How Leadership Programs Prepare Girls for Futures in the Workplace

Globally, girls perform academically at par with boys and often even out-perform them in school. But when it comes to leadership during their careers women fall behind. This phenomenon is manifested consistently in many parts of the world, and especially in Africa where the C-suites are often devoid of female leaders. In fact, a study by Accenture in 2010 suggested that women are more resilient at work. Why then are women absent from or under-represented in leadership positions at executive level? Why do women choose to serve more on voluntary boards, at church and in civic spheres, leaving business and government leadership to be dominated by men?

Interestingly, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that women disadvantage themselves and that the many of the limitations to leadership are as much internal as they are external. While some circumstances impede women from professional success (such as a phenomenon dubbed PhD – Pull her Down), we have also learned that there are things that can be done with women – with girls- at a young age to help them prepare for the challenges and opportunities that leadership at the highest levels present.

In Uganda and Nigeria, JA Africa runs leadership camps for girls annually, bringing together girls with female professionals at the top of their companies to exchange knowledge and learning. The Girls in Leadership camp in Uganda, which took place earlier this month is a program that was replicated from Norway called Female Future. It was originally championed by the Norwegian Federation of Employers to bridge the gender disparity at senior levels in organizations and boards. Originally targeting women already in the workplace, it was then adapted to target young women before they enter the workforce, while they are making decisions about their careers in order to build their interests and ambition before society convinces them to alter their options and ambitions.

Within the Ugandan context, mentorship for girls through leadership camps like these is particularly important. In addition to dealing with the absence of female executive leadership, they also help counter other challenges like dominant patriarchal systems and child marriage. JA Uganda introduces girls to this concept by encouraging them to start as Managing Directors in the Companies they develop as they receive training in JA’s flagship Company Program ®. During a period lasting up to 30 weeks students develop and manage companies from capitalization to liquidation, developing business ideas, planning, appointing management, selling shares, developing products, marketing, making profits, managing shareholders, etc. “All of these have a multi-faceted impact,” says Josephine Kaleebi, the Executive Director of JA Uganda. “It helps them set their life plan. It helps them stay in school.

Over the last five years, the JA Girls in Leadership camp has pulled together girls from the ages of 14-19 to help them develop their life plans; learning important lessons on a variety of subjects including health, wealth, family, professionalism, etc. During a three-day period the 200 girls who attend each year are coached by accomplished professional women from influential companies like Barclays Bank, Stanbic Bank and others. They begin to think about what kinds of jobs they aspire to have and what it takes to get there, they explore how many children they want to have, what kinds of schools they want their children to go to and the affordability of their lifestyles including school fees, health insurance and vacations. They begin to understand the implications of all their life decisions. “The program helps young girls to think about life purposefully and to start that now,” says Kaleebi. “It triggers self discovery, ambition to lead that goes hand in hand with practicing leadership among other things.”

In JA Uganda’s program, modules take girls through different aspects of their lives that are components of success, like the importance of physical education and finding the balance between personal appearance and substance. ‘The magic in you’ helps them understand and optimize their personal gifts as well as overcome the limitations of their personal backgrounds, whether they be from poor backgrounds, broken families, low academic performance, etc. They learn etiquette, self-awareness, how to navigate difficult professional crossroads, finding the courage to make bold decisions in the workplace, build financial resilience, manage peer pressure, speak publicly. This year, speakers at the camp included powerful women like Irene Birungi Mugisha, CEO of All Round Consult Uganda Limited and Clara Mira, International Monetary Fund(IMF) Country Representative sharing on self-discovery. From their mentors in the camp they learn to demystify the myths of professional women.

An important component of empowering girls is ensuring that boys are able to understand the implications of marginalizing women leaders in the workplace and embrace gender diversity. In 2014 boys were introduced into the program, though their participation was intentionally caped at a third of participants. “We wanted boys to know what it feels like to be a woman in the minority at the top of leadership,” says Josephine, “but it is important to bring both [genders] on board. We need to create a situation where boys are enablers. We need to balance the need to empower girls with the need not to leave boys behind. Girl child empowerment needs to be in a comprehensive context.”

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