Over the past 70 years the social landscape of America has shifted dramatically. The percentage of women involved in the workforce increased from approximately 30% to 50%, and the number of female national legislators rose from a virtually non‑existent number in the 1950s to 19.3% of the members in the U.S. House of Representatives today. Despite the increase in participation in both the economy and the political field, and the support of the public, women face continued disparity in attaining leadership roles. To address the situation of unequal leadership in Maine and in the nation, the Olympia Snowe Women's Leadership Institute (OSWLI) aims to foster the confidence and leadership qualities of high school women. The program is now under way in dozens of schools across the state, including Calais High School.
The leadership program began in 2015 in Snowe's home county of Androscoggin, incorporating seven high schools and 49 sophomore students. In 2016 it expanded across the state, including to Washington County, where Calais was chosen as the first school to offer the program to its students. In 2017 it expanded once again to two schools in each county; in Washington County, Narraguagus High School was the next to come on board. More than 320 young women are now committed to the three‑year program.
At each school, cohorts of five students are teamed up with volunteer advisors from the community. They meet once a month to reconnect and cover a curriculum that encourages young women to recognize their own capacities and merit. Each year has its own theme of study, with sophomores learning to examine "My Values," juniors taught to express "My Voice" and seniors guided to enact "My Vision."
Working specifically with young women is important, based on how much of an impact their adolescent years have on their future development, explains Alison Siviski, community engagement specialist for OSWLI. Siviski says, "It is crucial for schools to offer personal development and mentoring programs geared towards girls because too often they face a serious lack of confidence that inhibits their aspirations to leadership." She cited studies that outline how middle school girls are 25% less likely than boys to say they enjoy taking the lead, and in the same period of time the self‑esteem of young women drops 3.5 times more than that of their male counterparts. Such a dramatic shift in self‑confidence at an early age can reduce the desire of young women to participate in leadership as adults.
Having more women in leadership is a prospect that has many benefits, according to a 2015 study from the Pew Research Center. While the majority of Americans see no difference in the political performance and capability of women compared to men, there is a remarkable contrast in certain fields. The study found that 34% of respondents said women were better at working out compromises, compared to 9% who believe that of men; 34% said women were more honest and ethical, compared to 3% who voted for men; and 25% believed women were more likely to stand up for their beliefs, while 10% attributed that quality more to men.
After its first few years, OSWLI has been demonstrating impressive results, according to Siviski. The institute has measured an increase in self‑confidence of 20% in participants and a 34% increase in "their belief that they can make a difference in their community."
"There are so many challenges for girls as they become women," says Judy East, volunteer advisor for one of the Calais cohorts. "For those in Calais, and in fact all over the state, the institute opens their eyes and their world to the experience of other girls and a network of support and inspiration from accomplished Maine women," she says. "The implication for leadership among Maine women in the 21st century blows my mind a little!"