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Editorial: If girls run the world, they should run offices

Women have outnumbered men on college campuses since 1988, according to an analysis of the gender gap by the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. The U.S. Department of Labor cited in 2016 that roughly 47 percent of the workforce in America is composed of women. There’s no way to deny the influence of women at work — women are chipping away at previously male-dominated industries and demanding equal pay and access. Although one damaging truth continues to affect working women — their absence in leadership roles.

Many Americans are astutely aware that women need more representation in upper-level management and big office positions. We can recognize the uneven obstacles against women seeking leadership positions — The Rockefeller Foundation cited that 85 percent of their study participants agree that men have it easier in reaching top positions than equally qualified women. Many of us want this to change, but the problem has many layers and is built deeply into our culture. Wanting isn’t enough.

In tandem with our good wishes, we battle with preconceptions that women aren’t effective leaders, are uninterested in leadership roles, or prioritize family over their careers. These generalizations are obviously damaging when read blankly on a piece of paper, but they also sneak into the narratives we tell around women. In movies or television, women struggle to get even fictional positions of power. Political dramas in particular are starting to change this, with titles like “House of Cards” and “How to Get Away with Murder” that portray women at the forefront. But backlash against female leads in media continues to darken the conversation on women’s leadership, and fictional roles only help to change our notions of what makes a leader. We still have to put women in those critical roles.

While it can be tempting to pursue greatness all on our own, the reality of achievement means leaning on people when necessary. Having mentors is crucial for professional development, as is having a trusted professional to network with, bounce questions off and turn to for guidance in rough situations. Owing to the slimmer percentages of women in leadership roles, it’s easier for aspiring men to find a mentor like them. Women aren’t so lucky if they want another woman to guide them. Younger women are especially cognizant of these gaps —  The Rockefeller Foundation stated that 82 percent of working women aged 18 to 34 years old find it “highly important” to have women in top positions.

Co-ed mentoring is just as viable an option, but male mentors often lack experience of the unique nuances that women face in their careers. They can offer second-hand accounts — but unless you’ve worked as a woman, you can’t speak authoritatively to those experiences.

On the University of Maine campus, President Susan J. Hunter is the first woman president since the institution’s establishment in 1865. She broke the seal on a previously male-only office, giving a female face to the university. At a major Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) institution, President Hunter’s impact is twofold, offering critical leadership representation to not just women, but aspiring women in STEM fields. Girls and women too often struggle to find space within male-dominated industries. When President Hunter retires this summer, Dr. Joan Ferrini-Mundy will take the helm. The UMaine presidential search page called Ferrini-Mundy “a national leader in STEM education research and policy.” Her impact will extend and enrich President Hunter’s reach.

Seeing women as leaders will change our perceptions of them and their capabilities. As leadership positions balance in representation, more girls will aspire to reach higher than ever before. The impact of seeing “someone like you” in positions of power is indescribable. This extends to seeing women running businesses and people of color in executive offices. Having underrepresented people in these positions opens up mentorship for others, inspires confidence in young workers and changes cultural norms.

It’s time to break down the harmful, unnecessary barriers we’ve built around these coveted spots, for the benefit of all the fledgling workplace professionals in generations to come.

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