Princess Leia as Our Model for Educating Girls
Princess Leia helped a generation of Star Wars fans to see a woman as a different kind of heroine. After the sad and untimely death of Carrie Fisher, many have been revisiting the affect of her role in Star Wars. She delivered a powerful, life-long message about women, courage, power, humor, savvy, and intelligence. What does that have to do with school leadership? It can mean as much or as little as you like but the message and the moment can be captured and is important.
Forty years after the film was produced, we are still trying to find the answers to a shortage of girls interested, and women remaining, in STEM careers. For many who are, Princess Leia helped clear their paths. Samara Lynn, a former information technology leader in the healthcare world who presently writes about technology, revealed how Princess Leia influenced her life on BlackEnterprise.com.
When I was a kid, there wasn't the big push to get kids, especially black girls, interested in computers and science. There certainly weren't the wonderful organizations that exist now like Black Girls Code. But there was Star Wars. And Princess Leia. And sci-fi.
There is much to be said, good and bad, about Hollywood and the influence it has in our lives. But in the case of Carrie Fisher and her role as Princess Leia, it is all good. Now, in reflection, it becomes even clearer. In 1977, George Lucas presented the world with model of a wise, savvy, brave, intelligent heroine, who was unafraid of her personal power and was fueled by her wisdom and courage. From StarWars.com:
Princess Leia Organa was one of the Rebel Alliance's greatest leaders, fearless on the battlefield and dedicated to ending the tyranny of the Empire. Daughter of Padmé Amidala and Anakin Skywalker, sister of Luke Skywalker, and with a soft spot for scoundrels, Leia ranks among the galaxy's great heroes. But life under the New Republic has not been easy for Leia. Sidelined by a new generation of political leaders, and struck out on her own to oppose the First Order as founder of the Resistance.
This Business of Gender is Tricky
What folks believe about women and careers is still mired in closely held values, beliefs, and bias no matter whether you are male or female. Sometimes these beliefs are so closely held, it is hard to separate from oneself. The same is true for women in leadership across fields and in politics. The Supreme Court is a good example. No one gave it a second thought when it was home to 9 male justices. But, when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg answered the question of when there will be enough women on the court and her answer was "nine", an uproar followed. We are still in a gender tethered mindset, whether we are ready to admit it or not. Whether heroines in the movies or in life, women are viewed and treated differently.
Girls and STEM
With that being the case, our concerns about girls becoming interested in science, technology, engineering and math are realistic. Our concern about the lack of STEM workers, including women, in the US is also sound. Mindset about students' abilities to succeed have become a center of learning and thinking among educators. The challenge for girls and women may be more intricate. In her book, Mindset, Carol Dweck wrote about Clare Booth Luce and Billie Jean King. Clare Booth Luce considered herself a failure because she failed to do what she loved, "penning tart, sexy comedies" (p.44) and Billie Jean King who said,
You can look back and say, "I could have been...," polishing your unused endowments like trophies. Or you can look back and say, "I have my all for the things I valued." (p.44)
Both were about focusing on what you love and what is important to you and doing it the best you can. Interestingly though, they both were models of courageous women who entered fields previously dominated by men and were successful. They became models for younger women to watch and emulate. It now essential, if we want girls to like science, technology, engineering, and math, to offer them models to emulate and to do so with intention.
There are options for schools to extend a welcome to organizations like Million Women Mentors® in order to bring models into students' view.
Million Women Mentors supports the engagement of one million Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) mentors (male and female) to increase the interest and confidence of girls and women to persist and succeed in STEM programs and careers.
Begin with Ourselves
But the day-to-day work with students, K-12 is with teachers, for some it is coaches, and for all it is the support staff in one way or another. We also know that while the teaching profession is primarily female, school leadership is still male dominated. That doesn't mean change isn't happening nor does it mean that men can't bring about change and support greater recognition of female leadership potential. It certainly has to start there.
The views one holds about the role of women in society is a deeply held personal belief that is played out daily in our actions. In schools, those actions are watched carefully, are given meaning and influence students. If girls are spoken to differently than boys, disciplined differently, encouraged differently, and have different expectations, then mixed messages reinforce existing and limiting mindsets. It is unfair to treat girls one way and then encourage them into a work environment in which they need different skills than their male counterparts, kills we have failed to develop for them. While we need others to change those work environments, we can prepare girls for them.
We need more Princess Leia's. The young women who enter our schools at 5 years old and leave at 18 should exit as intelligent, savvy, fearless young women. We must question our own beliefs and our own experiences. Picture a world where schools focus on developing girls with courage, power, humor, savvy, and intelligence. First, look around, who are the women you know those capacities? Have they risen into leadership in their families, communities and professions? And secondly, do we know how individually and as an organization, to raise up girls to become these kind of women? And, do we know how to raise boys into young men who respect them and seek to work beside them? It is not a bad resolution for a new year to examine these questions and your answers, personally and within your schools and distircts.
Dweck, C.S. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books