It’s really hopeful to imagine a world where girls are leaders. There is a growing call for women to take positions of power in corporate North America, as well as on political, cultural and economic fronts. In the corporate sector, mentoring programmes offer a pipeline for executive leadership to support the advancement of women to executive levels. In politics, similar movements are monitoring women’s involvement and are mandated to encourage and support women to enter the field. But it would be a mistake to think that just because Hillary Clinton, Arianna Huffington and Sheryl Sandberg are at the top, we have achieved our mission.
Girls are not “problems” waiting to be solved. Often, in fact, girls represent solutions. The power of girl leadership resides in the knowledge that sometimes problems need to be confronted in new ways.
We need to imagine a future in which women are not just leading but also transforming outdated systems and co-creating the world. We need to harness women-led entrepreneurship to tackle our greatest social and environmental challenges. It’s not that women bring something “different” to the table; it’s that their experiences and vision, which are often anchored within the struggles of their communities, need to be front and center as we make systemic changes. When women take their place at the table in this critical work, society is better equipped to synthesize and respond to the fast-paced challenges of our era. It makes sense for us to nurture leadership, strength and self-advocacy in girls.
Girls are redefining and inventing new ways to be leaders. We are amazed by how skillfully girls rise to leadership when they are given a chance and some support. Leadership is everywhere. But it shows itself in a variety of ways, and it doesn’t always look like the traditional leadership models to which we’ve become accustomed, with a charismatic hero leading the way. It can be demonstrated in small gestures or big actions, in political domains and at the grassroots level, and in media, culture, arts and political activism. By digging deep into the roots of culture, girls bring meaning and transformation to outdated approaches and old, rusty systems. They see intersections between disciplines as part of their worldview. They are truly innovating.
Knowing how powerful and promising many young women already are in so many contexts and how they are growing more so each day, it’s incongruous to see how the picture all too often painted in popular culture, in newspapers and in our imaginations hangs on to the “girls are dangerous or in danger” narratives—as if girls are in trouble and not in control of themselves. Adults often lament about youth culture, believing that the emerging generations are not upholding the traditions of political engagement ofactivism started by previous generations.
And yet, when we stop and look around, an entirely different picture emerges. Girls are not “problems” waiting to be solved. Often, in fact, girls represent solutions. The power of girl leadership resides in the knowledge that sometimes problems need to be confronted in new ways. So much of what inspires girls to act grows out of issues that have affected them personally. Girls feel supported when they break the isolation of their experiences and find a space where they can make sense of what is happening to them, and locate their experiences within a broader socio-political context. When they are able to do this, they can begin to focus on developing their insights and passions, and eventually transform some of these into action. If policy makers see youth only as objects of public policy, rather than as subjects who shape its formation, they are failing to get in on one of the world’s best kept secrets: that girls are citizens-inthe-making with an enormous amount to contribute—through ideas, mobilization of power and social-media visibility— to the growth of society and culture.
Supporting girls and young women as agents of change requires more than brand messaging that bills girls as “empowered”. It demands more than commodifying girl power as if it is linked to a product, and more than a glossy international campaign that makes it seem as if it’s a fait accompli. Real empowerment comes when we reframe girls’ challenges: from focusing on the individual girl to tackling the dynamics of the social, political and economic context she lives in. Real empowerment comes through recognizing and encouraging the girls who are devoted to making changes, big and small, and supporting their work financially and socially. Girls are an excellent investment.