How women encourage and advocate for young Nebraskan women in gaining confidence and honing leadership skills
By Ranya Aribi and Olivia Taylor
A place where women are represented and heard, where their voices matter and their dreams thrive. Many Nebraskan women are fighting to become leaders and encourage leadership in the future generations of young girls.
To increase the community, representation and role models are essential, especially for young girls, as the confidence and skills they learn are heavily reliant on what is seen around them.
Ronda Graff, an affiliated fund coordinator for the McCook Community Foundation Fund, said providing that representation for the younger generation is a responsibility of women.
“I see these other women out there, they have to remember that, the younger people are watching you, and they need to see people who look like them if we expect them to step up later,” she said.
Research shows that representative role models have a definite impact and benefit for women. Representation is shown to inspire women to become more ambitious and aim higher in their own lives. Without that representation, women are less likely to succeed in areas that interest them.
Due to the gender biases, institutional barriers and negative stereotypes women have to contend with, Elsbeth Magilton, the president of Girl’s Code, a non-profit organization with a goal to teach young women coding and leadership skills, said representation is critical for young girls.
“I think representation is really important,” she said. “Seeing women in all roles and seeing more women of color in roles, I think is particularly critical.”
Magilton shared how representation and community helped her, even at this point in her life and in her career.
“The community of women that are here has been a highlight of my professional career. The relationships that I have with those women who can understand some of those struggles have been really impactful,” she said. “And I think because there’s fewer of us, we actually have to ally with each other in a really effective way.”
Community is the consistent theme in what drives these women into their leadership roles and what brings them success in these leadership roles as well.
Hayley Peterson, an alum of the Nebraska Women’s Leadership Network also said women sticking together is necessary for her career.
“I am definitely a minority in a male-dominated space, so how do I make sure that my voice and others like me are represented at the table? We have to look out for each other,” Peterson said.
Graff said it took her a long time to find her voice and community and believes young women should start early on to find that confidence within themselves.
“I want to tell women that they can speak up and shouldn’t be afraid, even if they ruffle some feathers,” Graff said.
Graff is also a big advocate for women taking on leadership roles. She recognizes that women are underrepresented in Nebraska, and said there are always opportunities no matter the age.
“I am on the ballot for the McCook school board. I’m always telling people to do things,” she said. “So it was finally time to do the walk instead of just the talk and that’s why I finally got on the ballot for this fall.”
The Center for Youth Political Participation, an organization devoted to advancing the political learning of young people, reported that only 28.5% of the Nebraska senators are female.
“You need to see people that look like you. And you may not even have the same thoughts,” Graff said. “But at least it puts that spark in there that if they can do that, then I can do that.”
That spark and confidence is something women like Graff are pushing to start at a young age to combat the gender socialization process. Gender socialization, the process of preparing young girls on “how to behave like a girl,” can start as early as birth and extend throughout adolescence.
While gender socialization affects both boys and girls, the result of socialization within a patriarchal society usually encourages behaviors like perfectionism and fear to speak up and speak wrong for young girls.
Magilton said perfectionism and putting unattainable standards for themselves is a concept taught to these girls from a young age.
“Society trains women, unconsciously, I think, for the most part, to seek perfectionism. And women then lose their confidence in their ability to engage,” she said. “So what happens often is women are more ingrained from a young age to not ask questions or to risk not looking perfect.”
She said she has seen how these fears are reflected in young girls’ behaviors, and even in her own club.
“When we look at classrooms, girls are significantly less likely to ask questions,” she said. “We’ll have a student raise their hand and ask a question, tell us what the problem is, and all the work is gone. And they say ‘I deleted it because I didn’t want you to see it.’”
Combating these fears and instilling confidence in young girls is a primary aspect of Magilton’s goal with Girls Code. She said learning about failure and knowing it is okay to fail is essential to end the perpetuation of perfection in young girls.
“The fear of failure can be paralyzing, so one of my biggest pushes for myself and for others, is to get past this idea of perfection, and then also to go out and talk about it so that we don’t continue to perpetuate what we were taught as little girls,” she said.
Theta Roths is an 11-year-old regular Girl’s Code member of 2 years. She shared the changes she has seen in herself and her confidence since starting to attend Girl’s Code.
“It’s helped me not be so scared to talk in front of other people,” she said. “When I was younger before this, I was very shy to talk to many people. And now I’m not as afraid to lead group projects.”
She said she liked learning how to be a leader and advocate for herself and help others.
“This means that I won’t get stepped on and trampled over by others and be my own person and help others to do the same,” she said.
Many of the attendees of Girls Code have similar experiences to Roths and use Girl’s Code as an outlet to find that community and confidence within themselves.
This type of mindset and community is one Vivian Jacobitz, a volunteer for Girl’s Code, a non-profit organization with a goal to teach young women coding and leadership skills wishes she had growing up.
“Community is something I wish that I had when I was younger. So this was something I really wanted to make sure to be involved in because it’s just one way for me to give back to something I’m really passionate about,” she said.
The efforts of organizations like Girl’s Code, although slow, are still effective in changing the lives and futures of these young women in Nebraska.
“I do think that when you spend time engaging with someone, showing them how capable they are and showing them that it’s okay to fail, you change their life,” Magilton said. “Then they go out and they share that empathy, compassion, curiosity and that knowledge with others. That might be a slow Domino, but it’s a domino effect worth having right?”
That domino effect is what is making young girls and women become leaders and find resources to gain the confidence to be in leadership roles.
These women shared their hopes for the future generation and will continue to advocate and make a better Nebraska for young women.
“The more I can look at little girls and tell them about all the times I failed, the better as far as I’m concerned. And have them see that there’s nothing wrong with asking questions and struggling,” Magilton said.
Haley Armstrong, the manager of Community Relations at Kiewit Corporation, is a strong believer in paying it forward for the next generation of young female leaders. Her focus is on how she, as a woman in a leadership role, can help to advocate for the next group of young girls, so that they can have the same, or better resources when they are adults.
“Certainly when we know that there’s such an importance on activism and advocacy, we just pay it forward to that next generation and do everything we can to make things better,” she said. “Whether that’s in advocacy, through legislation with paid time off or through laws, I really think that’s supportive.”
Being a woman in a society that does not make it easy to climb up to the top of the ladder, is exhausting and Armstrong understands this.
“I would certainly say that I have tried to practice grace, which is easier said than done but allow yourself grace, especially as women,” Armstrong said.
There is a whole community fighting to create a better Nebraska. Future generations are walking into a space that past generations have paved and will continue to pave for them.