Next generation of women leaders must 'see it to be it'

You don’t need to look much further than recent headlines to see that women today are making a historic impact. Before the 116th U.S. Congress was sworn in, never had more than 84 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives been filled by women. Now that number is over 100.

The number is worth celebrating, but it’s also worth considering the broader context as we recognize Women’s History Month. Despite those gains, women still make up just 25 percent of the U.S. Senate and 23 percent of the House of Representatives. It was just 100 years ago — which may feel like a long time, but it really isn’t — that some women were on the front lines fighting for their right to vote in this country. And it wasn’t until even later, in the 1960s, that women of color were able to freely exercise that right.

Elsewhere, we continue to see women underrepresented in leadership roles. Women make up only 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs. And among the largest non-profit charities in the world, a slim 18 percent are led by women. Yet these recent gains remain vital. As girls and women across the globe face new obstacles and challenges, the existence of fearless, visible role models is invaluable. For the next generation of women leaders, girls and young women must “see it to be it.”

It’s a time of real reckoning — women continue to fight against pervasive media stereotypes and expectations about how they should look and act. The revolutionary #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have revealed the scale and scope of everyday challenges and injustices that women in all walks of life have faced and continue to face. More and more young women leaders are speaking out and taking action — and the world is finally listening.

We’re on the precipice of real change. And that means we need the next generation of young women to take this momentum to make a lasting impact not just for today, but for the next 100 years of women’s history. It’s critical that we continue to listen, to foster and to amplify the voices of girls and young women everywhere.

Girls’ ability to develop their voices and to discover their innate courage to lead and make an impact starts early. Girls must be encouraged to speak their minds — without interruption. Because girls who feel a greater sense of respect are enabled to better find and use their voices skillfully, first in the classroom and then beyond: in board rooms, on the political stage and in any other arena.

Research on girls’ learning and development demonstrates that fostering girls’ voices is foundational to helping young women build confidence in their convictions. It’s a two-step process: First, one must know themselves to have convictions and to commit to their principles. Next, they must feel empowered to stand up for those convictions with real action.

I believe the best way for young and adolescent girls to develop their convictions, and then have the confidence to stand up and be heard, is to be part of a school environment that is characterized by leadership and integrity, agency and self-efficacy, community and collaboration. It’s how girls learn to develop the skills and tools to know how to use their voices effectively.

And that’s critically important for our current moment. Today is both exciting and sobering, bringing to light challenges that must still be overcome. But it’s also a pivot point, where real, lasting change can be made. It’s more relevant than ever to educate girls with a voice and self-agency that will help them move forward confidently, while being nimble to address the challenges they face.

Fostering girls’ voices is not just a job for women, and it’s not just a job for parents and educators. It’s everyone’s responsibility to teach girls how to develop, hone and use their voices.

Then we must listen to what they have to say.

Megan Murphy is executive director of the National Coalition of Girls' Schools; her email is mmurphy@ncgs.org.

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