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Women Leaders Behind the Headlines

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Recent headlines abound with news about women taking on more leadership roles, from Bothaina Kamel as the first woman candidate for president in Egypt, to the eight women on Mayor Rahm Emanuel's 11-member senior staff. Earlier this month the New York Times announced that Jill Abramson will become the first woman to serve as its executive editor starting in September.

Behind these headlines, though, women's leadership still has a long way to go. Despite recent gains in the political arena, only one in six members of the 112th U.S. Congress are women, and women of color make up less than 4.5% of Congress, with none in the Senate. That makes the U.S. 72nd worldwide in women's political leadership. In business, only 13 Fortune 500 CEOs are women. Across all sectors, another recent study found, only about one in five institutions -- from journalism to religion to the nonprofit sector -- are headed by women.

While leadership is important at the highest echelons, we also need strong women at the community level. I believe that social justice movements are the most successful when led by people who are most affected by the issues at hand. I'm encouraged by the effective and innovative programs here in Chicago that engage women and girls as grassroots leaders.

Look at almost any of the grantees of Chicago Foundation for Women and you will see the belief in women's leadership undergirding their work. At Community Organizing and Family Issues, or COFI, mothers and grandmothers in Chicago demand quality education from Chicago Public Schools officials and state legislators. COFI's POWER-PAC program engages a cross-cultural group of women to become advocates for their families and neighborhoods -- planning campaigns, giving testimony in Springfield and, in the case of Rosazlia Grillier, receiving national recognition for her leadership.

Project Exploration's Sisters4Science program encourages African American and Latina middle school girls to pursue science and technology careers. Recently the group unveiled a 10-year study of how its youth programs have changed the face of science. Project Exploration alumni graduate at twice the rate of their peers and 60% go on to major in a science-related field in college. A Chicago Sun-Times profile of alumna Devethia Deloach Durand shows a face behind the numbers. Durand, a 22-year-old West Side native who has finished her college degree and plans to pursue a Ph.D. in science, now returns to her high school to encourage kids from her neighborhood to believe in themselves and give science a chance.

Grassroots leaders should also be encouraged to aspire to higher levels. The White House Project, a national effort to train women to pursue community leadership and run for elected office, came to Chicago for the first time last spring with Chicago Foundation for Women's support. Over a few days of intense training, women who came in saying they wanted only to improve their skill-set left saying they not only felt ready to become leaders, but they had a plan to do so and a network of like-minded women to call on. Last fall 107 WHP alumnae nationwide ran for office and 35 won, and by the 2012 races we hope to see some Chicago graduates' names on ballots.

Investing in women's leadership does more than improve individual women's lives and careers. When a woman steps forward to lead, she creates a ripple effect through the places where she lives, works, volunteers and worships. Leading, by its nature, makes us more visible and more accountable to others. In the Chicago I envision, women are as likely as men to lead a board meeting, run a campaign or start their own charitable foundation. In this Chicago, all the opportunities that girls dream of are possibilities.