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Women in Leadership Positions: Who (Doesn't) Run the World? Girls

12/05/2012 03:00 pm ET | Updated Oct 24, 2013

Only 20 percent of political leaders in the world are women. Women leaders are under-represented in every country, from Nepal, where my organization works, to the United States, where only 19 percent of Congress is female. In 2010, I co-founded Women LEAD, a leadership development organization for young women in Kathmandu, Nepal, because I strongly believe that the lack of female leaders is one of the most enduring forms of inequality in the 21st century.

Women are absent in corporate boardrooms, parliaments, peace negotiating tables and almost all major institutions around the world. For every Hillary Clinton and Marissa Mayer, there are thousands of women who do not break the glass ceiling.

While women are shut out of the institutions of power, they often face the brunt of poverty and violence. In Nepal, 1/3 of girls aged 15 to 19 are married and 57 percent of women are illiterate. The solutions to these problems are within communities, and often in the hands of young women. They have the vision and creativity to solve the issues plaguing their communities, but they lack the necessary resources and tools.

Education was and is crucial for women to secure equal rights and opportunities. As we have seen in the United States and are now seeing in developing countries, it is drastically altering women's lives. But it is simply not enough. In the United States, women now constitute the majority of students at undergraduate and graduate levels, but we still see a dearth of female CEOs and politicians.

This is why leadership development is a critical step in female empowerment.

Many of the girls we work with in our organization had never pictured themselves as leaders. On the first day of our Leadership Institute, we asked the girls how powerful they were on a scale of 1-10. They said, "not very powerful' (a 1-3 range). By the end of the Institute, they said they were "very powerful' (9 to 10 range). One of our participants, Sharmila, told us that before the leadership training, she never felt like she could be a leader. But now, she feels like she can lead anything at any time.

Young women need to be given the tools and opportunities to be leaders. They need to be mentored, to have their opinions valued, to be told that they can become leaders. That they have what it takes.

The female leadership crisis is not just a Nepali problem. It is an American problem and a global problem. In the U.S., only 21 percent of girls believe they have what it takes to be a leader. Eight is the peak age for girls' leadership ambitions. We cannot expect young women to face the pressures of the media, gender stereotypes and societal expectations alone.

My dream in my lifetime is for women to represent 50 percent of all leaders. It's going to take big changes: legal and societal changes, but also programs like Women LEAD that work on the individual, school and community level.

It's crucial for you, as a young professional woman, to prepare yourself for leadership now and support other women to pursue leadership positions. Here are three steps:

1. You've probably heard this repeated ad nauseum but that's because it's so vital: find a mentor, preferably one in your workplace or industry. Being able to turn to a woman who has been through what you are going through is invaluable.

2. Join a leadership program. Here are just a few:
• Elect Her -- Campus Women Win is a training offered by the American Association for University Women in many campuses to train college women to run for student government.
• The White House Project advances young women's leadership through online and in-person trainings, conferences and networking events.
PLEN has three-day and five-day seminars for college students interested in public policy.
• Women's Campaign Fund's She Should Run provides women with the support, training and resources they need to run for office.

3. Take on leadership positions at work and outside of work. Look for volunteer positions that will help you work on specific skills and build a path towards committee and board positions.

There is hope. Many young women want to lead -- and one day, soon, they will have every opportunity to do so.

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