Advancing Women Leaders
Advancing the Next Generation of Women Leaders
Gender Across Borders
March 29, 2011 | Pamela O’Leary
The need for female leadership is now more important than ever before. We are facing unprecedented challenges that old approaches will do little to solve. Alice Paul, the renowned suffragist leader declared, “There will never be a new world order until women are a part of it.” Increased opportunities for advancements in women’s leadership helps societies grow.
Feminism has succeeded in its efforts to the extent that women graduates now outnumber men in a variety of disciplines and degrees. But if feminists truly seek to crack the glass ceiling and achieve equal pay, we must focus on career and professional development for young women. We must open the pipeline for female leadership by bringing career skills to women before they enter the workforce and when they are still in college. For example, if a recent college graduate does not know how to do a salary negotiation, then she will forever receive thousands of dollars less than her male peers.
We already know what works. For example, the Public Leadership Education Network (PLEN) is the only national organization whose sole focus is preparing college women for leadership in the public policy arena. Since 1978, PLEN has served thousands of women, of which more than one-third are women of color or from other populations historically under-represented in public policy leadership. Each year, PLEN brings women students from colleges and universities across the country to Washington, DC for seminars to learn first-hand how public policy is shaped and implemented at the national level. Students meet with and learn from women leaders making and influencing public policy.
PLEN’s programs have proven to be successful. Decades later, many PLEN alumnae now serve in leadership positions in Washington, DC, and many of them credit PLEN with making them believe that such career paths were possible. PLEN currently has three alumnae serving on its Board of Directors. In addition to exposing women to new career paths and providing role models, PLEN also teaches college women professional development skills such as salary negotiation, resume writing, and networking.
Many other leadership programs and professional development organizations exist that are designed for young women. I was able to become the Executive Director of PLEN as a young professional because of the accelerated professional growth I achieved through these programs. Thanks to the Women’s Research & Education Institute (WREI) Women & Public Policy Fellowship I was able to daily learn from my role model, Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney. Thanks to the We Lead program at American University’s Women & Politics Institute, I was able to develop skills for a political career. Thanks to the Women’s Information Network in Washington, DC, I was able to build a strong network of female colleagues. I would not be where I am today without these foundational experiences, and while I gained these professional skills post-college, I would have been better prepared had I learned even earlier in my career.
So let’s actively prepare the next generation of women leaders because our global challenges will not wait forever. More established women must actively take on mentoring roles. Curriculum must exist to teach young women how to appropriately function in a professional working environment. Funding for students to participate in programs such as PLEN must be a priority on campuses.
We cannot expect to achieve gender parity in the workplace by simply passing laws and hoping for the best. We must roll up our sleeves and begin to set the foundation at the earliest stages of a young woman’s development. The true application of feminism in the 21st century must empower women to enter the workforce with confidence and knowledge, and it must begin in high schools and colleges. A great example is Running Start, a nonprofit that seeks to open the pipeline for women in Congress by training women in high school to run for office.
I leave you with an example of the recent financial crisis and how female leadership might have helped avoid it. Research by Ermer, Cosmides, and Tooby, demonstrated that males make high-risk bets when under financial pressure. On the other hand, women do not exude such behavior. Not that making high-risk decisions is a bad thing. In many cases, such bold moves can help with innovation. The main point is that successful governments and corporations thrive through diversity of opinions and behaviors. Through these differences, compromises are reached and old methods challenged and perfected. Perhaps this is why a multitude of studies by McKinsey& Company and Catalyst prove that increasing the number of women on corporate boards improves the company’s return on investment.