a study of whether Facebook fuels body issues to Olympic gymnastics champion Gabby Douglas' grace under fire. Links to the articles discussed can be found on the WakeGirlsLead Women in Leadership Pinterest board

    4. Book clubs

    While not a formal part of the Wake Academy leadership class, Taylor advocated for book clubs for two audiences: students and parents. According to her, book clubs are great for girls, allowing them to talk about the issues they are facing under the guise of fictional characters. Book clubs are also good for parents, normalizing what is happening with their child

    Community mentoring.

    "You can't be what you can't see," a quote from Marian Wright Edelman, drives the film Miss Representation as well as some of the work at Wake Academy. Bringing successful women leaders into school for mentoring lunches, for example, can broaden girls' horizons as to what they can expect to be

    While I mention these strategies here as ways to help unlock the leadership capabilities of girls, they could easily be adapted to help other groups of students discover their leadership potential. Ultimately, all students should be empowered to fully realize this potential -- a vision that, as evidenced by a look at those in current leadership roles, is unfortunately not yet reality.

    What strategies have you used, or considered using in your classroom to empower girls? Are there any ideas mentioned above that can be adapted to your needs?

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