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How to get strong, female leaders in the boardroom and beyond | Perspective

When asked to draw a leader, for example, numerous girls eagerly drew themselves, in addition to friends, their mothers and other trusted adults.

An Agnes Irwin School kindergartener takes the mic during a school event.
An Agnes Irwin School kindergartener takes the mic during a school event.Read moreKaren Mosimann for The Agnes Irwin School

At a recent event in Paris, former President Barack Obama was asked about essential leadership skills for the future. He responded that more women should be put into positions of power.

"Not to generalize," he said, "but they seem to have better capacity than men do."

As educators at the Agnes Irwin School, an institution that cultivates the leadership identities of girls, we agree that the world needs more women in leadership. However, despite a recent surge in women's interest in running for office, and a raising of women's voices that is unprecedented, we currently live in a world dominated by male leaders. At Fortune 500 companies, only 6.4 percent of the CEOs are women. In Congress, they represent slightly less than 20 percent of the total. If parity is the goal, there is clearly work to be done.

Girls still grow up in a society that reinforces gender stereotypes. Subtly, or not so subtly, girls and boys are presented with messages that delineate old-fashioned roles and abilities in ways that are deeply limiting.

A recent report on gender bias in advertising by the J. Walter Thompson Intelligence Group and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media highlights that in ads, women are "48 percent more likely to be pictured in the kitchen, while men are 50 percent more likely to be shown attending a sporting event." When it comes to intelligence, in the portrayal of characters for whom this quality is integral — such as doctors — "men are 62 percent more likely to be shown as smart."

One might argue that children can separate fact from fiction and that they understand that girls and boys are equally capable of holding positions of leadership.

Alas, a recent report, based on a survey of almost 20,000 teenage girls and boys by Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, shows that gender bias is alive and well among today's teens. The results suggest "that teen girls both hold biases and suffer from biases that may corrode their relationships and sense of justice, sap their confidence in their leadership potential, and dampen their desire to seek leadership positions, especially in high-power fields."

So what are we to do?

Organizations, such as Philadelphia's own Vision 2020, continue to work on bringing parity in leadership between men and women through their myriad efforts. Parents can empower their sons and daughters to step up and have their voices heard. And those of us who work specifically with girls can work intentionally to foster their leadership identity from an early age and instill in them the knowledge and confidence that they have the capacity to lead.

Recently, a group of researchers from the Department of Social Cognition Laboratory at Cornell University visited with elementary students at the Agnes Irwin School to explore, in part, how perceptions of leadership are developed in young children. At our Center for the Advancement of Girls, we have collaborated with the Bryn Mawr College Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research to create a highly successful program where our youngest girls (from pre-K to fourth grade) learn to develop and identify leadership skills.

Researchers commented that specific traits we emphasize in our model (such as empathy, collaboration, self-reflection, and independence) surfaced repeatedly during their interactions with our students.

When asked to draw a leader, for example, numerous girls eagerly drew themselves, in addition to friends, their mothers, and other trusted adults. They overwhelmingly valued confident decision-making as an important trait in leaders and were quite willing to endorse themselves as such.

It is important for girls to see themselves as leaders, because that leadership identity is more likely to carry into adulthood when it is ingrained in how a female defines herself from the beginning. When parents and teachers focus on girls' capacity to lead, as President Obama suggested, we know that they will grow into confident, independent women who will thrive in leading businesses, laboratories, classrooms, governments, and families.

Wendy L. Hill, Ph.D., is head of school at the Agnes Irwin School, an all girls' independent school in Rosemont, and the Rappolt Professor Emeritus of Neuroscience at Lafayette College.
Mariandl Hufford is assistant head of school and director for the Center for the Advancement of Girls at the Agnes Irwin School.