Story at a glance

  • March marks the annual observance of Women’s History Month — a time to celebrate, educate and evaluate.
  • While progress has slowly been made for gender parity in leadership roles, the coronavirus pandemic threatens to set back that progress, as women have been disproportionately affected.
  • Organizations such as Girl Up by the United Nations Foundation are dedicated to inspiring girls and young women to one day take up leadership roles.
  • This month, Girl Up is observing Women’s History Month with their #LeadLikeHer campaign.

Women’s History Month lends itself as a time when we pay tribute to the inspiring women shaping our government, businesses and homes, and was designated by presidential proclamation as a time set aside to honor women’s contributions in American history. This monthlong celebration should also be a time of more solemn recognition for the progress that has yet to be made for gender parity.

While women make up 50.8 percent of the U.S. population, earn more than 57 percent of undergraduate degrees and 59 percent of all master’s degrees, a significant gender wage and leadership gap still exists. In full-time workers, women earn 79 percent for every dollar a man earns, on average. Globally, women hold just 24 percent of senior leadership positions, and in a study of nearly 22,000 publicly traded organizations worldwide, 60 percent have no female board members.

Last year, women in the U.S. were also disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. According to a report by McKinsey, women — especially women of color — are more likely to have been laid off or furloughed during the crisis, “stalling their careers and jeopardizing their financial security.”

The report states that at the beginning of 2020, the representation of women in corporate America was trending in the right direction, as representation of women in senior vice president positions grew from 23 to 28 percent, and representation in the C-suite grew from 17 to 21 percent. However, due to the challenges created by the COVID-19 crisis, as many as 2 million women are considering leaving the workforce.

Research shows that retaining female leadership is as important as ever, and that company profits and share performance can actually be close to 50 percent higher when women are well represented at the top. 

Inspiring a new generation

In 2010, the United Nations Foundation launched an initiative called Girl Up, whose mission it is to “develop, mobilize and activate a powerful generation of young changemakers who advance gender equality,” says Melissa Kilby, Girl Up’s Executive Director. 

“We’re a movement to advance girls’ skills, rights and opportunities to be leaders. Since 2010, Girl Up has developed the leadership skills of 85,000 girls through 4,500 Clubs in more than 125 countries, inspiring a generation to be a force for gender equality and social change in their communities, countries and around the world.”

“This is urgent and important work because there is nowhere in the world where girls are equal to boys, women are equal to men. Through Girl Up, young leaders learn to organize and mobilize their communities, they are connected to a global community of changemakers and together they are working toward a world where girls have equal value, opportunity and a chance to reach their fullest potential. A world better for girls, is a world better for us all – when girls rise, we all rise,” says Kilby.

#LeadLikeHer

This month, Girl Up is working on a social media campaign called #LeadLikeHer, which aims to celebrate and tell the stories of female leaders throughout history and those paving the way today. 

Kilby says that recognizing events like Women’s History Month is important.

“In order to understand where we are going, we have to understand and know our history. In order to enact and sustain real change, we have to learn from the lessons of those who have undertaken this work before us,” she says.

While Kilby hopes one day we can “get to a time where we don’t need dedicated times to appreciate women, people, and cultures,” the observation of events like International Women’s Day still presents itself as a pivotal time to inspire and educate. 


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Emily, an 18-year-old who volunteers with Girl Up, says she first came across the organization when they made a video for International Day of Girls in 2017. 

“At that time, I really wanted to start a student organization that works on gender equality, and it felt like Girl Up and I found each other. I started a Girl Up Club in my community in the same year, and with my Club members we have been working on gender equality in the Asia-Pacific region,” says Emily. “I think about myself pre-Girl Up and after joining Girl Up, and it has truly inspired me to push for change through giving me a sense of purpose and responsibility.”

“I am no longer just a girl from Taiwan with ideas for activism no one seems to understand. I carry with myself a mission to get more stories heard, to be an advocate for girls who might not have the opportunities to do so, to keep fighting even when people keep saying no. Girl Up has made me see that we as feminists are part of a moment, and we have a duty to fulfill.”

Young women and girls involved with the organization shared with Changing America that being a part of an inspiring community, one which allows for mentorship and growth, has made all the difference in their path toward leadership.

“Often, it is very alienating to be a young women or nonbinary person in today’s world, but resources like Girl Up allows us to feel like we have someone in our corner fighting for us,” says Laura Julia, a 16-year-old who shared she is passionate about storytelling. “Beyond that, Girl Up connects us with a plethora of amazing people, both mentors and friends, that we can learn from and share with.”

In Girl Up’s #LeadLikeHer campaign, readers and viewers can learn about many of those female leaders, role models and entrepreneurs within the organization’s network. For those who would like to participate, Girl Up encourages you to share your own stories and lift up the inspiring women in your life by using the hashtag #LeadLikeHer on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.


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Published on Mar 11, 2021