Cultivating leadership in girls and young women

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Leadership is a complex and ever-evolving field of understanding multifaceted yet dynamic interconnected issues and influencing others to jointly put effort to achieve a common goal. Globally, in terms of girls' leadership and skill development, we are advancing steadily. Many initiatives aimed at empowering and nurturing their potentials are gaining momentum. Furthermore, it is imperative that we look into prioritising certain aspects of leadership development for girls which are of crucial importance and concentrate on dismantling the root causes of challenges and disparities.

When we reflect our thoughts about effective leadership or perceive a leader, our ideal interpretation often revolves around individuals who focus on nurturing others, catalysing positive changes, and meticulously work towards achieving collective success. We associate them with qualities such as empathy, integrity, adaptability and most importantly, self-confidence. Embracing diverse perspectives, experiences and for continuous improvement is also thought to be ideal characteristics of leadership. However, the perspectives of leadership are often gendered and over the years, across different countries, studies have shown that successful leadership are stereotypically thought to be masculine in characteristics, which often pose difficulties for women being leaders.

In a society entrenched with male domination, we have seen a steady increase in the global statistics for women in leadership across different industries including NGOs, media, education, healthcare, government, private sector etc. Conversely, female representation in sectors like infrastructure, agriculture, technology, and energy remains relatively low. The historical gender gap and a lack of urgency or interest may have led to a noticeable absence of comprehensive data and research on leadership among girls and young women. Nonetheless, on the positive side, there is an increasing interest on this topic and plentiful global opportunities for young people to dive into for self-growth.

In 2020, a large-scale study on a field experiment showed that the proportion of girls who exhibit leadership willingness drops by 39 per cent, going from childhood to adolescence. This means, many girls wanted to be leaders when they were children, but entering adolescence has certainly impacted their thought process. As a young woman in Bangladesh who grew up as a second-generation member following the Liberation War, I find that various facets of social transformation remain highly relevant to my life and experiences just like many other girls and young women in the country. Let us delve into some of the aspects which need attention according to my thoughts and experiences.

Leadership must not be about gender identity, rather about quality, skills, motivation and values one carries within themselves. It is imperative that girls and young women see other girls like them as role models who would give them aspiration and motivation to pursue things differently for themselves, and it is only possible when we nurture their potential and create role models. A major component of leadership is to hold power and be responsible for making decisions on behalf of a group of people. In the same study mentioned above, it has been found that 'social confidence' is a major indicator of leadership decisions particularly favouring boys and an emerging gender gap is seen in the willingness for girls going from childhood to adolescence. It can be deduced that this descending trend in willingness is a consequence of the level of 'social confidence' of the girls and young women.

Social confidence is built upon the experiences one faces, their awareness to make informed decisions, developing good communication skills which turns out to be a contributory factor to build self-esteem and manage social interactions with ease- which is a prerequisite for a leader. It is not unknown that social and cultural biases, mostly stereotypes and fear of being stigmatised and judged, bind girls and guide them to be a certain way. However, being socially less confident has far reaching impacts and contributes to gender disparities in society and reinforces stereotypes that leadership is primarily, a male domain. Let me pose a question -- how many girls do you know who are unapologetically expressing themselves without anxiety or self-doubt? Surely, it won't be many.

My experience in working with girls and young women in both urban and rural areas may deduce that numerous girls have not been able to utilise their potential due to non-cooperative family members, absence of motivation from the community, lack of access to information, lack of opportunities etc. Nonetheless, there have been some great examples of young women making their way into different fields with their hard work. Indeed, some of us have to work significantly harder than the rest, but this disparity needs to come to a halt.

Cultivating a positive mindset and empowering communities through awareness is absolutely necessary, but practically, building girls' agency requires nurturing their minds from a very young age to be emotionally, physically as well as be economically independent. System-based education, knowledge on gender, access to information -- these are tools which would be beneficial for their growth starting from childhood. However, leadership development through improved communication skills, emotional intelligence and strategic thinking also needs to be focused on. Our education and social systems often neglect teaching children and adolescents about financial literacy, even though it is vital for their future well-being, especially for females. Financial literacy will empower girls and young women to learn more about savings, budgeting and resource management, which would eventually teach them to make informed financial decisions. This would also improve their financial inclusivity as well as negotiation, planning and decision-making skills. Additionally, financial autonomy enables girls to contribute socially and economically, all of which are vital aspects of effective leadership.

Essentially, for a girl or young woman to truly become a leader for a greater community, only creating certain opportunities for them might not be enough. Mentoring them thoroughly as well as creating a safe space, so that they can place their voice would also prove to be an incentive for them in their leadership journey. Building girls' agency and their autonomy should be a topmost priority for government, NGOs and civil society as limited opportunities for girls to become leaders have profound consequences on individuals, society and a greater global community. Together, we must commit to build more self-assured, resourceful leaders who are capable of making significant impact on their communities and beyond. Only then our societies will change and our countries will flourish in growth from every aspect.

The writer is working as Manager- Knowledge Management, Innovations and Communications, Urban Development Programme, BRAC.

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