A 2018 Pew Research study indicated that majorities of Americans believe women are as capable as men to serve in leadership roles, in business and politics, but men and women agree that obstacles persist. Fast-forward to 2021 and Kamala Harris is first female Vice President of the United States; a record number of women serve in the legislature; Marvel deemed 2020 the year of the female superhero; and the NBA recently made history by having two females officiate for the first time; but only 7% of Fortune 500 companies are led by women.
One of the most coveted opportunities for girls at Hun is a small, little-known leadership program called the Young Women’s Leadership Cohort. The group consists of twenty girls, nominated annually by the faculty, who demonstrate strong leadership potential. The nominated students are then folded into a robust leadership training program, and set on a path of skill development, networking, and breaking barriers. And, it’s working.
Students are nominated in the 9th and 10th grades. Once enrolled, the participants spend two years engaged in evening workshops and activities designed to identify and hone their personal leadership styles. The School’s Cultural Competency Committee, the umbrella under which this program has grown, has recently discovered a strong correlation between the students who participate in this program and those that rise to leadership positions across campus.
After surveying the first cohort of girls to complete the program, participants indicated an increase in skills and confidence in the following areas: compassion for oneself, overcoming fear of failure, effective communication skills. The data also indicates that participating students feel more prepared to lead on and off campus.
Meghan Poller, faculty advisor, explains that a majority of the curriculum centers on the concept of breaking down the barriers associated with being a “good girl” versus being a “good leader”. She notes that societal definitions of leadership often reflect masculine qualities.
“We talk a lot about what the stereotypical definition of a leader is and what that looks like compared to what the stereotypical definition of a good girl is,” she said. “The two definitions differ greatly, so we talk through how to reconcile those qualities and their personal identities. Identifying those conflicts are often the first steps toward establishing comfort with how they feel internally, a necessary step for good leadership.”
The first year curriculum includes workshops and guest presenters in the areas of resisting toxic self-criticism, managing stress, building and practicing self-compassion, and embracing various leadership philosophies.
Faculty advisor Dayna Gash notes that the most beneficial aspect of the Young Women’s Leadership Cohort is how seamlessly the concepts move from theory to practice. When the girls reach their second year of the cohort, they earn practical experience by mentoring the younger girls. After working with Dr. Nimisha Barton, PhD, a diversity and inclusion consultant for higher education, the girls spend their second year programming activities, workshops, and panels for the new 9th and 10th graders to participate in. Using the knowledge gained from the introductory course with Dr. Barton, they are able to take a more hands on approach in working with the newer members.
The participants also build networking skills and once they graduate, they have the ability to participate in the cohort’s alumnae panel.
“The best learning always happens when you are able to apply what you learn to your own life,” Ms. Gash said. “It has been amazing to see them learn all of these things, understand it through their own lense and then apply it in their relationships and leadership roles.”
When Bella Gomez ’22 was invited to join the cohort as a freshman, she remembers being shocked that she was nominated:
“I’ve always looked at leadership the way I look at my service work, I do it because I love it and I’m passionate about it, not because I want people to notice the work I’m doing and give me credit,” she said. “So when I was nominated for this I was honored but I was also shocked because it meant that my teachers were watching me and noticing the impact I was making.”
On campus, Bella serves as the head of the environmental committee for student government where she stewards eco-friendly initiatives on campus; Bella is also the co-president of the Autism Awareness Club, a member of the National Honor Society and Junior State of America. When she is not on campus, Bella runs a nonprofit organization called Triple E -- Empowering Environmental Education, where she works on integrating environmental education into elementary curriculum as well as sits on the STEM Advisory Board for the National Girls Collaboration Project.
Bella feels that being a member of this cohort has taught her not only how to be a strong leader but also how to be an advocate for herself and her mental health.
“For a long time I thought to be a good leader I had to show up every day and be this perfect version of myself and through this cohort I learned that is simply not the case,” she said. “The best leaders I know are raw, honest, and the first ones to admit when they are having a bad day. I’ve really learned about the power of honesty and integrity and how important it is to be honest about where I am mentally and understanding that one bad day doesn’t make me a bad leader.”
According to Ms. Gash, the power of this program lies within the self-perpetuating model that it creates for the Hun community:
“This program extends so far beyond their four years here,” she said. “This generates a network of exceptional women who are doing great things at the School; who will go on to do exceptional things in the world and through the reciprocal leadership style that they have learned, they will come back to Hun and mentor the new cohort members. The cycle will perpetuate and the impact of the program will expand further.”