EDGEWISE: Cultivating confidence, women and girls leaning in to leadership

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By Thursday, Jul 30 Learning
J. Browdy
Butterfly Effect participant Anna Sixsmith, during the Butterfly Effect Leadership Institute at The Mount, under the aegis of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers.

I remember quite well the moment I lost my childhood effervescence and became a silent adolescent. It was in 6th grade, when I was given the task of memorizing long chunks of narration that I had to recite on stage in between the scenes my class was performing from the play “Fiddler on the Roof.” We rehearsed for weeks, and I knew the story inside out. I knew my lines inside out, too. But when the moment of truth arrived and I was alone in a spotlight on the darkened stage, in front of a full auditorium, I totally blanked out and forgot my memorized lines. After a few horrifying moments of silence, the teacher sitting in the front row prompted me and the words came flooding back and tumbling out of my mouth. But the fear that paralyzed me was indelible. It was years before I was willing to take the risk of getting back up on stage again, and when I did, it was with full-force stage fright holding me back and hobbling my voice.

Throughout my teenage years, I was the smart one in class, the one who consistently earned the highest grades on the tests and pleased all my teachers. But I was quiet, rarely engaging in class discussion. It wasn’t that I didn’t have ideas to contribute. It was that I spent so long working out my ideas in my head and perfecting what I was going to say that by the time I was ready to open my mouth and speak, the conversation had moved on. This continued right through college and graduate school, until I became a habitual listener, a follower rather than a leader of discussion.

It turns out that I followed a very common pattern among adolescent American girls. As Katty Kay and Claire Shipman document in their book The Confidence Code, excerpted in The Atlantic, “there is a particular crisis for women — a vast confidence gap that separates the sexes. Compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities. This disparity stems from factors ranging from upbringing to biology.”

Over time, this translates into the familiar scenario in which we fail to see women represented as leaders at the highest levels in business, government, academia or medicine. The impacts of this disparity on our society as a whole are subtle but significant. We can’t know what the world would look like if women and men were truly equal in social influence, but I imagine it would be quite different than the male-dominated system we’ve lived under for at least the past 5,000 years.

In my many years of working with young men and women as a teacher, I’ve come to believe that giving young people leadership skills is just as important a function of education as giving them knowledge. The truth is that in our time, most knowledge is only a mouse click away, resident on the vast collective Google-brain. But the leadership qualities that enable a person to do something productive with that knowledge, and to inspire others to take up a task or a cause — these are invaluable and harder to come by, especially for young women.

Qualities of Leaders. Photo by J. Browdy

Qualities of Leaders. Photo by J. Browdy

What do I mean by leadership qualities? Last week, I worked with a group of teen girls and young women in the new writing-intensive leadership program I have developed under the auspices of the Women’s Collaborative for Creativity and Leadership, the umbrella organization for the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers. Together, we came up with a long, long list (pictured here) of qualities and characteristics necessary for leadership.

Some of the key qualities include confidence, courage, daring, resilience and commitment. You need to have the confidence and courage to take risks to assume the mantle of leadership, and you have to have the resilience to bounce back and try again, if and when you fail.

As Kay and Shipman put it, confidence is something that is learned through trial and error, accumulated over time: “Confidence is a belief in one’s ability to succeed, a belief that stimulates action. In turn, taking action bolsters one’s belief in one’s ability to succeed. So confidence accumulates — through hard work, through success, and even through failure.” They conclude that “women need to stop thinking so much and just act” — to take the risk of speaking up in a class, or getting up on a stage, or submitting a proposal to a boss.

Grace Rossman Photo by L. Najimy

Grace Rossman. Photo by L. Najimy

Through my work with the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, I’ve come to realize the value of providing women and girls opportunities to practice overcoming the perfectionism that keeps us silent in settings we find intimidating. In The Butterfly Effect Leadership Institute, co-facilitator Grace Rossman and I were explicit about our goals of creating a safe space in which each girl’s contributions would be respected and valued. We elicited from the girls themselves a code of conduct that included a commitment to listen deeply and thoughtfully to each other.

As the week progressed, we were moved to see how the girls blossomed into confidence in themselves and delighted in the expressive power of their own and each other’s voices. By the end of the week they were enthusiastically sharing their words not only with each other, but also with a small, very impressed audience of parents and friends. I have no doubt that these girls’ confidence will continue to grow as they practice daring to take the risk of speaking their truths aloud…and I also know that everyone they come in contact with will be enriched as a result of witnessing their creative leadership in action.

I am deeply committed to this work of fostering creative, collaborative leadership among girls and women because I believe that if more women had the confidence to step into their potential as creative leaders, our world would be a more interesting, vibrant, and kinder place.

In the coming months, I’ll be inaugurating a new series of monthly leadership circles for teen girls in the Berkshire region, that will build on the transformative potential of the Butterfly Effect program. The title of the program has a twinfold meaning: on the one hand, we are working to nurture teenaged girls who are in the metamorphic process of changing from children to adults, and on the other hand, we invoke Edward Lorenz’s seminal theory of cause and effect, which he described with the memorable phrase ‘the wind from a butterfly’s wings can be felt around the world.’

It is possible that the course of human history could be changed by just one young woman confidently stepping forward to speak her truth. It is certain that her own life will change for the better if she is able to fully and fearlessly become the creative leader every human being is born to be. To me, that is a goal worth working for.

For more information about the monthly Butterfly Effect leadership circles for young women, contact info@berkshirewomenwriters.org.


Author photoThe weekly EDGE WISE column is curated by Jennifer Browdy, Ph.D., associate professor of comparative literature, gender studies and media studies at Bard College at Simon’s Rock and the Founding Director of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers. Women writers interested in publishing in EDGE WISE can find writers’ guidelines on the Festival website, or may submit queries or columns to Jennifer@berkshirewomenwriters.org


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