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Opinion: Now Is The Time To Teach Our Girls To Lead

The pandemic has presented our kids with a void. They have been separated from friends, the daily rhythms of school or day care, and beloved teachers and caregivers. Into the silence, an onslaught of scary information seeps in. The frightening events of 2020 — police brutality, hundreds of thousands of deaths from COVID-19, economic turmoil, a volatile election — have long-term implications for our children at home, particularly Black girls and girls of color. An atmosphere of helplessness has a lasting impact on what girls — our future leaders — feel they can achieve, which is why we must work to fill the void with fuel for our kids’ imaginations.

The pandemic is likely to influence girls differently than boys. Girls who experience trauma are already more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder than boys, and they are also witnessing the women in their lives, who serve as their role model at home, take on the greater share of home-schooling and child care while losing workforce gains at a disproportionately higher rate than men.

Women have long been underrepresented, accounting for only a third of the nation’s elected leaders despite making up 51% of the population. The severe impacts of the recession on women risks a huge hit to our ultimate goal of building a government that looks like the people.

At She Should Run, we are working to change that trajectory. While the future is uncertain, especially with looming concerns around the upcoming election, we know what we need to do to build a healthy democracy. It is critical that we help our girls at home understand that their voice is, in fact, exactly what our country needs. A July study of 1,000 girls conducted by She Should Run and Barbie found that girls are significantly more likely to want to lead if they’ve had regular conversations about leadership.

Here are three conversations to start now.

Bust The Myth — Finally — On Emotional Leadership

Girls at home are witnessing leaders use vulgar language, confusing messages and forceful tactics. While these events have dominated media headlines, parents can change the narrative. Sharing empowering examples of women in leadership — who often get buried in news headlines — and helping girls identify and connect the emotional leadership traits with those they already own, can help them understand the effective power of leading with compassion and empathy.

Girls, in particular, face a number of systemic societal challenges that are potential obstacles to pursuing leadership.

Studies show that countries led by women have had six times fewer COVID-19 deaths than countries led by men. Examples abound: Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, who took flack for her early and strict measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus, stood strong to protect the her state’s residents and, as of mid-June, her state was one of only three in the U.S. to be “on track to contain COVID.” In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, much to the city’s delight, has used creative means to help enforce restrictions and good-humoredly establish norms that help flatten the curve. And in San Ramon, California, 17-year-old Tiana Day, with support from her father, organized thousands to march across the Golden Gate Bridge for a Black Lives Matter protest in less than 24 hours, demonstrating that teen girls have long been at the forefront of social progress.

Overcome Challenges By Naming Them

By the time children start elementary school, gender and race shape their lives in many ways. Girls, in particular, face a number of systemic societal challenges that are potential obstacles to pursuing leadership. Our research shows that racial equality is by far the top issue concerning Black girls, while bullying is a concern for Latinas more than other ethnic groups. These systems of power are barriers to leadership, yes, but with active conversation, we can help girls name them, explore their voice, and discover how to connect their experiences with solutions.

Healthy conversations at home such as these, can also shift the types of conversations girls have with each other, strengthening supportive peer networks, just as we saw women supporting each other on the floor of Congress recently to speak out against sexism and bullying.

Introduce Guided Role-Play

For very young girls, play is also an important way to express themselves and work through their feelings in the face of adversity. That’s why we’ve again partnered with Barbie to launch the Barbie 2020 Campaign Team, a set of four diverse dolls with career roles strategic to a winning campaign: a candidate, a campaign manager, a fundraiser, and a voter, to help young girls imagine their possible future active roles in politics. She Should Run’s Help Her Lead curriculum, supported in part by the Barbie Dream Gap Project, helps adults foster more healthy conversations about leadership, such as how girls play, at home. The “You Can Be Anything” worksheet, for example, empowers girls to “try out” different roles of a presidential campaign team, and trigger critical thinking around the ways girls can work together, in a safe and confidence-building way.

As role models, we have an opportunity to help girls see the multitude of ways they can channel their energy for change. There is so much that we, too, can learn with them, if we let girls lead the way. Giving ourselves the space to think, feel, and stay focused on the role we each play to build a very different future — no matter what comes our way. This intention will enable us to translate our beliefs and passion into real, meaningful action — and in doing so, inspire the next generation of female leaders, setting us on a stronger path to gender equality.

Erin Loos Cutraro is the founder and CEO of She Should Run, a nonpartisan nonprofit promoting leadership and encouraging women from all walks of life to run for public office.