How To See Your Selfie: Developing Leadership Identities in Girls

Wendy HillDespite the fact that women are attending college at higher rates than men and comprise 57 percent of the workforce, we still live in an America where there are more CEOs named “John” than all the women leading major U.S. companies combined. Surprising? Perhaps. Disappointing? Absolutely.

Much has been written about the glass ceiling’s impact on female leadership, and with greater emphasis today on gender equity, one could argue that the dearth of women leaders is just a bias of older generations. Isn’t it only a matter of time before as many women leaders answer to Joanne as to John? Surely, younger generations express less gender bias about leadership.

Developing Leadership Identities

Alas, a recent report entitled Leaning Out: Teen Girls and Leadership Biases, conducted by the Making Caring Common Project at Harvard University, shows that gender bias is commonplace among teenagers. Its research suggests “that teen girls both hold biases and suffer from biases that may corrode their relationships and sense of justice, sap their confidence in their leadership potential, and dampen their desire to seek leadership positions, especially in high-power fields.”

The Leaning Out report, based on surveys of nearly 20,000 teenage girls and boys, recommends that girls interact with strong female role models, solidify their self-confidence, and participate in leadership programs. One avenue to developing a powerful sense of self and strong confidence is through identity development, a critical process that takes place during child and adolescent development. Who are you? What are your values? Answers to such questions form the foundation from which a person’s ambitions are launched.

One avenue to developing a powerful sense of self and strong confidence is through identity development.

Helping girls incorporate “I am a leader” into their identities has been an important focus at Agnes Irwin and is in keeping with our mission “to empower girls to learn, to lead, and to live a legacy.”

Leading in Lower School

For example, we have developed a leadership program for girls in our Lower School, which was recently highlighted by the National Association of Independent Schools. Unlike many leadership development programs that focus on skills, the purpose of our program is to foster, refine, and elevate leadership identities in young girls. The reason we chose to focus on identity, rather than skills, is because it is important for girls to see themselves as leaders. Unlike a set of skills, leadership identity is more likely to carry into adulthood because it is ingrained into how a person defines herself.

“Know Thy Selfie”

A new Middle School program developed by our Center for the Advancement of Girls for fifth- and sixth-grade girls also targets leadership identity. Our first session, held in October, was titled “How Do You See Your Selfie?” The blogger Dominic Basulto asserts that “selfies” are in keeping with the self-knowledge and exploration that occurs during the painting of a self-portrait. He suggests that the selfie “is the modern-day, technological version of what the ancient Greek philosopher Plato referred to as ‘Know Thyself.’” In essence, Plato posited that understanding the world can only begin by understanding ourselves.

That process — of developing an internal understanding of one’s strengths, weaknesses, values and aspirations — is an important part of adolescence. Is that why taking selfies is such a rage among tweens and teens? What’s happening, Basulto argues, “is that smart phone technology is giving us unique insights into what makes us human by giving us the power to document every moment of our lives.”

At my school, we have used the digital analysis of a “selfie” as the foundation; through various interactive projects and engaging discussions, we help girls develop their leadership identities and the self-confidence to see their strengths through their digital self-portrait. We strive to help girls articulate who they are, what they believe, and how they can be effective leaders in their communities.

We strive to help girls articulate who they are, what they believe, and how they can be effective leaders in their communities.

The next session of our Middle School leadership program, entitled “What Do You Want on Your Pizza?” will take place on Saturday, Feb. 20. The title is based on a story that clinical psychologist and author Catherine Steiner-Adair tells about asking girls of different ages what kind of pizza they want. According to Steiner-Adair, if you ask a 10-year-old girl, she will say enthusiastically “double cheese and pepperoni.” Ask a 13-year-old girl, and she will say, “I don’t know.” A 15-year-old will say, “whatever you want.” The decline in self-efficacy and confidence is apparent. Our program is designed to help girls maintain their assertiveness and agency as they mature.

Female leadership is intimately tied to developing strong identities and to empowering girls to find and use their own voices to advocate for themselves, others, and issues about which they feel passionate. Wouldn’t it be nice if your 15-year-old daughter took a striking selfie while she emphatically pronounced that she wants a pizza with everything on it? Now that’s a selfie worthy of posting.

Dr. Wendy L. Hill, Head of School

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