By Danielle Herrera
For decades women have been trying to become leaders in their communities, working to overcome many hurdles along the way, such as negative public opinion and media scrutiny. Experts say the biggest hurdle, however, can be their own self-esteem and confidence which may prevent them from setting higher goals for themselves.
Many organizations including the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus, Strong Women Strong Girls and the Girl Scouts, argue that to overcome these challenges and eliminate the gender gap in politics and leadership , the nation has to empower and encourage younger generations of women to take on these roles.
The Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus
The MWPC is a non-partisan organization that strives to increase the number of women in politics by giving advice to female candidates, speaking at conferences about the importance of female leaders, and much more.
One way the MWPC helps make women more prominent in politics is through its young professionals (YP) board. The board holds events, workshops and lectures to teach female professionals between the ages of 20 and 35 different skills in networking, leadership, finance, teamwork, and more.
An early April event brought in public speaker and leadership coach Priscilla Douglas. Douglas spoke about her new book, “Getting There and Staying There” which explains how agility helps you get to where you want to be and how it helps you stay there and advance.
Samantha Washburn-Baronie, the executive director of MWPC, there aren’t enough resources like these for young women, especially for those interested in politics. “One of the reasons why I was really focused on building up the YP board is because when I worked at the State House, it was a great place for me to learn the nuts and bolts of what goes on in government, but the natural networking pieces and development tools were not part of the experience and I think that is something a lot of young women in politics experience,” said Washburn-Baronie.
Breanna Bakke, is one of 10 members on the young professionals board and is also the assistant director of 20/20 Women on Boards, an advocacy group that strives to increase the amount of women on U.S company boards to 20 percent by the year 2020.
“You don’t know what you can’t see,” Bakke said. “As you’re working, if you’re not seeing women above you in those executive suits or at the top of the ticket, you’re not necessarily going to think, ‘That could be me one day.’ These YP events are opportunities for women, in all aspects of their career, who are interested in making a difference, getting involved and connecting with others.”
Strong Women Strong Girls
Another organization that strives to empower women is Strong Women Strong Girls. SWSG partners with local colleges such as Harvard University, Boston College, Simmons College and others, to support positive mentorships to raise ambition and self-esteem in young girls.
SWSG mentors girls from 3rd to 5th grade in underserved local communities by introducing them to college and careers. It also works to help increase the girls’ self-confidence, build strong leadership skills and create strong female communities.
Nikki Bank, the Tufts University chapter director of SWSG, said it hosts activities that shed light on different issues that affect the self-esteem of these young girls such as puberty, race, women’s health, sexism and more.
“We’re empowering individuals and building communities and I think by tending to kids’ social and emotional needs, which is something they’re so clearly lacking, even just creating a space of love, belonging and validation, is what can create structural change,” Bank said.
In one group activity for example, Bank had the girls look at photos of women in different magazines and write down how they think these ads define beauty. Bank said the girls defined beauty as having a perfect body, perfect hair and skin however they didn’t understand the negative implications of thinking that beauty only fit one description.
“I think media literacy is something that is not taught in school and is something they should be addressing more because kids are inundated with it and they need to know how to really interpret those images,” Bank said.
In response to what the girls had said about beauty definition, Bank had each girl create their own beauty campaigns to find out how they define their own beauty and the beauty of others. Afterwards, the girls discussed their ideas to help promote individual beauty awareness and empowerment.
Another group activity prompted the girls to “cross a line” if they had been bullied, or ever felt self-conscious which Bank said helped them realize they weren’t alone in their thoughts and feelings.
These activities are designed to help young girls acknowledge their current level of self-esteem so they can then build upon that realization and eventually have more positive self awareness.
“I think what’s most empowering is creating relationships between us and the girls and between the girls as a group so we can all support each other,” Bank said.
The Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts
One of the most notable organizations that empower young girls is the Girl Scouts. On a local, national and international scale, the Girl Scouts teach girls as young as five years old the importance of self-confidence.
From getting badges, camping and selling cookies to learning STEM skills, community service and participating in journeys (taking action as a group on a particular issue), young Scouts establish a set of leadership skills that the program aims to help empower and encourage them to create positive change in their lives and communities.
Girl Scouts also offers customized learning activities that cater to an age group. For example, middle-school girls may have a harder time critiquing other classmates so the activities will be focused on learning different critiquing techniques and how to gain more confidence in that area.
Tessa Senders, a 17-year-old high school senior, has been in Girl Scouts for 12 years and is on her way to achieving a gold award, the highest achievement in Girl Scouting. Senders believes Girl Scouts, above anything else, has helped her learn so much more about herself. “In school you study academics, but Girl Scouts helps you learn how to be more confident and you feel more able to lead and coordinate and organize and you also feel more connected to your surroundings and those skills are really helpful,” she said.
Eliana Greenstein-Himle, an eighth grader who has been in Girl Scouts for nine years, agreed with Senders. “Girl Scouts has actually helped me in school because its made me more outgoing. It’s more learning about the outside world and how you can affect it,” Greenstein-Himle said.
Both Senders and Greenstein-Himle were apart of a girls leadership board that just recently developed a new proposal with new goals including advocacy for Girl Scouts, engagement within their communities, and helping younger generations of Girl Scouts with self-confidence.
“The best part is we can say this group was made by girls and for girls.” Greenstein-Himle said. “That’s our motto.”
Kerrie Constant, associate director of curriculum alignment for the Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts advised the girls while they developed this new proposal but emphasized their motto.
“I was there just to offer my support; the girls had autonomy on leadership,” Constant said. “They put the proposal together, they created the applications for the new members, they interviewed possible new members, so it was completely a girl-led leadership opportunity for them.”
In this past year, contrary to much research, Constant has also seen more junior high school girls enter Girl Scouts with ambitious attitudes towards learning STEM fields and leadership skills.
“We see the trend in Girl Scouting because we offer a safe space for them to explore,” Constant said. “So it may be dropping off for them in the academic world but in the Girl Scouts area it’s fun and engaging. We bring it relevant into their everyday life and by bringing women from those careers into the space they can see it is obtainable.”