XX Girls: How to raise up female leaders

Women in Church vastly outnumber men, but not many women ARE empowered to lead. How do we help girls overcome the hurdles on their way to leadership? Jenny Baker, author of Equals, gives some insights.

It started with a blog post. Twelve year-old Malala Yousafzai wrote for the BBC about life under Taliban rule and the importance of educating girls. The following summer, The New York Times filmed a documentary about her life. Then came the event that was to change it forever.

In October 2012, as she boarded the bus to go to school, a gunman shot her in the head, leaving her in a critical condition. She was brought to the UK for treatment and since her recovery has used her experience to campaign for the right of girls to have an education. Featured on the front cover of Time magazine and listed as one of their top 100 most influential people in the world, Malala has addressed the UN and a campaign was launched for her to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013. Malala shows that young women can exercise significant leadership when they are given opportunities.

A quick scan of institutions in the UK shows that this lesson is far from learned over here. In the political sphere things are getting worse not better. Eighteen percent of our MPs are female, and there are just eightwomen in the cabinet of 33 people. In 2001 we were ranked 33 out of 190 countries; in 2014, we came 65th. The business world is little different. The last all-male board in the FTSE 100 disappeared earlier this summer, but progress towards even 25 per cent of the boards of major companies being female is painfully slow. And with the Church of England only just agreeing about how women will become bishops, Christians are running to catch up rather than leading the way.

It will take significant institutional and societal change before we have a more equal society where both women and men can participate fully in all areas of life, but it’s a mistake to think that it’s someone else’s responsibility to make that happen. Youth workers have significant opportunities and responsibility to help the young people in their care develop to their full potential, and developing young female leaders should be on everyone’s radar.

Leading ‘like a girl’

In many ways, this is all about developing leaders, full stop. When it comes to female leadership, there’s an interesting paradox. On the one hand it can be unhelpful to think of female leaders as existing in a different category to male leaders. A recent advert for Always pads shows how instructing adult actors to run, throw or fight ‘like a girl’ gets them doing those things in a weak, pathetic way, while young female actors launch themselves into the actions with strength and integrity, as they would in real life. It asks the question, why can’t ‘run like a girl’ also mean ‘win the race’? Leading ‘like a girl’ needs to mean leading excellently if we’re to make any progress towards a more equal society. Pete Wynter, director of leadership innovation at Onelife, says: ‘We’ve steered away from doing women in leadership sessions in Onelife, as we feel it can highlight the issues rather than build for a better future - implying that there’s a different criteria between the sexes. It’s not that we don’t deal with particular gender issues, but that is more likely to be done oneto- one or in small groups.’ As far as possible, young women and men need to learn about leadership alongside each other so that they learn to relate to each other well and respect each other’s contribution. Boys need to experience the leadership of women too, and they can miss that if female youth workers are only working with the girls in the group. Pete adds: ‘Both male and female young leaders need to see female leaders leading well where God has set them, so that they become an inspiration. Boys need to see great female leaders as much as women do.’

On the other hand, there can be times when it’s appropriate to provide coaching or leadership training just for girls to address specific issues that might get overlooked in a mixed setting. Sharon Prior, a leadership coach and lecturer who has been training young women in leadership for many years, says: ‘In my experience, girls struggle as they do not want to be thought of as bossy and so will not take the lead in a mixed group unless they are very confident. Girls also tend not to offer a suggestion of how things could be done on a team if they feel others will laugh at them.’

It would be disingenuous to suggest that girls and boys experience exactly the same pressures as each other as they grow up. Here are some of the issues that some girls wrestle with as they learn to be leaders, and how youth workers can address them.  

Do you affirm the same behaviours in both boys and girls ? 

Lack of role models

Women are competently leading and taking initiative in every area of life, but the trouble is that there are fewer of them. Often the women who are held up as examples in the media are there because of what they look like or who they are married to, instead of for their achievements in their own right. Sadly the Church often mirrors the world in that respect. Natalie Collins, a trainer and domestic abuse specialist, says: ‘Girls cannot be what they cannot see. The majority of speakers at youth events and churches are male. This leads girls to internalise the view that men and boys are leaders, not girls and women.’

Be intentional about looking out for and celebrating women who are competent in different areas of life. Make sure there’s a balance in the examples you use in teaching or when you lead discussions. Mentoring can be a key response to a lack of role models. Rachel Gardner, president of the Girls Brigade and a volunteer youth worker, says: ‘I find that what works best is teaming up a young woman, starting at age 12 or 13, with an older female mentor so that a long-term relationship of safety and intimacy can develop over the years. I also introduce other opportunities when the young woman engages in a broader mentoring setting with a few other women who are younger and older. This seems to address their desire for being a role model and still aspiring to have older role models.’

Being called bossy

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook has highlighted how the same behaviour is interpreted differently when performed by women compared to men, with her ‘Ban Bossy’ campaign. Men are expected to be confident and self-promoting, whereas overt displays of competence and confidence by women can get a negative response. More modest women are commended because that behaviour accords with stereotypical feminine norms. This is true in schools as much as in the workplace. Sandberg says: ‘When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a “leader.” Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded “bossy.” Words like bossy send a message: don’t raise your hand or speak up.’ Teach young women the difference between assertive, aggressive, passive and passiveaggressive responses. Help them to articulate their thoughts and feelings honestly and not to retreat into a learned helplessness that hides their true selves. Reflect on your own actions as a youth worker – do you affirm the same behaviours in both boys and girls?  

Developing young female leaders should be on everyone ’s radar 

Overcoming passivity AND perfectionism

Girls are passive and pretty; boys are active and scruffy. Sadly, that’s not the theme from a 1960s’ Ladybird book, but the clear message currently in Clarks shoe shops where slogans on the wall proclaim that boys test their shoes to destruction while girls love comfort and style. Claire Rush, who is on the leadership team of Girls’ Brigade England, sees this as endemic in our society. She says: ‘From birth, girls are appreciated and valued for what they look like; a passive role. We often say to a girl, “you are so beautiful.” On the other hand, their brothers are celebrated for achieving and doing things. As girls become teenagers, the barrage of messages from TV shows, music videos and magazines confirms what they know deep inside: their bodies are projects to be appreciated by others and worked upon – tweaked, waxed, plucked and honed. The quest to become a “living doll”, the term that Natasha Walters coined, becomes an all-consuming ambition for many, misdirecting focus and valuable energy.’

It’s hard for teenage girls to escape the message that their worth is found in what they look like. Magazines that criticise women for the slightest flaw in their appearance, newspapers where the majority of photos of women show them doing little other than wearing nice clothes and adverts that highlight new areas of our bodies that we ought to be concerned about all combine to create a context where girls are living on the surface of their lives. Natalie says, ‘The messages girls and women receive from the media leave them spending vast proportions of their time, energy and finances on trying to look good, while boys and men get on with actually being able to focus on their character and skill-set at more than a skin deep level.’ Claire argues that: ‘Self-confidence is not in abundance with this generation of girls; they live in a society which benefits from them living in a perpetual state of non-confidence. Psychologist Steve Biddulph notes that we live in a society where corporations are waging a war on girlhood and actively exploiting girls’ anxieties about their appearance in order to make money.’

It’s important to deconstruct this obsession with appearance, to help young people ‘read’ what the media is feeding them and to provide activities for girls where they can get messy and it doesn’t matter. Female youth workers also need to model a healthy relationship with their own bodies, showing that they are happy in their own skin. I was amused and somewhat depressed to see a Facebook post a while ago from a female youth worker who was panicking that she couldn’t find her makeup bag just before her girls’ group was about to arrive. I hope she just got on with it as she was, rather than feeling she could only face the girls with her slap on.

Leading as themselves

Although many people believe that women have a different leadership style to men, there’s little evidence to back this up in research. The reality is that some women lead differently to men, and some don’t, just as some men lead differently to each other! Sometimes the Church is guilty of elevating one style of leadership above others and if the models of leadership that young people see are largely male, they are exposed to less diversity. Young people need to learn to be confident in their own gifts and not feel they have to copy other people. Pete says of Onelife that: ‘A key phrase in our development and thinking has been “equal but different”. It’s important for gender difference to be celebrated not ignored. Women need to lead as themselves, not as mimics of men; likewise for men. Obviously this makes no difference in many cases, but sometimes there are contributions that women need to make, that men are just less apt at making and vice versa.’ Talk to young people about different leadership styles. Again, be aware of what’s being modelled in your church, and if necessary take them to see different leaders in action or use videos to include more diversity.

Contemplating motherhood

Becoming a mother may seem very distant to the girls you work with, and for some it will be off the radar completely. But the reality is that it’s still women who need to make decisions about how they will juggle parenthood with other opportunities if and when the time comes. Liz Bewley, director of training for Onelife says: ‘I have found that as a mum and a leader I am not as free to do as much as I see many male leaders doing because of my call and responsibility as a mum too. I have to weigh up every opportunity that is given to me with what effect it will have on my family. Obviously the same challenge should be there for dads if we are aiming at holding family values highly - but I’m not sure that’s always the case on the ground. The fact that this is often part of the journey as a woman in leadership is not discussed or modelled as an issue in how we develop female leaders.’ Clearly not all women will go on to have children so it’s a topic that needs to be handled with sensitivity, and if we see this as an issue just for girls then things will never change - so it’s something to talk to teenage boys about too. It’s a difficult one to address because parenthood can seem so distant to teenagers, but look out for opportunities to discuss it with older young people and students, and make sure they’re aware of different models of organising family life. Be clear that they can come back to you to discuss it some more when it’s more relevant to their lives.

Helping young people develop leadership skills and reach their full potential will be on the agenda of all youth workers. An awareness of the issues facing young women, some strategic ways of addressing these, and an intentional approach to empowering both sexes will mean that girls don’t lose out and consequently neither will our society. Here’s to the day when ‘lead like a girl’ means leading with excellence in partnership and confidence.


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