Empowering Girls Today to be the Leaders of Tomorrow

Empowering Girls Today to be the Leaders of Tomorrow

Women CEOs account for only 4.8 percent of the Fortune 500 companies’ CEOs. ​Contrastingly, a study by psychiatrist Anna Fels, author of Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives, finds no remarkable difference between young boys’ and girls’ ambition. What factors may be contributing to the corporate discrepancy we see in the leadership of companies at all levels? Is there anything that can be done to allow for more equality at the top of large organizations?

For the Sullivan sisters, very little changed their outcome of success. When Denise and Maggie were just nine and eight, respectively, they organized a carnival to raise funds for muscular dystrophy. While their contributions were nominal, some years just $25, they began to learn from a young age that they not only enjoyed, but excelled, in money management and leadership roles.

Fast forward a few years and the girls grew to lead student governments, take calculated risks involving flaming batons and field calls from the president’s assistant (yes, the President of the United States), all before college.  Not surprisingly, both sisters now hold prominent, professional, leadership positions. Denise is president of Campbell USA and Maggie is chairman and CEO of Citizens Communications Co. Their two younger sisters currently hold, or have held, a number of corporate ranks including vice president positions.

If you ask them what they attribute their achievements to (other than their own personal ambition and hard work), they cite their upbringing. Their parents played an important role in their professional development: encouraging independence, teaching fiscal responsibility and sharing how to make informed decisions from a young age through adulthood.

Karen Perez, a lead electrical engineer at Jabil, is both a mother and a successful female leader. Much like the Sullivan sisters, she was encouraged by her parents to be or do anything without concern for what others thought or what certain aspects of society may deem acceptable. She sees the culture girls are raised within as playing an important role in structuring how girls think about themselves.

“It is a self esteem issue; the way [a woman’s future] is portrayed makes it sound like a woman needs a man to survive, to be successful. It matters what a girl after puberty is being told,” said Perez. With this in mind, she makes sure to tell her daughter and nieces that they can be or do anything they want and to ignore anyone who says they can’t because it is “for guys.”

The American Association of University Women’s study mirrors Perez’s perspectives on girls and self-esteem. One of their studies looked at self-confidence between girls and boys throughout puberty. In a survey of 3,000 elementary aged children, 67 percent of boys and 60 percent of girls answered “always” when asked how often they felt “happy with the way I am.” By high school, boys’ responses had declined to 46 percent while the responses of girls dropped to 29 percent. This lack of self-confidence seems to be carried with girls into womanhood and throughout their professional careers.

The Institute of Leadership Management in the United Kingdom conducted the above survey’s professional equivalent, asking British managers how confident they felt in their professions. Less than a third of male respondents reported having self-doubt compared to half of female respondents.

There is no clear-cut answer as to what causes this drop in self-perceived capability between girls and boys. But, most theories are similar to Perez’s and round back to the beliefs young girls are raised with. A program titled Ban Bossy, sponsored by the Girl Scouts of America and LeanIn.org, states that “when a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a ‘leader.’ Yet when a little girl does the same she risks being branded ‘bossy.’” A new campaign from Always also emphasizes the importance of labels, begging the question of when the phrase “…like a girl” became an insult. Professors at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto suggest that women in leadership can be related back to how “tight” or “loose” their culture is with respect to its perceptions on challenging social norms that leadership roles are held by men.

The loss of a girl’s confidence is likely not the only thing hindering women from improving their positions in the workforce today, however, it remains an important concern to think about when we look at how young women are being raised. The majority of these studies and programs are not looking to tell girls to be boys but show that an effort needs to be made to raise girls as confident and independent individuals with easy access to leadership tools and opportunities.

We want to hear from you:
What do you feel has helped and hindered your professional growth and success as a woman? What do you do to help influence and encourage the young women in your life?