by Zenia Frendt
Leadership Giving Director, Women’s Leadership Council
“If someone were to come to me and insist that we don’t have a ‘woman leadership’ problem in this state, my response would be, ‘Shadow me.’ There are many times in my workweek when I am the only woman in the room. Oftentimes, I’m not even looked in the eye until we are all sitting around the table and I have the chance to prove myself. It would sure help if I had a few other women in that room with me.” — Dr. Elizabeth Hitch, Associate Commissioner for Academic Affairs, Utah State Office of Higher Education (USHE)
How do we turn today’s girls and young women into tomorrow’s leaders? What is the correlation between leadership roles and education? WHY is it important that our female youth be preparing to lead in the future?
A panel of some of Utah’s top women leaders painted a very clear picture on these issues at the Collective Impact in Education Summit last week. The panel, Educational and Leadership Achievement for Women, was comprised of Dr. Susan Madsen, Professor at UVU and founder of the Utah Women and Education Project; Dr. Elizabeth Hitch, USHE, and Dr. Nancy Basinger, CEO, Big Brothers Big Sisters Utah (BBBSU). Listening to these three experts go into the realities facing Utah women today, as well as the solutions, was certainly eye-opening.
The current reality for women in Utah is this:
- Utah has the LARGEST gender gap for college graduation in the country
- Women earn 70 cents for every dollar men earn—less than the 77 cent national average
- 74% of women with school-aged children work
- Utah has a higher divorce rate than the national average
- Nearly ONE THIRD of female-headed households live in poverty
The fact is, Utah needs more women leaders, and all three of these panelists will tell you that building tomorrow’s leaders begins with educating our girls TODAY. Dr. Susan Madsen points out that “leadership” doesn’t necessarily need to be leadership in the corporate sense–although, certainly, corporations with more women in leadership roles and on boards attain better financial results than other organizations. Leadership, however, can take many forms. A woman can lead, for example, on community issues, in church, in our government, or for a cause she believes in. Whatever type of leadership a woman chooses, one thing is clear: there is a direct link between women developing their leadership skills and women going to—and graduating from—college. In Utah, this is a problem.
There are many barriers preventing girls and young women from obtaining a post-secondary degree. Financial concerns are number one, and yet all of the data points to the fact that in our state, scholarships and financial aid are drastically underutilized. The other major barrier is more subtle, and may be more specific to Utah girls.
We seem to have a barrier with “readiness.” Many young women believe that they will get their education at some point in the future, but the time never comes. Some say that they were always encouraged to attend college, but never aspired to graduate. Some have almost finished, but quit to marry or have children–many women feel disempowered to finish school once they decide to start a family because, as Dr. Madsen says, “we haven’t explained well enough that it doesn’t have to be one or the other. There are night classes, there are options.” Family, she says, is important. Education, however, is critical as well, and women in Utah really need to start understanding that you CAN have both, and do not need to be trapped in a role.
Given the above statistics, especially around divorce and poverty, we do not have the luxury of giving up on our education. In the words of Dr. Hitch, “’This will be good enough for me’ is NOT an insurance plan!” Research has indicated time and again that when women do better, we all do better. We must have more women leading, and not only for our own sakes, but for our families, our community, and our government.
So, what are some of the best ways to address this? What can I do, as one person, to work towards a solution? Dr. Nancy Basinger explains that there are so many amazing women in our state, but that oftentimes they just don’t know what is available to them. This is something that we all can help with—whether it be through mentoring, presenting, or speaking out generally.
At United Way of Salt Lake, our Women’s Leadership Council gives many options for our women to get involved and inspire future leaders. BBBSU, WLC, and Latinos in Action have partnered to bring Mentor 2.0 to Utah—a program where we can work with and mentor high school girls via email. We have also worked with USHE and Utah Scholars to do one-time presentations to 8th grade girls on the importance of preparing for college, ways to save for college, scholarship opportunities, and more!! There are countless ways to get involved—whether it be through the WLC or through your own investigations, the power of WOMEN helping other WOMEN cannot be understated!
WE have the power to change the odds. You can even get involved RIGHT NOW! We are currently signing women up to present on December 15 and 16 at Granite Park Jr. High. This is a one-time 90-minute commitment, but it just might make the difference in a future leader’s life! Contact email@example.com for more information!