Helping GALS Grow Into Leaders

The Future is Ms. is an ongoing series of news reports by young feminists. This post is made possible by a grant from in support of teen journalists.

When people ask Sheryl Chen how to spell her first name, she answers, “S-H-E-R-Y-L, like Sheryl Sandberg.”

From Sandberg to Sophia Amoruso, Chen idolizes women who lead their own businesses. However, at the STEM-based Staten Island Technical High School in New York Chen attended, few opportunities existed for her to develop skills in this area. So, Chen created one herself. In 2016, Chen and classmate Lily Zhang founded Girls Advocating Leadership and Strength (GALS), a non-profit providing leadership training for middle and high school girls.

Since girls experience their “biggest time of growth, discovery and self-confidence” as teens, said Chen, GALS targets their peers. “We definitely [saw] that there’s a gender gap in the business industry,” said Zhang, “and we really want to help fix this gap.”

The gap is even bigger in leadership positions. While women make up 54 percent of employees at S&P 500 Finance companies, they make up only six percent of CEOs. Stacy Musi, president of the Financial Women’s Association, thinks misperceptions about women’s ability to lead cause this disparity. “Very often this leads to women being offered staff roles,” she told Ms., “such as human resources or marketing rather than roles that really can make an impact on a business.”

Through GALS, girls are advocating for their own advancement. “Hearing the stories of successful businesswomen, I feel that it’s encouraged me to not be afraid,” said Victoria Wong, one of more than 700 GALS alumnae in the five boroughs. As a high school senior, Wong networked with Allyson Ahlstrom, founder of the non-profit Threads for Teens, and Marina Marmut, leader of Operation Enterprise, a project of the American Management Association, at a GALS symposium.

This exposure to role models early on is important, said Musi. Lack of positive female examples can be a barrier to women’s career advancement. “As soon as a company has a woman CEO or a woman in a high powered position, all of a sudden all the girls or the younger women in the organization go ‘I could become CEO one day,’” said Musi.

These female role models encouraged the audience to take risks, said Wong, now a student at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management. Wong cites confidence as the primary lesson from GALS, a lack of which limits young women in business. Under four percent of millennial women identify as entrepreneurs, compared to five percent of their male peers.

GALS girls are encouraged to advocate for their own career advancement, a skill that directly affects women’s pay equity and promotion, said Selena Rezvani, vice president of consulting and research at Be Leaderly and author of “Pushback: How Smart Women Ask—and Stand Up—for What They Want.” Only 40 percent of young women negotiate their salary with an employer. “It sounds like a soft skill, and in fact it’s not so soft,” said Rezvani. “It has a bearing that is a cumulative effect over the course of your life.”

These less tangible skills of communication make women more effective executives. “Your entire life, your ability to make an airtight argument,”said Rezvani, “that is such an essential leadership competency.”

When Himani Nayyar, then a high school junior, learned about GALS from a friend of Chen’s, she started the second GALS chapter at Ranney School in Tinton Falls, New Jersey. Seeing Chen and Zhang make an impact as teenagers inspired her to become a leader herself.

This is exactly the impact Chen and Zhang want to have. Even though both have left New York for college elsewhere, University of Pennsylvania and UC Berkeley, respectively, they are working to expand their work domestically and internationally—Kuwait and Bulgaria, specifically. “We’ll see where the future takes us,” said Chen.

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Elizabeth Meisenzahl is an Index on Censorship Youth Advisor and student journalist based in Rochester, New York.