Images of famous female leaders are pulled out to decorate walls; special assemblies are held; picture books are read; girl power is acknowledged and celebrated. This is all good, but there are some next steps that educators (both men and women) need to take if we’re going to truly empower girls and set them up for leadership roles. We need to offer expanded definitions of leadership, take on the “Lean In” vs. “Recline” debate, and walk the talk.
#1 Explore Definitions of Leadership
It wasn’t until I read Susan Cain’s masterpiece about introverts, Quiet, that I truly recognized and embraced myself as a leader. I’d been schooled on a traditional definition of leadership: a skilled and charismatic orator who immerses himself with the people. Cain’s book propelled me into deep reflections about what it means to be a leader, about how introverts exert leadership, and of the different terrains and domains in which we exercise leadership.
Leadership is not about the role you’re in — it’s about the stance you take and the way you feel and the actions you take in any number of moments. It’s not only about being able to speak to thousands and lead them somewhere. In fact, leadership may be about the opposite, about guiding others to find their own paths, discover their own power, and speak their own truths.
When we limit our definitions of leadership, we limit possibilities. Ask a twelve-year-old girl to name a leader she admires. I bet she’ll name a known figure, if she names anyone at all. If we don’t learn to recognize the leadership that surrounds us, that exists within our own families and communities, we lose credibility when we tell girls that they can be leaders because the number of female leaders that they know will be few.
And so this month, whether with the girls in your class or in your families, explore these ideas together:
- What does it mean to be a leader?
- Why is leadership important?
- What qualities must a leader have?
- What kinds of leadership qualities do you admire, respect, and want to emulate?
- In what ways do you take leadership everyday?
- How can you take leadership?
#2 To “Lean In” or “Recline”?
Any discussion of women and leadership needs to explore the debate between Sheryl Sandberg’s injunction that women need to Lead In and Rosa Brooks’ recently published response urging women to “Recline: Why ‘Leaning In’ Is Killing Us”. (Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” was an earlier challenge to Sandberg and is worth reading.) Brooks’ article struck a chord in me and reminded me of my commitment to slow down, as I described in this blog.
At the core of these arguments is a discussion about what it means to be a woman and how we chose to show up in the world. These are discussion that have been going on for a millennia and that deserve to be taken up with our young girls and boys.
#3 Walk the Talk
The messages we send to girls are confusing. We tell them, “You can be anything you want!” but then what do we show them? What do they see? This leads me to my third next step if we want to develop leadership in girls.
Women (and men, too) are going to have to do some hard thinking and talking and decision-making if we’re going to develop our daughters and female students into leaders. Once we decide whether we’re going to lean in or recline, (or do a little of both), once we’re clear on our values and options, then we need to walk the talk. That means women might need to lean in to some places and men might need to step down and make space. In classrooms, schools, central offices, and so on, in traditional seats of power, men still hold far more positions. At home, who does the majority of the cooking and cleaning? We can start to make dents in structures when at the very least we discuss what’s happening and why things are the way they are. We can start to remove the notion that this is just “natural.” And perhaps we can start to make little changes here and there.
March offers an opportunity for us to expand definitions and challenge traditional concepts about leadership, explore what it means to be a woman and the various roles and ways in which we express that identity, and finally, to do something different. In order for girls to feel empowered to explore the domain of leadership, they’ll need to engage in many of these conversations and explorations. And as we guide our girls in these, we demonstrate our leadership.