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Emily Williams Knight, the president of Kendall College, on encouraging inclusiveness for young girls

Above: Emily Williams Knight with daughters Elizabeth Oliviafter their team finished third place their spring basketball program.

Above: Emily Williams Knight with daughters Elizabeth and Olivia after their team finished in third place in their spring basketball program.

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Updated: January 22, 2014 12:33PM

By the third grade I was tall — really tall — and my parents did the right thing by putting a basketball in my hand and sending me to the local parks and rec program. I quickly fell in love with this fast-paced and challenging game. My parents decided I should try the AAU program, which up to that point had been mostly for boys; however, more girls were starting to play. I jumped at the chance to participate.

My friend Heather and I were two of the first girls in our town to play in the league, but our excitement was quickly tempered when we sensed that we might not be so welcome on the court.

I vividly remember when we lined up for the tipoff of our first game. The competitor assigned to guard me looked right at me and yelled to his coach, “I’m not guarding the girl.” He waited until the coach swapped out another player.

The entire season went like that, but I continued to work hard and kept my chin up. In my mind, this was just the boys getting used to playing with the girls, and I thought things would soon change. A recent experience challenged that.

I now have twin girls who are 7, one taller than the other, but both with a competitive spirit. Like my parents, I placed a basketball in their hands and they both love the sport.

They recently joined a co-ed league and ended up playing with 40 boys, which I noticed right away, but my girls never seemed to. They believe they can be just as strong, just as aggressive and just as good.

Week after week they would play, and I would sit in the bleachers, growing increasingly uncomfortable. I watched as their teammates looked past them in search of a boy to pass the ball to. In some cases, they even ignored them when they were under the basket and ready to score, searching for a boy instead.

This made me realize that things really haven’t changed. Perhaps subconsciously, these boys had an issue playing with girls. They didn’t have the confidence that girls could be as good as boys, and they didn’t perceive them as equals.

It got me thinking about today’s younger generation. If more women grew up believing they were equal and were treated as such, would they hold more leadership positions? How can we show our children that equality is for all and that ranking and positioning is based on merit, skill and ability — not gender?

As I reflect on these questions, I think about what gymnasiums across the U.S. will look like years from now. I realize that’s up to us, and we must get it right. As a college president and mother, I will continue to foster an inclusive environment, encouraging today’s youth to collaborate and see each other as equals. I hope others will, as well.

We need to be role models. And, we need to ensure that our children have attitudes that will allow them future success.

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