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Follow my lead: Women mentors for the next generation

Kerry Healey

Follow my lead: Women mentors for the next generation

Some leaders are born — and many born leaders are women. But many more leaders develop the skills they need to succeed over time with the help of mentors who nurture them, open doors for them and show them the way.

Making sure that there are women mentors and role models who can help today’s young women achieve their maximum potential is more important than ever before.

On the one hand, the opportunities for women are greater today than at any time in history. Girls can realistically dream of becoming anything they want to be, whether astronaut, neurosurgeon, race car driver or even president of the United States.

But girls also face increasing pressures that can derail them — from cyber bullying, to dating pressures, to the pervasive cultural emphasis on having the perfect body.

As I reflect on the honor of being named a “Leading Woman” by the Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts, I am grateful for the leadership skills that scouting nurtured in me as a Girl Scout in Daytona Beach, Fla., in the 1960s, and I also think about one special woman mentor who played a pivotal role in my life.

When I was 16 years old, a dynamic and demanding woman who was editor of our local newspaper decided to take me under her wing. She gave me a job, taught me grammar and journalism, and encouraged me to enroll in the local community college to study the then newly-emerging field of computer science. When I was 17, she put my new skills to work modernizing the newsroom, moving reporters from the IBM Selectrics they loved to the first generation of personal computers.

She was tough and held me to high standards, but she also gave me responsibility and opportunities way beyond the reach of most teenagers. As a result, I had the confidence to set my sights for college higher than I might have without her prodding and support – all the way to Harvard, which was new territory for a graduate of Seabreeze Senior High School.

Even from an early age, a mentor can help guide you and be your champion. Today, more than ever, girls need to be able to envision themselves in a range of professions; without woman mentors, imagining the future becomes much harder to do.

For example, we know that girls are less likely than boys to pursue math and science careers, and are less confident in their performance in those areas. Imagine the difference if a young girl with an interest in science were to have a woman engineer or biotech researcher as a mentor — someone who could demonstrate by her own success that it’s possible to make a career in the sciences and help guide the young woman along her own path to success.

Girls today don’t necessarily aspire to the traditional “command and control” style of leadership they often see modeled by men. Girls want leadership focused on personal principles, ethical behavior and the ability to effect social change. That’s one of the findings of a major study of attitudes of girls and boys toward leadership conducted this spring by Girl Scouts USA entitled, “Change It Up: What Girls Say About Redefining Leadership.”

The study revealed some surprising statistics that should be a wakeup call for all of us who care about nurturing the next generation. For example, while 90 percent of girls believe they can learn to be good leaders, only 21 percent thought they had most of the qualities required to be a leader now.

That’s a big gap. But it’s one women leaders can help fill if we commit ourselves to the effort. Women leaders should recognize the talent that exists among our daughters, nieces and friends’ children, and nurture it.

Ruth Bramson, chief executive officer of the Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts, is leading the way with her newly created CEO Advisory Board. On that advisory council there are extraordinary young women like 12-year-old Emma Gauthier, who is already recognized as a leader in her own community and recently spoke at the Girl Scouts USA national convention. Ruth is giving these young girls an opportunity to be involved at one of the highest levels of the organization, and in return, Emma and her peers help to advise Ruth and her board on the direction of the Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts — heady stuff for pre-teens!

Let those of us who have “made it” commit to doing our part to make sure that the women of tomorrow are ready to take their place in the boardrooms, operating rooms, laboratories, State House, and yes, even the White House. Be a mentor — through the Girl Scouts, Big Sisters, the Boys and Girls Clubs, or on your own, like my mentor — and “pay it forward” for all our daughters and granddaughters.

Kerry Healey, former lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, is a visiting fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership, and sits on the executive committee of the U.S. Department of State’s Public Private Partnership for Justice Reform in Afghanistan.