Prepping the new crop of leaders

Prepping the new crop of leaders

Often, when women balk at running for office or taking on leadership roles, it isn’t because they are unqualified. It’s just because they don’t believe they are.

“Women will say, ‘I’m not qualified,’ or ‘I’ve got all these other obligations,’” said Sarah Standiford, executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby and Maine Women’s Policy Center, pointing out that more often than not these women are just as qualifi ed at their male counterparts.

But, Standiford said, in Maine women leaders are not such a rarity. Though a woman has never been elected governor, the state ranks 13th in the nation for its percentage of women in state Legislature, which is at 29 percent, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Standiford said women in Maine have been fortunate in having a tradition of women leaders, such as Margaret Chase Smith and Olympia Snowe, who lead by example but also encourage other women to participate.

“It’s an exciting time because there are so many women running for offi ce, and we certainly think there’s added value in the debate when there’s more women running at all levels,” said Standiford.

She said that women leaders can also be found at the helm of many nonprofi ts.

“It’s not diffi cult to fi nd young women leaders in Maine because we’re everywhere,” said Standiford. “It’s unique to Maine in large part because of our small population.”

Although they’re not as measurable as those in political and nonprofi t positions, young women are also taking leadership roles in arts and culture. In Portland’s music scene, for example, Aly Spaltro, 20, who performs as Lady Lamb the Beekeeper, has earned recognition as the top new Maine band by the Phoenix newspapers. Portland graphic designer and business owner Sally Struever said she discovered that many of the eclectic East End businesses around her shop Eli Phant were also owned by women.

Maine’s small, close-knit population means that networking is not exclusive for those who are male and have gray hair. Maine has several organizations that encourage young women to make connections and take on leadership roles, such as the Maine Women’s Network and the Maine Women’s Fund, which runs a “New Girls’ Network,” which brings women in their 20s and 30s together to create their own version of an “old boys’ club.”

Young leadership is not always a success story, but there are Maine groups working to change that. After learning that nationwide, only 6 percent of board members are 35 and under, the Portland-based Institute for Civic Leadership launched the Young Emerging Leaders Pilot Program, which began in September. Participants in their 20s and 30s will be trained in leadership development while also making the commitment to serve on a nonprofi t board or committee in Maine for at least six months.

Other organizations, such as Hardy Girls Healthy Women, aim to reach women at a younger age, encouraging girls to become leaders and agents of social change within their communities. The Maine Women’s Policy Center runs a Girls Day at the State House. Modeled on the Take Your Daughter to Work Day, the annual event brings 100 8th grade girls to the State House, where they are given the opportunity to meet with state leaders and learn about the Legislative process – which is all about encouraging the next generation of women leaders.

Melissa Wood is a reporter and feature writer for Current Publishing

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