Julia Gillard, Australia’s first and only (so far) female Prime Minister, has recently co-authored a book with Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, called Women and Leadership.
In this engaging and extensively researched book, the authors cite a number of fascinating case studies in their exploration of a series of hypotheses about women and political leadership. One involves a social design experiment from India in 1993. At this time a law was passed to ensure that at council elections in a random selection of villages, only women candidates could nominate as local leader. This meant that a broader cross section of villages who had never had a woman leader and those who after several elections under this law knew only women leaders, could later be compared in terms of the impact these leaders had on the attitudes of parents and their children, particularly their daughters, towards women in positions of power.
There were so many intriguing findings from this experiment, but of overall importance was the fact that in the villages that lived with this so called ‘dose effect’ by ‘seeing and being subject to female leadership, adolescent girls changed both their perspectives and their behaviour’ (p256), in terms of their career aspirations, hopes for education and in acting to delay their marriages. The impact was clear because of the closeness of these role models to the girls who lived in the community; “the woman leader was like them and heard them because she came from the same village.” (p257) Gillard and Okongo- Iweala argue then that close female role models both lift ambition and change behaviour for the women around them.
Grace and Lily, incoming School Captain and Vice-Captain at Loreto Normanhurst
When I saw this photograph of Grace and Lily, the incoming School Captain and Vice-Captain at Loreto Normanhurst, leading their first school assembly wearing Learner Plates, alongside the outgoing School Captain and Vice-Captain, Phillipa and Maria, I was struck by the how it illustrated an insight into this power of role modelling featured in Julia Gillard’s book.
In each of our Australian Loreto school the tradition of student leadership has had an indelible impact on multiple generations of students, for over 145 years. Younger girls have long looked up to the girls who have led their student bodies, captained sports teams, conducted choirs or dazzled at debating; because these ‘big girls’ are just like them. Both formal and informal leadership positions carry weight, influence and authenticity in our schools. The cultivating of admiration, respect and friendship is one dimension of the role modelling these leaders do; the other though is less tangible, but perhaps more powerful. Loreto student leaders also make it seem possible for the girls around them that they too, can and should want to lead, both within their school context but also beyond it and into the future. Those leaders who understand this and give of themselves to mentor and encourage those coming after them, strengthen each year the practice of student leadership in the Mary Ward way.
At Loreto Normanhurst, Lily and Grace identified this generosity in Phillipa and Maria, when reflecting on the type of leadership they had given the school in 2019-2020. They identified the authenticity, resilience and optimism of these Captains as admirable qualities upon which they hoped to build and continue as characteristics of Loreto Normanhurst students. Lily spoke of the capacity of the two older girls to be flexible and adaptable, and Grace commented that they had led with felicity, being joyful despite the many challenges of this year, due to the impact of the pandemic. For their part, Phillipa and Maria had advice for the new Captains; be willing to adapt your expectations about the year ahead, have faith in the leadership abilities which led to your election even when you doubt yourselves, and make things new – don’t be constrained by what has been done before. Both Phillipa and Maria reflected on the experience of this school year, with shared pride in their flexibility and ability to meet the multitude of challenges that arose and to maintain their equilibrium, setting the tone and example for the entire student body.
Role models have a power and a direct impact amongst young people that can be profound. And when this approach is an engrained part of school culture and an expected way to be –then even moreso. Loreto girls expect, allow and encourage other girls to be leaders; to have ambition, purpose and a desire for service. Like the Indian girls in the village, it both seems normal and ultimately creates long term change. And as the student leaders at Normanhurst demonstrate, role models teach those around them; those coming into roles learn implicitly and explicitly from those who have gone before them, and in this ongoing mentoring relationship there is real power.
Mary Ward empowered other women in her original ‘circle of friends’ to take on responsibility, to become leaders and decision makers from the very early days of her enterprise. They took up this challenge due to her example and then in their own way after she had gone. Mother Gonzaga Barry who instituted the tradition of student leaders in our Australian schools said…
“Leave behind yourself something upon which others can build.”
Let’s continue our priority for this, so that Julia Gillard is the first, and not the last female prime minister, perhaps because of someone with the experience of student leadership in a Loreto education.
Author: Michelle McCarty Director of Mission, Loreto Ministries