“I know that for many women, getting to the top of their organization is far from their primary focus. My intention is not to exclude them or ignore their valid concerns. I believe that if more women lean in, we can change the power structure of our world and expand opportunities for all. More female leadership will lead to fairer treatment for all women.” ~ Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In, March 2013
I think I was always a leader, but I didn’t always know what leadership meant.
My childlike version of leadership, especially if you asked my younger brother, was to be bossy and “in charge” (and probably mean, if I am really honest).
I was outspoken and passionate. I had a strong voice, and I regularly questioned authority.
But, I was in my 20s before anyone called me a leader. And no one ever talked to me about leadership skills or how to develop them.
Young girls grow up with a picture of women in home, marriage, or motherhood, but not in leadership roles. Girls get the message early on: be pretty, be smart (but not too smart), and know your place. Young boys grow up with societal expectations of being in charge, being the breadwinner, and being the leader at home, at work, and in the community.
Our earliest stories provide a recipe for “growing up girl:” girls should be beautiful and be rescued by a prince (Luna and Herrick, 2018) in order to live “happily ever after.” Young girls who don’t fit this mold struggle with the conflict between societal expectations and the need to express our authentic self.
“When a culture’s most popular stories demote women to beautiful housekeepers, what does a young girl begin to feel society values in her?” ~ Luna and Herrick, 2018
The lack of leadership training for young girls carries through every part of our society: girls are constantly exposed to media images—music videos, commercials, print ads, song lyrics, and even the news—that reinforce the expectation that women should be beautiful, skinny, sexy, and desirable to men. (“Miss Representation,” 2011).
This image of women is in direct conflict with the image of women who have roles in leadership positions; they are regularly criticized as being cold, unfeeling, or unrelatable. Worse yet, women in leadership roles are often noticed more for their hair, their clothing, or their tone of voice, rather than the content of their message.
Girls get the message: it’s safer to let the men handle the hard stuff, like being a leader.
“By the time a young girl is six or seven years old, she has already begun to formulate an internal template based on the countless impressions that have told her men are superior to women.” ~ Luna and Herrick, 2018
Women have made gains in the number of leadership positions held over the past 30 years, yet societal norms still expect men to be the main moneymakers and decision makers in the family structure, according the Harvard Business Review.
These women in higher status jobs are more likely to experience anxiety or resentment in their married home lives and they are twice as likely to be treated for anxiety and depression as men. In addition, Fortune cited a Swedish study that shows that the divorce rate significantly increases when wives experience more career success than their husbands.
Until we shift our messaging to young girls and our expectations for women, we will continue to struggle with this juxtaposition.
The real issue is that women are not expected to be leaders, and therefore, their leadership skills are not developed from a young age. We let gender bias influence the skills we develop in young girls because of stereotypes of women.
If we want to grow young girls into successful women leaders who can balance the demands of leadership with the societal expectations for women, we are going to have to get pretty real about the messages we give to both young girls and young boys.
The advice for women in Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In is just that: for women—not for young girls who need guidance in finding their way.
Young girls need to know that it’s okay to be outspoken, but they need coaching on conveying messages so that they are heard, on word choice, and the power of story. Young girls need to be encouraged to find and use their voice—to see that leadership comes from passion and not from popularity.
Purposefully growing the next generation of leaders will take more than joining a circle if we are to really make a difference in how women are able to live and lead.
We need mentors for young girls. That’s where the power is.
Leadership is about the cross section of belief and action, and not about how much money you make or being in charge. It has been said that “great leaders don’t set out to be a leader, they set out to make a difference,” and one of the best ways we can make a difference is through mentoring.
Mentoring is a powerful way to support the leadership in others, and it really just takes a commitment to be there for someone and to be honest. Knowing that there is someone to turn to for support and guidance makes a world of difference.
I didn’t have a mentor until I was already in a leadership position, and it has taken 10 years in varying leadership roles to really understand how gender and bias impact the perception of women in leadership. I have tried to make a difference by mentoring aspiring women leaders: sharing stories, listening, and being there for them as a resource as they find their way.
Young girls struggle because they see leadership as popularity and influence.
Girls need to see women who have struggled and who are still willing to be honest about what they have learned.
All girls, but particularly girls of color, need to see that leadership looks like them and they need relationships with women who care enough to guide them in developing their leadership skill set.
There has to be better advice for female leaders than to simply “lean in.”
Leadership is lonely. And it comes at a price to many of us personally.
Mentoring gives young girls the skills they need to grow into female leaders by modeling acceptance of our own stories, perceptions, messages, and experiences. Hearing someone who has been there say, “Here’s what I did. It sucked. And I learned the hard way so you don’t have to,” is empowering to someone who is learning their way.
Being a mentor is about acknowledging and accepting our own challenges. It is building a trusting relationship where it’s okay to be vulnerable for both the mentor and the mentee. Helping young girls grow into young women in leadership means we have to be honest about how difficult it is to balance the roles of lover, leader, friend, parent, and still have time to take care of ourselves. It is about getting real with our own struggle in order to help someone else with theirs.
The next generation of leaders needs us.
The world needs strong, powerful, women to be in charge; to lead with compassion and to lead with fire; to understand humanity and to challenge its darkness; to see past their self-doubt and insecurity; and to answer the call to lead. So, we need strong, powerful girls to believe in themselves, to know in the power of their voice, and to envision all of the possibilities they can achieve.
It’s time to rewrite the story.
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