05/08/2012 06:17 pm ET Updated Jul 08, 2012

Women Leaders Still Face Challenges

Education is a critical aspect in preparing young women for the challenges of the world. This was particularly clear to me when I attended the Women in Public Service Colloquium hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last December in Washington, DC. The participants included former Secretary of State Madeline Albright; Christine Legarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund; Atifete Jahjaga, the president of Kosovo; Laura Chinchilla, the president of Costa Rica and Florence Chenoweth, Minister of Agriculture in Liberia, among numerous other female ambassadors, foreign ministers, U.S. government officials, U.S. women admirals and, yes, presidents of women's colleges.

The agenda was simple: to inspire and encourage women to take on leadership roles in their communities. From every corner the message was the same: women can, and should, make significant contributions to the well-being of their countries. Women from around the world shared their strategies for success and made clear that we need to give girls the tools that will build their confidence. The mission of my Connecticut-based university has always been exactly this goal, but in listening to the stories of one impressive leader after another, I realized that our aims must become broader in scope and our ambitions grander.

Music has often held the clues to a generation's goals and attitudes. In the '70s, the musical anthem for the women's movement was Helen Reddy's "I am woman." Today, even amidst many misogynistic "pop" songs and traditional love themes, we can hear Des'ree belt out these instructions to young women: "You gotta be bad, you gotta be bold, you gotta be wiser...", a song described by Stuart Elliott in the New York Times as "an infectiously sunny tune about the affirmative powers of self-confidence," first produced in 1998 but covered by numerous other singers in the past decade.

But are young women taking heed? I think that many are not ready for the challenges still facing them. We prepare our children to be wary of strangers who may do them harm, but we don't often give them strategies for protecting their rights in the workplace and in society. Our daughters (and sons, too) need the tools to stand up for their values. We need to teach them not only how to recognize inequities, but how to confront those who would disadvantage them and others.

A recent Dateline NBC program dramatically demonstrated how lacking the preparation of these young womencan be. They tested young teens by placing them in a situation of clear discrimination to see if they would speak up. The experiment was similar to many classic research studies: it situated two female student volunteers as members of a group that was asked to judge other students for a competition. The other judges were also young people, but they were actors, not volunteers. The actors were told to make disparaging and racially-coded negative judgments about minority students in the competition. The parents and viewers could see the test subjects squirm uncomfortably as negative comments were made, but in the end, most students concurred with the negative assessment! Peer pressure? Yes. Recognition that values were being challenged? Yes. Lack of skills or strategies on how to react to such challenges? Yes, again!

This is not an isolated instance. We can see many examples in which girls, young women and even experienced women are caught short and fail to respond when they are challenged. The worker or student who lets sexual harassment go without complaining, the patient who says nothing when a physician acts inappropriately, the client who allows a contractor to bully her into accepting shoddy work or the employee who accepts unfairness as long as it is not directed at them -- these are just a few examples of times when women have been reluctant to stand up for themselves. It has been shown that educating women about their rights provides confidence in other instances. Educators and parents can work together to give young women confidence and the tools to be bold and wise.