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Want to Foster Leadership in Your Daughter? Consider Sending Her to an All-Girls School

Photo credit: The Agnes Irwin School

Photo credit: The Agnes Irwin School

Despite the possibility of the first female president taking the oath of office in January, women are still trying to get their voice heard in the workplace and struggling to close the wage gap.

So how can women finally shatter that glass ceiling? For starters, we should look to how we educate younger women.

“We believe that every girl has the capacity to lead,” says Mariandl Hufford, assistant head of school at The Agnes Irwin School in Radnor and director of its Center for the Advancement of Girls. “At an all-girls school, we create an environment that encourages girls to explore and take charge.”

From pre-K to Grade 12, Agnes Irwin incorporates leadership skills into their curriculum. In their lower school, for example, CAG’s Living Leadership in the Lower School (or “L3”) program introduces a new leadership trait each month through themed assemblies, assigned readings and group events. Students promote these amongst themselves by filling out slips of paper anonymously when they notice their peer exemplifying the trait. Each trait is established and explained through the use of an object.

“We say leaders are resilient so we’ll use a bouncy ball,” Hufford says. “We show them that just like a bouncy ball, someone who is resilient bounces back when they hit rock bottom. It gets them thinking and using these keywords in casual conversation.”

Starting last year, CAG began hosting a series of leadership workshops for fifth and sixth graders. The goal was to help the girls see themselves as leaders while working with others, or being collaborative while retaining their own voice.

Upper school students operate more freely, organizing their own annual leadership conference Leading for Change (“L for C”) that is open to and free for all girls from the Philadelphia region. Agnes Irwin students fundraise, find speakers and organize the program schedule independently.

CAG recently held an upper school panel, inviting two female Republicans and two female Democrats to discuss the importance of women in public and political leadership positions.

So why are these lessons in leadership integral to an Agnes Irwin education?

“Women make up 51 percent of the population,” Hufford says. “It’s only right that we should be represented in the world at large in leadership positions across all industries. If you don’t have both sides of the population equal, men and women working through the challenges and problems of today, you don’t get the best answers. It benefits all of us.”

Hufford says a key component of the all-girls environment is the freedom from conforming to societal expectations. She says one of her students who transferred from a co-ed school was excited to join stage crew—something that was deemed unladylike at her former school.

“Unfortunately, our world still demands that girls have to be perfect,” Hufford says. “They have to be beautiful and feminine, or behave a certain way around the opposite gender. In a girls’ school, a lot of that falls away. When girls are worried about being perfect, they’re reluctant to take risks— and if you don’t take risks, you don’t grow.”
Research shows that girls are more likely to show initiative and participate in a single-gender environment because they are awarded more opportunities.

“Girls are everything here,” Hufford says. “They are the president of the student body, the class clown, the athlete, the scientist, the star of the stage and the artist in the studio. They don’t have to compete with boys for positions. Whatever it is they want to try, they can try.”

In the spring of 2015, a group of then-6th graders at Agnes Irwin wanted to do something meaningful to help make their classmate’s dream of “no more kids with cancer” come true. Their friend had succumbed to brain cancer earlier that year. The girls knew they could go on walks and contribute in small ways, but they wanted to honor their friend in a way that brought the community together so they created “Movie Under the Stars,” an outdoor movie celebration held each year in September. The girls, now in Grade 8, planned the event—from movie selection to concessions to promotions and recruiting volunteers. They shared their friend’s story and kept her goal alive.

Two other students founded the Acceptance and Awareness of Diversity (AAD) Conference in 2014, with the goal of dispelling ignorance and lack of communication on the subjects of unconscious bias, race, and socioeconomic privilege and their intersectionality. The student-directed conference, which welcomes students from across the region, is now an annual event.

Agnes Irwin teaches that leadership is about the willingness to try and the courage to learn from mistakes. Students also rely on their classmates as much as themselves.

“This is a sisterhood of peers and teachers,” Hufford says. “It’s not about competing with each other. We lift each other up in times of triumph and dry each other’s tears in times of sorrow. I think that’s the most important thing you’ll find in an all-girls school— that we’re all in this together.”

For more information about the leadership programs offered at The Agnes Irwin School, visit their website.