Fact: Female Role Models Make a Difference

February 20, 2012

Whether she is a teacher, a politician, a friend, or a mother, having a woman to look up to has proven to be a crucial part of girls’ development. A woman in a position of power allows girls to envision themselves in the same position and to create goals for their own success. Because today is Presidents Day, I am reminded once again that I have yet to see a woman as commander in chief. How does this reality affect the aspirations of my generation?

A recent study conducted in 495 villages in the West Bengal region of India shows how young girls and their families are directly affected by powerful female role models. In 1993, this region started a quota that mandated a certain number of women to serve in government positions. Since then, social expectations for girls significantly changed in these areas. When there were female political role models, both the girls and their parents believed that girls deserved the same educational attainment as boys. It is no longer necessarily assumed that girls will leave school early and be relegated to only household tasks. In villages that did not have this quota, parents and girls were noticeably less likely to have aspirations of education for girls.

This study shows that having women in elective office can influence society to close the gender gap. Here at AAUW, our leadership programs for college women are using this very strategy. At the National Conference for College Women Student Leaders, participants hear and meet inspiring women such as journalist Connie Chung and Nomfundo Walaza, CEO of the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre. At a recent Elect Her–Campus Women Win training I attended at George Washington University, participants were lucky enough to meet Margi Vanderhye, a former member of the Virginia House of Delegates. Her experience in politics was inspiring to all of the attendees because she spoke to them woman to woman and discussed her experiences from this particular point of view.

Sheryl Sandberg Copyright 2010 Drew Altizer used via the Creative Commons License through Wikipedia

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg

As co-author of the West Bengal study and Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Esther Duflo says, “Changing perceptions and giving hope can have an impact on reality.” Our task now is to change the reality for all young women. CNN contributors Courtney Martin and Katie Orenstein discuss this concept in an article about Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, who has risen through the ranks and is now one of the major earners in a Fortune 500 company. She is well-known for discussing the potential difficulties that women face during their careers, but more importantly, she stresses the notion that women must own their power. Martin and Orenstein remind us that “people do things because people who look and talk like them … do those things.” Based on Sandberg’s model of success, they urge us to surround ourselves with powerful women whose ambitions will push us to our own limits.

The sooner we elect a woman president, the sooner young women will have another role model to aspire to be. Underrepresentation of women in leadership positions is hurting young women. Let’s work together to change that!

This post was written by AAUW Leadership Programs Intern Meredith Spencer-Blaetz.

By:   |   February 20, 2012

4 Comments

  1. bonnie3747 says:

    Great article. I remember trying to find women in my small town world growing up that I could emulate. There were few. My aunt worked for an attorney and now would be known as an administration assistant. There were teachers, nursing assistants or aides at the hospital, two or three hairdressers, some retail workers, one dress shop owner, some waitresses, and the city librarian. It was hard to visualize a career beyond these. College was the key to move forward. Seeing successful women makes a huge difference, talking to them takes away the fear. Mentors are important, too. That is why I take every opportunity I can to mentor someone, student or business/professional woman.

  2. Carol Samuels says:

    Right on Meredith! Love that clear strong voice! Im thankful everyday for the women in sports who’s shoulders I am standing on. And boys benefit too when they see women in leadership positions. We’re all better off with women’s voices heard loud and clear!

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