I just finished reading a great interview in the Atlantic with Nannerl Keohane and Catherine Ettman about their work at Princeton University, which, to its credit, realized that the dearth of women leaders among their student body needed to be addressed. The statistics quoted in the article are concerning, to say the least. In the past 29 years, according to The Atlantic, only six women were chair of the honor committee, nine were editor-in-chief of the college newspaper, and four were student-body president.
The committee tasked with recommending a way forward that would address this lack of women leaders urged the university, in its 2011 report, to create a formal mentorship program for women. The Atlantic article is well worth reading, and I will not repeat its content here. But what was most interesting to me is the idea of mentorship for women — and the central role it plays in their academic and professional success. The reasons for mentorship of girls and women in STEM fields, for example, have been much discussed. Whole organizations have been founded to provide mentors in order to strengthen the pipeline for girls and women in STEM. And in 2011, with this report, Princeton has emphasized the importance for this fundamentally relational approach to encourage women to step into leadership positions.
I will not debate the pros and cons of mentoring here. The Atlantic’s article was actually part of a larger series that addresses the nuances and pitfalls of mentorship. I want to highlight the deeply relational part of mentoring, something which appears naturally aligned with women’s and girls’ ways of being, and how this is a basic component of all-girls’ educational settings.
If we accept the premise that relationships are the fourth “R” for girls, as author Rachel Simmons says, the unique spaces in which only girls learn and grow are also the spaces in which these relationships thrive. While one might argue that I have veered away from discussing traditional mentoring relationships, I would posit that girls in girls’ schools, for example, find their opinions more respected and rate themselves as more motivated to succeed than their peers in co-ed independent and public schools — which, I would argue, is similar to the result of a strong mentoring relationship.
I would also argue that the strength of the relationships in girls’ schools, between peers and between teachers and girls, knit together an experience that strengthens girls’ aspirations, their willingness to take risks, and yes, their willingness to lead, in fundamental ways. I remember asking an alumna of my school, who had served as student body president, to describe her experience at the school, which she attended from kindergarten on. She told me that it was the sisterhood of which she was a part that has stayed with her, even a decade later. She told me that her peers cheered her on in moments of triumph and dried her tears in times of sorrow in equal measure.
Other alumnae have told me about the surprise they felt in college when their female classmates, unlike themselves, yielded the floor — all too easily — to the men in their classes. It never occurred to them to follow suit. It is my deeply held belief that these stories (and I could go on and on with examples) are the result of the strength of relationships in all-girls spaces. It is no surprise that organizations like the Girl Scouts, Girls on the Run, Black Girls Code, and many others, use this same strength of relationships and sisterhood to bolster the motivation and confidence of young girls with positive results.
One more anecdotal piece of evidence before I end: at Princeton, this young alumna was class president all four years that she attended the university.
Monday July, 10, 2017 at 10:48AM
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