Empowering Women Starts With Empowering Girls
Each year on March 8, International Women’s Day is celebrated around the globe. It’s an important opportunity to shine a spotlight on women’s involvement, contributions, and accomplishments on a range of issues from domestic violence to the role of women in the c-suite. The theme this year is “Be Bold for Change”― a dictum that those who know me personally will acknowledge has pretty much been my mantra throughout my career on Wall Street, in media and most recently, in philanthropy.
The empowerment of girls as leaders, who can be emboldened today to become even stronger leaders tomorrow, is an increasingly recognized imperative in our world, and it couldn’t be closer to my heart. It’s also a key platform of the nonprofit I lead.
Consider the following:
• A recent article in Forbes (“Lead Like a Girl: How to Empower Women at Every Level”) pointed out that, while we like to think that we’ve made progress toward gender equality, women are still underrepresented in leadership roles, despite the fact that 52 percent of professional jobs are held by women. Only 14.6 percent of executive officers, 8.1% of top earners, and 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women.
• A recent survey in The New York Times found that almost 60 percent of companies had no women on their boards, and fewer than 5 percent had women as chief executives.
• Facebook COO and Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg’s “Ban Bossy” website points out that one reason for this may be that “the confidence gap starts early,” and that “between elementary and high school, girls’ self-esteem drops 3.5 times more than boys’.” By middle school, girls are measurably less interested in leading than boys – a trend that continues into adulthood.
Developing girls’ leadership skills is a crucial step in giving them the knowledge, experience, and confidence they need to succeed at the very top levels of business and industry.
These and other harsh realities are what have made me a strong believer in the urgency of supporting healthy, high-achieving, workforce-ready girls. The reason is simple. Developing girls’ leadership skills is a crucial step in giving them the knowledge, experience, and confidence they need to succeed at the very top levels of business and industry. And at no time during the year is that message more worth spreading than on International Women’s Day. The reasons are not mysterious, and include:
• Increasing women and girls’ education contributes to higher economic growth. (OECD, Gender Equality in Education, Employment and Entrepreneurship: Final Report to the MCM 2012.)
• Companies with three or more women in senior management positions are estimated to be more effective. (McKinsey & Company. Women Matter 2014. p. 6)
For its part, my organization addresses workplace readiness for boys and girls by enabling better nutrition and more opportunities for physical activity in the school environment — which fuel academic excellence and, by extension, success in life.
GENYOUth’s social entrepreneurship program, “AdVenture Capital” turns students into problem-solving entrepreneurs by providing grants, mentors, and experiences for students who conceive of and manage projects that improve health and wellness in schools and communities. As it happens, to date more girls have applied for, and received, grant money than their male counterparts.
We’ve convened more than 20 Social Innovation Days to help students ― boys and girls ― develop the skills and disposition to think and act like entrepreneurs and young business leaders. These events have engaged over 800 students, ages 13-17, and impacted well over 100,000 students nationwide, and have resulted in 600 student-led health and wellness projects and solutions across the nation. And again, more than half of the grant-winning students have been girls. With our partners we are doing our best to prepare girls – by giving them the leadership skills, physical confidence, and entrepreneurial skills ― to succeed at the very top. And in the process, we’ve reaped a bumper crop of success stories.
Through AdVenture Capital, Sidney, in Arizona, has launched a nonprofit called Generation Z Fit. Using her personal health challenges and experiences overcoming them, Sidney’s nonprofit aims to mentor students like her to take responsibility for their own health and fitness, and overcome physical activity hurdles. To bring Generation Z Fit to life, Sidney’s written a business plan, assembled a board, elected officers – things anyone aiming for an entrepreneurial career needs to know about.
Darden, in Texas, used her AdVenture Capital grant to develop a multimedia emergency-preparedness program for her school district – working with the district’s administration, school nursing, and safety staffs, and enlisted fellow students certified as part of a Community Emergency Response (CERT) Team to participate.
These young women aren’t playing at social change and bettering their communities. With funding, mentorship and support, they’re actually making change happen.
I share these examples not simply to remind us of what is possible when you tell a young women you believe in them, but also to engender my colleagues in the nonprofit and business arenas because we must all be better at motivating and supporting girls to be self-reliant advocates for themselves, their peers, their schools, and communities – with particular attention to the challenges around leadership that girls face from underserved populations.
As for young women themselves, rising in the ranks of business and industry, my message is a direct one. Be bold. Work hard. Speak up. Be authentic and don’t conform to textbook definitions of leadership. Don’t assume that years of experience equates to better ideas. Never underestimate the value of personal relationships. Cherish and cultivate mentors, who can help shape the arc of your career. Believe in yourself and your potential. Resist being your own harshest critic, as women often are. And, of course, expect – and demand – equal pay.
As a side note, just two weeks ago I was pleased to see that our new U.S. presidential administration is focused on women’s issues, and I noted that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s visit to the White House to discuss women in the workforce resulted in the launching of a task force that will carry the name, “The U.S.-Canada Council for the Advancement of Women Business Leaders and Female Entrepreneurs.” I applaud this, and commend those involved in the launch of the task force, which I understand will tackle everything from wage-equality and child care to generally promoting more opportunities for women in North America.
On a personal note, having spent the early years of my career on Wall Street, gender-equity and the empowerment of women has been an issue of concern for me for decades. And as the mother of a young daughter just starting school (with three enlightened, evolved older brothers to support her), I hope that she will learn from my own struggles as well as my accomplishments, and grow up believing that she has every right to go after what she wants in life and be treated with the respect she and all girls and women deserve.
Please join me in taking a moment to celebrate all efforts within the business, education, and nonprofit communities to advance girls and women. We all stand to gain.