Exploring Female Empowerment Through the Red Ants Pants Girls Leadership Program
June 09, 2022 | By Kelly Curtis
Leadership is a topic that comes up frequently in politics, business, and the professional world, but the opportunity for leadership development and mentorship is often reserved for those just starting in their careers when the benefits of leadership training could start much younger. Leadership as a concept looks very different depending on who is asked. For years leaders have had a remarkably similar look- a man between 30 and 60 years of age, usually white and college-educated, and who displays characteristics like ambition, assertiveness, decisiveness, and self-reliance. While none of these are bad qualities for a leader to have, the lack of women in leadership roles has negative impacts on young girls and their ability to see themselves in future roles of power one day.
For the Red Ants Pants Foundation and their Girls Leadership Programming they’re looking to change that. A year long leadership program for high school juniors, one young woman shared about her experience “I know that I am capable of putting myself out there and sharing my ideas with confidence. I do not need to be the loudest or the most talkative in order to be a good leader, but that does not mean that I need to shy away from speaking when I have something valuable to say. Instead of comparing myself to others, I need to find my own style of leadership that best utilizes and grows my own unique skills.”
What is the Confidence Gap?
Studies have shown that, in early childhood, girls and boys have similar levels of confidence. They are both likely to say they want jobs as a teacher, a firefighter, or the President. Then as girls enter the tween and teen years and hit puberty their confidence drops a lot more dramatically than that of boys. “Girls surveyed were asked to rate their confidence on a scale of 0 to 10, and from the ages of 8 to 14, the average of girls’ responses fell from approximately 8.5 to 6—a drop-off of 30 percent.” (Atlantic)
The long-term implication of lacking confidence is that girls are less likely to raise their hands in class, direct school projects, or run for student council. Girls are frequently taught people-pleasing and perfectionist behavior, which can discourage them from trying new skills and pursuing new goals.
Teachers and parents can often unintentionally reinforce these habits. As a result, girls enter colleges and workplaces, which often already have internal biases and institutionalized sexism, without the confidence and skills needed to navigate these barriers.
How do leadership programs address the Confidence Gap?
Women have continued to climb the ladder in academic and professional spaces, but it’s clear that inequitable work and school environments continue to place an overarching burden on them. Women whose behavior falls outside of their gender stereotype can frequently face backlash, but if behavior falls more within traditional gender roles, then women also run the risk of not being taken seriously. It’s a lose-lose situation.
Women historically have less access to established networks, especially informal social activities that men might engage in (like golfing with clients or drinks among male colleagues)). They also have less developed female-specific networks. Programs that offer mentorship and sponsorships that allow for leadership development are critical for young women to develop these necessary female networks. (Barriers to Female Leadership).
Of course, it’s important to remember that not everything is about confidence. Inflexible workplaces, overt and subtle discrimination, male-dominated spaces, sexist culture, and harassment cannot be overcome on confidence alone. Nor is it a woman’s responsibility to constantly correct other people’s behavior.
Just as it is important to discuss the realities of living in the world as a woman, it is equally important to know that individual confidence and community support contribute to movements for social change. The adage that young people are the future is true and leadership programs like the Red Ants Pants Girls Leadership Program are not only helping create the change but also an investment in a strong future for Montana’s girls.
Enter: The Red Ants Pants Girls Leadership Program
Red Ants Pants was started as a response to a need for workwear that fits women’s bodies. Sarah Calhoun started the company in 2006 in White Sulphur Springs, Montana and from there she also established the Red Ants Pants Foundation which now boasts a community grantmaking, timber skills workshops, and the famous Red Ants Pants Music Festival.
The program is the brainchild of Sarah Calhoun, the executive director of the Red Ants Pants Foundation, founder and owner of the Red Ants Pants Made in the USA workwear line and the producer of the Red Ants Pants Music Festival. She says the program grew from a vision for better developing, supporting and connecting emerging female leaders. “We’re working hard to build hope for our youth, pride in our rural communities, strength and courage in our collective leadership," said Calhoun.
The Red Ants Pants Festival, which takes place in a cow pasture outside of White Sulphur Springs, has hosted big names like Brandi Carlile, Taj Mahal, and Wynonna Judd, as well as local Montana musical acts.
A portion of the proceeds from the three-day festival go to the Red Ants Pants Girls Leadership Program. The program pairs eight young women in their junior year of high school with individual mentors to learn valuable leadership skills over a year.
The young women who participate also create and implement community projects, like Athena Diaz who brought a Little Free Library to her town of Wisdom, Montana, and Jessie Bough who completed a photojournalism project called “The Montana Hoops Project” to display the spirit of rural Montana and bring attention to the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW).
While in the program, girls go on three retreats during the year, in the fall, winter and spring, and attend a weekend of virtual training before their official graduation from the program. The cohort is also highly encouraged to attend the Red Ants Pants Music Festival following the program. Program participants receive a workbook and each retreat focuses on central leadership tenants, which are facilitated by Shannon Stober, founder of Jump Start Training and Development.
The fall retreat focuses on the basics of communication, emotional intelligence, and techniques like active listening. The girls also do a personality and leadership evaluation so they can reflect on their strengths and weaknesses as leaders. These workbooks and facilitations allow the girls to engage in new ideas with their peers and hear advice and life experience from older women.
“This program helped introduce me to ideas about healthy competition and unhealthy competition and what a powerful resource women depending on each other can be. I'm really thankful for that” one young woman said.
During the winter retreat program participants focus on project management skills and begin brainstorming first steps for their community projects. The Red Ants Pants Foundation’s focus on rural community is especially evident through this process. Using a community needs framework, young women can determine what population they want to serve within their hometowns and the steps they will need to take to accomplish their projects.
One young woman noted “I enjoyed most the feeling of developing a community project and seeing it work out in real life. It built confidence in me to see that I could change my community or challenge their ideas and be a useful resource for information.”
By the time the spring retreat rolls around, the cohort has built strong bonds with each other and now has time to reflect on their growth. The theme of the retreat is focused on rural identity and the young women’s personal values. The cohort also has an opportunity to present their projects which they have spent months working on.
The community projects are led by participants and supported by mentors and peers. They create an invaluable experience and a type of responsibility and direction that would make any Red Ants Pants Girls Leadership member, parent, or alumni proud.
If you or someone in your life is interested in or would be a good fit for the program, check out the application here. Participants must be Montana residents entering their junior year of high school, have access to transportation to and from retreats, and be able to attend all the events. Participants must pay to get to and from retreats, but all other costs are covered by the program. Travel stipends are available for participants on a need basis. Applications for the 2022-2023 program will be accepted until August 15.