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Editor's Note: March 8 is International Women's Day. In the week leading up to it, SaltWire Network is sharing stories, all written by women, focusing on this year’s theme: "A challenged world is an alert world, and from challenge comes change." Each day, we will tackle a different subject area as we celebrate women's achievements, raise awareness, and encourage our readers to take action towards equality
Setting the stage for young women must happen now for them to be able to lead in the future.
Mount Saint Vincent University (MSVU) assistant professor KelleyAnne Malinen says this is what she and her Girls 2021 Conference team are working towards at this year’s event, which will reach more young women than ever as it hosts the conference virtually.
The timing of this conference format is striking, as the COVID-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on women. Given this, Malinen says events like this are more important than ever to empower and embolden young women to ensure their ability to push ahead despite pandemic pushbacks.
“The conference is an excellent example of what older generations are doing to support and inspire girls. As older women, we must do the work ourselves and pass it down to younger generations,” she says.
Pushing against pandemic setbacks
The Girls 2021 Conference is organized at MSVU by the Alexa McDonough Institute, which Malinen chairs. She says this year’s event will explore girl power in a digital world, all through workshops on coding, indigenous leadership and allyship, and anti-oppression and anti-racism.
“Our hope is that this will foster skills of allyship, help to build healthy communities, and work towards gender equity through empowering the young women who attend,” she says.
This event is not the only alone in looking at how to build up equity and gender parity in both public and workplace settings. The Prosperity Project not-for-profit, which was launched in May 2020 by Canadian female leaders, was founded to research and measure the pandemic’s impact on women.
“We were concerned that gains made over many decades could be lost in fell swoop due to the pandemic,” says Prosperity Project member and Nova Scotia Business Inc. chief executive officer Laurel Broten.
The not-for-profit measured this impact through The Zero Report, which found that while nearly all organizations surveyed – a group made up of the 48 largest in Canada – no BIPOC women were in the pipeline to leadership, nearly half of board seats as of Sept. 30, 2020, were held by women.
Broten says measuring women’s progress in corporate Canada helps to identify the problem and work towards its solution through the mentorship and empowerment of young women from diverse backgrounds so they aim high and challenge what is possible, which may impact such statistics.
“We need to show young women they can aspire for roles where they might not necessarily see a role model because it doesn’t mean they can’t be the first,” says Broten.
Amplifying, mentoring young voices
Broten has worked with organizations in Halifax, including the YWCA, as she mentors younger generations. This is also where YWCA GirlSpace co-ordinator Stephanie Albert works to amplify the voices of young women and gender-diverse youth from Grade 7 to Grade 9.
Albert says the program, which is a violence prevention program but also acts as a safe space, is led by youth and gives them a space to express their opinions and feel heard. She says the program is key to amplifying and validating youthful voices, which in turn builds up their self-confidence.
“They need to be given power to speak for themselves,” she says. “I help to guide them to the resources and show them how to make themselves be heard. That’s the goal: to make them feel like they can be young leaders.”
Broten says that while The Zero Report results may not have painted a picture of equity, Nova Scotia is uniquely positioned with female leaders at the NSBI, Develop Nova Scotia, Halifax Partnership, Tourism Nova Scotia, the Halifax Stanfield International Airport, and the Halifax Convention Centre.
“Opening the door for other women is really critical. Halifax is primed for this – the women CEOs at these organizations and others are here to encourage other women. …I think that’s very positive for us here in Nova Scotia,” says Broten.
This collaborative mentality is one Malinen hopes Girls 2021 participants will take away from the workshops they partake in, so they can also be part of creating a more equitable future for themselves and their peers.
“We hope girls will come out of workshops with a boost to their self-confidence and tools for negotiating their social worlds, virtual and otherwise, in a way that feels empowered and allows them to support one another as they build a community among girls,” she says.