Gender imbalance isn’t exactly a new problem in society, yet it snuck up on Roni Koren, a fifth-year medical student at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Born and raised in Israel, the 26-year-old is the co-founder of Shavot, a grassroots leadership and mentoring program for young girls. Koren was recently in Toronto to raise awareness and support for the project.
“The premise behind Shavot, the Hebrew word for equal, is preparing young girls to face the world with self-confidence and equality,” said Koren. “Our vision: women are equal to men in any field and have the ability to do anything that men do. The bat mitzvah (sixth grade) year symbolizes the beginning of adulthood. Girls at this age face many types of outside pressures from parents, other girls, boys and changes in the way they are expected to behave. It has been shown that at this age, girls begin to form a sense of self, by and large based on societal norms.”
Koren served as an academic co-ordinator and chairperson of the Hebrew University medical professions student union. Her past military service includes being a flight simulator instructors’ course commander and a flight simulator instructor in the Israeli Air Force.
“Working in the university student union, I was vulnerable to a gender imbalance and exposed for the first time in my life to the fact that people were treating me differently as a woman,” said Koren.
A little over a year ago, while hiking with her fiancé, Eldad Postan (who’s now her husband), the pair brainstormed about how to close the gender gap and formulated a plan of action.
“We believe if you really want to make a difference and change something, you need to start with the roots – it’s way harder to fix something that is already broken, or if there is already a problem,” said Koren. “We wanted to tackle the stereotypes that are exposed early on.”
Soon after, Shavot was born, with two pilot programs launched in Jerusalem. Shavot believes that girls face unique social pressures and are often discouraged from pursuing a career in science, technology, engineering and math.
“Studies have shown that girls more than boys tend to blame internal factors when they fail and that tendency leads them to avoid tasks. It prevents them from fulfilling their potential and true equality,” said Koren. “If a boy and a girl, both 12 years old, fail a math test, the girl will tell herself, ‘I’m not smart enough, I’m not good at math, maybe even I’m just stupid.’ The boy, on the other hand, will tell himself that, ‘the teacher doesn’t like me,’ or ‘the test was really hard.’ Years later, the girl doesn’t want to learn math anymore and the boy will probably forget about it and go play basketball or something. We see a pattern where women don’t pursue science or computers.”
Shavot is breaking conventions by shaping future leaders, teaching them presentation skills and showing them how to initiate change and how to best position themselves on social media.
“We teach the girls how to set their own goals, plan ahead and debrief their actions,” explained Koren. “We expose them to positive role models, inspiring them and teaching them about historical female figures who have overcome great odds to contribute significantly to society. We demonstrate public speaking, how to stand in front of an audience, how to present themselves and what should and should not go on social media – because it’s how you present yourself to the world and they don’t really understand how important that is.”
Shavot, which is in its second year, has expanded greatly. It now operates five groups of eight girls once a week for two hours. The girls are paired with student mentors from Hebrew University, who must complete a rigorous training course. And Koren wants to expand even further.
“I want to bring the program to the world and create a new generation that believes they are worthy and equal. In order to create a social change, we need a mass of people to create a movement and that’s what I dream about. If girls have the tools to see themselves as worthy, equal and able, they have a foundation for the future,” concluded Koren.
To learn more about Shavot, email [email protected].