A friend of mine shared an exchange he witnessed when Hillary Clinton was speaking to a group of academics a few years ago. Asked if she believed that her gender made it more difficult for her to run for president relative to her male counterparts, Clinton, with comedic timing, paused for a moment before saying, “Yes. Next?”
For those of us who are leaders — and especially women leaders — this was only funny because it was so obvious. Women leaders are quite aware of the inherent challenges in being a minority in a male-dominated arena.
Seeing the possibilities
Research bears out the fact that those who are in the minority in any field must see people like them — whether the similarity is gender, ethnicity, culture, etc. — in spheres of influence before they can imagine themselves there, too. Recent research about unconscious bias offers possible reasons for the persistence of underrepresentation of women at the top of many professions, but it provides little insight into ways to effectively counter it.
Take advantage of our differences
I have always been wary of the advice that women should act like men if we want to succeed in male-dominated professions. Women lead differently than men. This is not a problem; it is an advantage.
At Columbus School for Girls, our students learn early on that who they are — their ideas and ways of leading — matters. They encounter powerful women leaders every day and play all of the parts at an all-girls’ school including student council, team captains, leads in plays and leading contributors to class discussions.
We give our students opportunities to work with women leaders beyond school walls by offering leadership seminars and inviting women leaders to speak to our students in many different contexts.
Doing more for the pipeline
Is this enough? I would argue that girls — both those who have the distinct advantage of attending an all-girls’ school and those who don’t — need even more. They need to spend time with successful, powerful women who will help them to see a new paradigm. Girls who will be tomorrow’s leaders need to see older versions of themselves in the world.
I ask that you consider how you might help these future leaders, such as:
- Offer girls and young women advice — solicited and unsolicited. Women don’t always offer advice, I’ve noticed. It’s so important to those who have less experience and access.
- Invite girls to your workplace. Show them what being a woman leader looks like; help them to start building their network of support to help counter the conscious and unconscious bias we must acknowledge is out there.
- Tell girls that they are prepared enough — ready to take on an experience. Encourage them to go for it! Be there to pick them up and encourage them to try again if they fail.
Be who you are. Help girls see that which makes us women — those traits we share — are assets, not liabilities. Live this and demonstrate it for the next generation of women leaders.
Jennifer Ciccarelli is the Head of School at the Columbus School for Girls. Jennifer’s commitment to serving girls’ schools and the holistic development of girls is notable. She has served as the assistant director/acting director at The Winsor School in Boston, the academic dean of The Girls’ Middle School in the San Francisco Bay area, and spent the first 10 years of her career as a lower and middle school teacher at Greenwich Academy in the New York Metropolitan area — all highly regarded girls’ schools.