Empowering a Generation of Female Leaders

Chris Wilson, Head of School, Esperanza Academy, L+D Board Member

In March 2011, a Princeton University panel came out with a study showing that while women continued to enroll at the university in greater numbers, and to achieve at a high level academically, their involvement in leadership positions on campus was very different than that of men.

“The committee found that women, more than men, tend to hold behind-the-scenes positions or seek to make a difference outside of elected office in campus groups; that women do not assert themselves as often in class discussions, yet tend to outperform men academically; and that these and other patterns reflect the different ways in which undergraduate men and women view their college experience,” the committee reported.

The panel went on to recommend an overhaul of orientation, mentoring, and faculty awareness activities to overcome what the panel chairwoman deemed “a popular culture that simply has not been very supportive of women” taking leadership positions.

How can women, on the one hand, be excelling academically, enrolling in and graduating college and professional programs like medical school in record numbers (eclipsing their male peers in almost all measures) but remain unwilling or seemingly deterred from seeking top-level leadership positions despite excellent credentials? This phenomenon is not limited to the campus student government; more recent studies have show that women, despite having a strong presence in these fields, hold far fewer leadership positions than men in everything from medicine to law to finance. And we all know that the prevalence of women in corporate boardrooms and Executive Suites lags their representation in the broader workforce.

Could there be a role for us as educational leaders in preparing women to take the reins of leadership later in life?

At my school, Esperanza Academy, a tuition-free, independent

middle school for modest-income girls in Lawrence, Massachusetts, we aim to explicitly train our students to exercise habits of leadership.

But “leadership” for us means something deeper than “believing in yourself” and “building self-esteem,” and many of the other phrases one often hears along with the concept of leadership these days. We, of course, hope our students come to believe in themselves and have confidence. But we also teach our students that becoming leaders involves responsibility. It involves risk. “Leadership” is often about developing, harnessing, and deploying “power.” The power to be seen and influence others, the power to take the stage and make an argument, the power to “find a voice.”

Leadership means speaking for and acting on what one believes is right, even when those beliefs are unpopular. This is often countercultural for young women, who are taught by so many social forces to be “cute and likable.” What we ask our students to do – to take power, and to learn how to use it – is very “anti-Facebook.”

We also teach our students that privilege and leadership are not ends in and of themselves. Although my school exists to give a generation of low-income students an opportunity to make their own choices and set their own paths, we also believe strongly that the goal of an independent school education must be something deeper than simply the creation of privilege for our students. It must be to engender in our future graduates an orientation towards social justice and creating a better future – a future within which they and other women will have far more power.

As a girls school, we are keenly aware of the benefits of single-sex education for young women, in providing opportunities for leadership that would all-too-often be lacking in a coeducational environment. But it is not simply because we are single sex that our students have become such strong leaders – we believe it is because we hold young women’s leadership as a central goal of our educational curriculum.

One critical piece of creating our future leaders at Esperanza is developing public speaking and self-advocacy skills. This goes beyond simply reading a passage in front of a group. Our young women, beginning in fifth grade, are expected to address the whole student body and faculty regularly. They compete to address donors at fundraising functions, and have lobbied city government officials in person.

How do they develop such poise?

They practice, day in and day out. They greet each teacher everyday with a handshake and a “good morning.” They attend school in uniform and take pride in their environment with a daily all-school cleanup. Each morning, students address the school during morning assembly, and every two weeks in chapel. These opportunities are celebrated and sought after – nearly thirty students (half of the school) competed for the fifteen student ambassador spots. Any time we have a guest in the building, students stop in the hallways to introduce themselves and greet the visitor. And in classes, our teachers regularly have student debates and defend their intellectual positions.

All of this is just one part of our effort to build our students’ comfort with and ability to hold leadership positions. In many ways I regard this as important as our students’ academic achievements. After all, girls seem to be catching up to boys in making good grades, but they don’t seem to be catching up in seizing the reins of power in making the decisions that will impact the next generation the most, from the highest echelons of leadership. It is my hope that our Esperanza Academy graduates will help change that balance of power.


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