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Kiara Gannon wins Influential Women essay scholarship

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Atikokan Grade 12 student Kiara Gannon wins Influential Women essay scholarship

Northern Ontario Business

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At 17, Kiara Gannon has already run a marathon.

The Grade 12 student at Atikokan High School participates in more than a half-dozen extra-curricular activities and has amassed a collection of awards that would fill most display cases. The ambitious student can now add the title of Influential Women essay scholarship winner to her list of accomplishments. Gannon was recognized for an essay she wrote on the importance of women’s leadership in today’s society.

In the essay, she argues social media can be a valuable tool to promote strong female role models to young women and girls in the North.

“I feel like women’s leadership is not often marketed well in the North,” she said. “I feel there are so many leaders in our communities that we don’t necessarily realize are there, as young women.”

Gannon said teenage girls her age are bombarded with unrealistic representations of women in media, and said there needs to be a balance with positive role models that do not demean young women.

She said even in Atikokan, a town of nearly 3,000 people, 200 kilometres west of Thunder Bay, social media services such as Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest constantly barrage her peers with negative images that need to be balanced with positive messages.

Her winning essay comes with a $2,000 scholarship (the prize is sponsored by TD-Canada Trust) she will use when she begins her post-secondary studies at the University of Victoria next year.

Gannon has enrolled in the university’s bachelor of science program, and said she plans to focus on biology, but that is subject to change.

If there are job opportunities in her field, she said she would like to return to her hometown after her studies. But Gannon admitted she might have to settle elsewhere after university.

“Most people who are inspired and motivated to do great things are often people who end up leaving the small communities in the North,” she said.

Influential Women

Northern Ontario Business annually recognizes a dozen women – six from the Northwest and six from the Northeast – for their achievements as leaders in the region. The women are entrepreneurs, tradeswomen, Aboriginal leaders, executives and community trailblazers. The essay contest is an adjunct to the awards, and considers essays submitted by grade 12 female students across Northern Ontario.

Gannon’s award was officially presented at the Northwestern Influential Awards gala in Thunder Bay on June 5. Other NWO winners were Carolyne Leroux (Bombardier Transportation), Lynn Landry-Rody (Lynn’s Homegrown Crafts), Shelby Ch’ng (Unveiled Bridal Boutique), Chief Georjann Morriseau (Fort William First Nation), Margaret Phillips (Northern Women’s Bookstore), Dani Drewek (Goldcorp, Campbell Mine at Red Lake).

(See Gannon’s winning essay below)

The Importance of Women’s Leadership in Today’s Society

By: Kiara Gannon

The importance of women in leadership roles cannot be understated, particularly in Northern Ontario.  Although there appears to be a rise in the number of women in leadership roles, there is far from an equal distribution between males and females.  As women continue to step out of “traditional” or more “accepted” roles, as often portrayed in the media, a shift in “leadership” attitude is not only possible but necessary for a prosperous future.

Great strides have been made in changing the perception of women in the world of work in the past twenty years; it is now common practice and acceptable for women to work and have careers. The perception of women in leadership roles has changed but, the question is, has it kept pace?  The answer lies in the examples and numbers of women in leadership roles as compared to men.  This is a difficult and complex question to answer as leadership comes in many forms and is seen through many lenses.  In the eyes and minds of youth, perception is reality, and this reality is heavily influenced by social media which too often portrays a distorted view of the role of women.

Is the problem that there are too few female role models in leadership positions for young girls to look up to, or is it that they are just not exposed enough to the female leaders that already exist?  If it is the latter, then it becomes an issue of marketing what is already available.  Either way, the importance of developing young women leaders in all aspects of society cannot be overemphasized.  This is even more critical in the North where most people and potential future female leaders are either not aware of the women leaders in their own area or perhaps are not overly interested.  Perhaps these leaders should be something to highlight, celebrate and somehow make more interesting to our youth.  The issue of how women are portrayed in the media will need constant attention as more often than not it can discourage positive female leadership roles.  It is encouraging, however, to see more examples of women challenging these norms.  This trend needs to continue as the media has a powerful influence on today’s youth and future leaders.

In early January, 2014 there was controversy over a photo Cosmopolitan Magazine shared on Facebook. Healthy looking Australian model, Robyn Lawley, was labeled as plus-sized. This demonstrates the skewed perspective of healthy body weight in our society.  Captions on pictures, such as the one Cosmo posted, suffocate many females and make them believe they are not good enough. Women bigger than Lawley who saw this post would wonder what size they are considered to be. This is an example of how the media is a huge influence on young girls, and on society in general. Billboards, magazines, commercials, music videos and beauty pageants all stress the importance of outer beauty, makeup, clothing, and how attractive males find females. In a society so focused on outer image, it is important to have female leaders who break this trend, have respect for themselves, are confident in themselves, and can portray these strengths in the public’s eye.

Jennifer Lawrence is an example of an influential woman who shows leadership in promoting a healthy body image. She received a lot of pressure to lose weight for her role in The Hunger Games. She did not cave in to the pressure, and instead explained to the producers that together, they had an opportunity to control what young girls would be seeing and idealizing, and had a chance to contribute to minimizing the unrealistic ideals that are expected from young girls. Besides being a funny and charming character in her daily life, Jennifer’s character, Katniss, is also a tough and upstanding individual.  In The Hunger Games Katniss is a strong, courageous, girl who isn’t a fighter but fights for what she loves. Movies and T.V. shows need more female heroes who stand up for themselves.

Finding examples of women in leadership roles is not a problem if you “search out” this information.  Currently, the challenge is multi-faceted: women leadership examples seem to have a narrow focus – well represented in some areas but not others;  examples of women in leadership are not well marketed to young girls; there are too few examples profiled of women in leadership in the North; and a migration of leadership away from the North.

In politics, there are a number of female leaders across Ontario. In January 2013, Kathleen Wynne was elected the leader of the Liberal party of Ontario and became Canada’s first female premier, as well as the first openly gay premier in Canada. Adrienne Clarkson and Michaëlle Jean were the last two governor generals of Canada before David Johnston.  In the North, Marianne Matichuck has been the mayor of greater Sudbury since 2010. These are examples of successful career women who have ideas to change things for the better.  The growth of powerful female leaders is exciting and it is important that young girls see this and feel empowered by it. If young women are empowered they will feel more confident in their pursuit of leadership and will inspire other young women; growth will occur with each cycle.

The medical field has changed significantly as there are now many more female practitioners and doctors than there traditionally have been. This is a step in the right direction and hopefully will translate into more surgeons and women’s leadership within the medical profession.  The media has been helpful in this area, projecting women in leadership roles in such TV shows as Saving Hope, Grey’s Anatomy, and Chicago Hope.

Most professional sports shown on T.V. are men’s leagues, with women athletes only being glorified every couple of years at the Olympics.  Heroes like Hailey Wickenhizer are great influences on Canadian girls. Hailey is a huge role model in women’s sport not only because of her athleticism but because of her character. She has won four Olympic Gold medals in ice hockey and is considered one of the best female hockey players in the world. Besides being a tough, tremendous athlete who inspires girl athletes, she is a married mother involved in her community as a leader and a mentor. She has her Bachelor of Science degree from The University of Calgary and uses the work ethic and organization she developed at university to lead many projects that support and encourage women’s hockey around the world. She demonstrates toughness, determination, and perseverance. When young women hear about Hailey’s accomplishments and see her advertisements promoting girls hockey they will want to be tough and athletic like her. Some girls may never think of joining sports, but a simple post about Hailey on Facebook could be enough to change their perspective.

In the education field in Northern Ontario there are many female leaders who would be considered low profile in the eyes of adolescents, but are very important because they have a direct influence on the youth in their areas. Heather Campbell is the Director of Education for the Rainy River District School Board (RRDSB).  The North has been well represented in this area in recent years with two other Northern boards, KPDSB and SGDSB, having boasted female Directors.

Male professionals still dominate many engineering and scientific practices and male businessmen appear to dominate the spotlight in the media. The trend seems to be gradually changing as more women are assuming leadership roles and stepping into the tough business world.  T.V. shows such as Dragon’s Den and Shark Tank  help promote this as some businesswomen are represented on the panels.  It is interesting to note however that there is still a three to one ratio of males to females.

Many Ontario teenage girls don’t realize how many powerful role models are in their region because most don’t watch the news. Young people connect, learn and are influenced greatly through social media, so news stories should be told via such avenues as Facebook and Twitter. Teenagers see so many unimportant things on their news feeds that it’s important to fight back with important and inspirational stories as well.

There are influential women around the world who are able to touch the hearts of girls living in Northern Ontario through media coverage. These obvious leaders are the women who influence globally, but as important as the high profile achievers are, it’s the women in Northern Ontario who will have the greatest influence on Northern Ontario girls. Seeing bright and energetic women within their communities will leave a lasting impression on girls because they can see and almost touch the energy and confidence that radiate from the influential women around them.

Unfortunately, many of the leaders who come from Northern areas often leave the North.  These leaders tend to think big so often leave remote areas to expand their horizons. Because remote regions lose influential and intelligent women to bigger regions that have universities, colleges, and a greater variety of opportunities, it’s important to attract these women back to tell their stories that you don’t have be famous to be influential.

Famous female leaders have the potential to influence thousands of people through the media, but female leaders are everywhere in communities; they are women who demonstrate hard work and encouragement towards others. Especially for girls who don’t have positive role models at home, it is important that they have healthy, active, confident, and intelligent women to look up to in their communities, whether they may be teachers, coaches, or older students. A simple thing such as an older female mentor helping a younger girl with her homework can change that girl’s entire outlook on school. Suddenly she may value school because she sees the older girl valuing school. Senior students are more influential than they realize and having the courage to care may make all the difference. If a woman can influence one life in a positive way then she is a role model and a leader. If girls talk to and connect with women who have positive outlooks and strong work ethics, they will not only do the same, but will inspire other girls around them. It can happen anywhere because all it takes is somebody doing the right thing and standing up for their principals and somebody else thinking, “Hey that’s cool. I bet I could do that.”

A leader is someone who inspires others and leads by example showing other people what hard work and confidence look like. Leadership is sometimes confused with being overbearing, but a leader does not sit down and tell others what to do; she leads the way and pulls other people forward with her. Leaders are often the people who question things and change things which makes them difficult to ignore and easy to spot in a crowd. They use their voices with certainty but also with kindness, and the most unique thing about them is the fact that they have a voice and dare to use it.  They use their voices to make inquiries, however are team players, listening to and considering other people’s ideas. They work with others, yet are not swayed from their morals and what they know is right.  Leaders are people who do the right thing when nobody is watching, making them good role models for anyone but especially for young people who are so easily influenced. Young people need role models in their lives who are confident and possess dedication as well as empathy. Girls are often taught that beauty is important and so is male attention. They may have been told not to speak too loudly or to talk highly of themselves. So, from a historical perspective the traditional leadership role of females has evolved, but perhaps not as fully as it should. This is why girls in particular need strong women role models who demonstrate confidence, excel at their careers, and are active in their communities. The number of women in positions of power and influence is on the rise and there are some wonderful role models in Northern Ontario and across the globe that young woman can idealize and inspire to be like.

Leadership starts at home, within each community.  There can be powerful and important external influences but leadership development begins locally, in the homes, in the schools and in the community. The key is exposure and opportunity; young girls need to fully develop as leaders first within their communities and then perhaps beyond.  In addition to the home, the schools become a pivotal place for leadership exposure and development, as most will spend at least thirteen years there prior to venturing out on their own.  It is during this time where leadership needs to be nurtured in a safe environment. Female leadership programs, independent of the influence of boys, need to continue to expand within the school system and the community so girls can fully realize what they are capable of.  Homogeneous grouping may not seem like real life, however it does allow girls to make more decisions and assume leadership roles without the boys stepping in.  The “Outers Program” at Atikokan High School is an excellent example of this where grade 11 girls work together to accomplish wilderness tasks throughout the year, culminating in a 12 day Spring canoe trip.  The girls are in brigades of 5-6 and must cover 200+ km, including multiple portages, carrying a 210 pound canoe and all their gear for 12 days.  Through this experience and other experiences like this girls will gain not only powerful leadership experience but also the confidence and ability to apply their skills to other leadership situations.

Retaining or drawing back leadership to the North poses another great challenge. Some may choose to stay in the North but many will move on to further their education, explore other and bigger opportunities or simply find work.  This out-migration is inevitable so the key is to develop as many women leaders as possible so the ones who choose to remain in the North will have the greatest impact on the future of the North.  In addition there is a need to draw back the leaders who have left for their varied reasons.  It is naïve to believe they will come back because of a strong sense of community or ties to the North; there needs to be something to come back to and strong incentive to do so.

The future of any region depends on strong leadership and as the North develops and expands a leadership void may develop – if it already doesn’t exist. Both female and male leaders will need to do their part in filling this void.

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