If It's Important for Girls to Lead, Let's Make It a Priority at School

Apr 27, 2020 12:00:00 AM

by ShaRhonda Knott-Dawson

Coronavirus has given us little to celebrate. My hope is that one of the silver linings during this crisis is that all students, but especially girls, have the opportunity to see women in positions of leadership kick ass! [pullquote position="right"]Representation is so important, unfortunately, many girls don’t see women in leadership positions.[/pullquote]

I am glad that the world can now see Black women—as elected officials—rising to the challenge of leading their cities, counties and communities. In Georgia, there is a showdown between Governor Brian Kemp and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on opening up their economy last week, with the mayor taking a more cautious approach to protect citizens and mitigate the effects of the virus—even in the face of some blatant racism.  

In my hometown, Chicago, our mayor, Lori Lightfoot, has become somewhat of a national meme with her stern, forceful warnings to “Chicagoans and the world” that they need to stay home.


As a mother of two Black school-age girls, I am constantly worried about how they might experience both racism and sexism at school. Truthfully, racism is easier for me to fight than sexism. By the grace of God and some magic potion, my two Black daughters have a number of strong women of color to look up to right now in both local and state offices: Broadview Mayor Katrina Thompson, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and State Senator Kimberly Lightfoot. They also have the blessing of having another woman of color, who is disabled and a war hero, to serve as their senator, Senator Tammy Duckworth.  

I know they don’t appreciate how rare this is, and how lucky they are to see women in positions of political leadership. But [pullquote]even with plenty of examples of female leadership, girls can still lack the necessary confidence to explore fields that have been traditionally been seen as for “boys.”[/pullquote]

For example, my elder daughter tells me that she “isn’t good at math,” because of her experience in this one class with a new teacher! When I went into full feminist-mom speech—lots of mentions of Hillary Clinton, Mae Jamison, and the importance of grit—she tried to calm me down by saying she has realized that “girls are better at English and social studies than math and science.” Whew, did she get a long talking-to that night! 

Even my 7-year-old is dealing with sexist messages and has started doing things like “forgetting her glasses” at home because “boys like girls who are pretty, not smart.” That’s the advice and the message she got from her second grade peers.  

Parents have little control over peer interactions at school, but schools could be doing much more to turn these kinds of interactions into learning opportunities. And no one knows better what schools could be doing to build female leadership than the girls who are actually inside those schools.

Girls Believe Schools Can And Should Do More

So, I asked my friends to ask their daughters, “What should schools do to encourage female leadership?” Here are the thoughts of the young women.

  • Laura, age 9, fourth grade: “Maybe have girls-only groups within schools?”
  • Sisters Luna (age 16) and Sara (age 9) agreed they’d love to see more women of color—like themselves—as teachers, and also want their schools to give more opportunities to people of color.
  • Antonia, age 10, fifth grade: “We should do more interesting stuff, like teaching people how to farm. And like having leadership classes and how to be leaders taught in school.” 
  • Sophia, age 14, ninth grade: “Opportunities to speak up and share your opinions in class.”
  • Rhyan age 10, fourth grade: “Encourage girls more. Have more sports offered to girls that are usually offered to boys.”
  • Ryann, age 11, sixth grade: “Teachers shouldn’t give tasks to certain genders. They shouldn’t say things like, ‘I need strong boys to help bring lunch,’ or ask [only] girls to help clean or take notes.”
  • An anonymous girl, age 7, first grade, Oak Park: “They should have us practice being leaders more.”
  • Charli, age 9, third grade: “Start treating us with more respect, especially Black girls. Girls never get the same respect as boys, but even White girls get more than us.”
  • Lucy, age 10, fourth grade: “Schools should be including girls more. Usually, they aren’t included and all they get is disrespected by boys.”
  • An anonymous girl, age 12, sixth grade, Chicago: “I think schools can help girls by starting programs for girls run by girls, and to teach them they are equal to all others and can accomplish goals even as they face challenges. I also think they should remember to empower girls of all ethnicities and not tear down other girls.”

If It’s Important, It’s a Priority

When schools recognize the importance of something to their students’ development, they make it a priority. Schools understand that STEM is important for children to learn, so they are implementing STEM programming. Schools have known that there is a confidence drop in girls in schools and a lack of girl leadership in many school programs, yet they have done little to intentionally address this problem. But, it can be done! For example:

  • North Carolina's Wake Young Women's Leadership Academy has a girls’ leadership class.
  • Oakland’s Girls Leadership runs workshops for students and families in California, Colorado, New Jersey and New York to help equip girls to use their voices.

I think a good first step for all schools just starting out would be to conduct a girl-specific survey on school climate to find out whether girls feel supported in and by their schools. The achievement of girls as young as kindergarten is already impacted by sexism, and it would be a great idea for schools to assess what’s happening in their individual locations.

School is one of the four most often identified agents of gender socialization. And frankly, it’s far past time for schools to address sexism and gender bias by implementing programs to address the messages girls receive from peers—and sometimes teachers—about leadership, and to help them develop their leadership skills using school as a vehicle.

ShaRhonda Knott-Dawson

ShaRhonda Knott-Dawson is the mother of two free-spirited, strong-willed girls and has a husband who should be appointed a saint for co-existing in the madness that is their life. She writes on politics, education, current events and social justice. She is also a taco enthusiast, a proud member of the Bey-hive, and truly believes that she will be receiving her letter from Hogwarts any day now.

The Feed