Harvard study: Girls don’t see themselves as leaders

Are our gender biases hurting our daughters’ desire to lead? We talk to the study’s author to find out what mothers can do.

Harvard study: Girls don’t see themselves as leaders

Who run the world? Girls!

...Right?


Women have celebrated major achievements in school, business, and politics in recent years. Female celebrity powerhouses like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift have made it cool for girls to unapologetically own who they are. Politicians like presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley show young girls that even the highest tiers of political power are open to women.

But a new study from Harvard reveals ongoing aversion to female leadership—even by girls and women themselves.

Harvard professor Richard Weissbourd, who runs the Making Caring Common Project, explained to Good Morning America on Tuesday morning, "We have made a lot of progress in terms of gender equality. But we still have a long way to go."

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Among the important—and often troubling—findings from the research of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Making Caring Common:

  • Teen girls face gender biases, specifically in terms of leadership and power. In a pool of almost 20,000 students surveyed, only 8% of girls surveyed preferred female political leaders over men, while it was only 4% for boys. And 36% of boys preferred male business leaders, while only 6% preferred female leaders.
  • Weissbourd explained to Good Morning America that "Girls are facing biases from many sources. They’re facingbiases from teen boys, from some parents, from each other." This new research shows that girls are not supporting one another. The reason for the gender biases they have stem from "highly competitive feelings among girls, girls lacking confidence and self-esteem and projecting that lack of confidence onto other girls, and girls being viewed as too emotionally 'dramatic.'"
  • Even some mothers showed biases toward male leaders, "On average, mothers presented with councils led by boys expressed stronger support than mothers presented with councils led by girls."
  • Recommendations from this study's findings are based on the beliefs that "good intentions are not enough to prevent leadership or other types of biasesand that biases can’t easily or simply be eliminated. Reducing and preventing biases is a practice that we as adults need to model as well as cultivate in children and teens."

Reading the report is frustrating and yet also gives us some specific paths towards action. We want our daughters to be confident and comfortable with taking charge. So what do we do?

We spoke with Professor Weissbourd about his research and asked for some of his tips for addressing the challenge of gender bias from within oneself, and from within our culture—even from a young age:

  • "The key for babies and toddlers – is gender-neutraltoys, or exposing young kids to toys and games that express many differenttypes of gender roles. It’s not being freaked out when little girls act insome classically masculine way, or when little boys act in some more feminineways."
  • "It’s nurturing empathy andappreciation of girls and boys because I do think a lot of the biases we see –a lot of what’s going on with girls – have their roots in misogyny and sexism.So to work with boys at a young age is incredibly important."
  • "Cultivating friendships at young ages between boys andgirl is important."
  • "It always helps for both boys and girls to be in settings where thereare strong women leaders."
  • "Moderating kids TV watching to some extent because some programsare going to be highly gendered."

Weissbourd also elaborated on how we can build up self-esteem and confidence in our young daughters:

"I don’t think this is a small challenge. Girls are bombarded with images of themselves in the media and the culture that are so degrading and objectifying. I try to be very conscious of this. I’ve been trying to be very active about it with my own daughter; promoting her assertiveness. Sometimes parents are quicker to criticize girls if they are arrogant or bossy or dominating than they are boys, and parents have got to check that stuff. They should be encouraging girls’ assertiveness, encouraging girls’ athleticism, helping girls develop the skills that they need to be effective leaders, problem solving, group skills, public speaking—speaking up, even just at the dinner table."

In the study, Weissbourd recommends several crucial steps to better empower our daughters and sons, including being aware of our own gender biases, steering clear of phrases like "boys will be boys," which can reinforce stereotypes and starting conversations with your kids about gender. Read more in 'Leaning Out: Teen Girls and Leadership Biases.'

Weissbourd says doesn't want his recommendations to feel oppressive to parents, "I don’t think parents should feel the need to comment on bias every minute of every day, but I do think it should become a practice, a habit. It’s a big enough issue, and it’s important."

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