A 9-year-old girl sits in my office, twirling her hair and averting her gaze as she speaks. She’s trying to find the courage to run for student council at her school, an honor bestowed upon just a few fourth and fifth grade students. To do this, she has to write a letter to the director of the student council and why she wants the position. That’s where she’s stuck. She wants the position, but she can’t think of a single reason why she should get it.
“I’m not the kind of girl that gets picked for something like this,” she says.
“What kind of girl do you believe gets chosen?” I ask.
“You know, the ones who talk a lot and everyone likes and the teachers always call on because they aren’t afraid of sharing answers in front of the class.”
This young girl is a . Her teacher later tells me that she counts on her to lead group projects and set a positive example walking to and from other classrooms. Her teacher also shares that, though she doesn’t always raise her hand, her input is always insightful and well-received by her peers. As it turns out, her peers actually look up to her. She just doesn’t see it.
This young girl is not alone. As I detail in my new book, “,” research shows that girls lack the confidence to take on leadership positions for a variety of reasons. According to the findings from the Girl Scout Research Institute in a report titled, ““, common barriers to leadership among young girls include lack of confidence in skills and competence, stress, fear of speaking in front of others, fear of embarrassment, fear of appearing bossy, and negative peer pressure.
Research also indicates that girls struggle to support other girls reaching for leadership roles. In fact, results of a 2015 administered by the Making Caring Common (MCC) team at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education found that girls are reluctant to support leadership roles for other girls due to highly competitive feelings among girls, lack of and self-esteem, and girls viewing other girls as “dramatic.”
What the research shows us is that girls continue to get the message to be quiet, kind and inclusive and to avoid being loud, bossy, and in charge.
In a time where girls are consistently told to follow their dreams and aim high, the messages they internalize remain confusing:
- Be assertive, but be nice about it.
- Be successful, but don’t brag too much. You don’t want your successes to hurt someone else’s feelings.
It’s no wonder girls hesitate to step up and lead. Yet taking on leadership positions is exactly what young girls need to do to thrive in this world. When girls are leaders, they experience greater self-confidence, they internalize the message that they are competent, and they become more independent, responsible, and resilient.
Leadership helps girls prepare for adulthood. It’s up to us to inspire our girls to lead.
Rethink leadership roles
The problem with our current narrative on leadership is that it feels stressful. When we think of leaders, we think of presidents, CEOs and business owners. What we need to do is redefine leadership on a girl-size scale.
When my daughter was in kindergarten, she became fixated on helping the victims of a hurricane. She wanted to send sweatshirts to kids who might be cold after losing all of their belongings. She asked her classmates to donate outgrown sweatshirts and organized a school-wide sweatshirt drive. In her own quiet way, she found a way to lead.
Girls can lead in all kinds of ways. They can organize a mother’s helper club to provide an extra hand to moms in need in the neighborhood. They can host monthly bake sales to raise money for a cause. They can start a dog walking business or a homework helper club or a kid book club. The options are endless. All we have to do is give them the time and space to come up with a plan.
Practice public speaking
Public speaking is hard, even for adults. It’s anxiety-producing to stand in front of a crowd staring back at you in silence. Girls can learn to work through the feelings that hold them back by practicing deep breathing and visualization exercises. They can also practice speaking up at home by engaging in fun family events like running for president of the house, playing TV game show host, or giving speeches about changes they would like to see at home.
The more girls practice projecting their voices and speaking with confidence, the more comfortable they are when they do need to speak in front of a group.
It’s natural for parents to dismiss self-criticism when girls verbalize their inner thoughts because we always see the best in our girls. What girls need is for us to hear them out, empathize and help them learn to practice self-compassion, instead.
We all experience feelings of self-doubt at times. That’s perfectly natural. How we choose to confront that self-doubt is important. I encourage parents to help girls learn to flip their negatives into positives by evaluating their inner thoughts.
If your daughter says, “I can’t run for student council because I’m not popular and no one will vote for me,” for example, you want to help her verbalize the emotions hidden beneath the surface (anxiety, fear), evaluate the statement for accuracy (list her positive qualities, name her friends and supporters), and flip the negative to a positive (“Running for student council is something I’ve never done before, but I am ready for the challenge.”)
Learning leadership skills requires time and practice, but it’s essential that we empower girls to take these healthy risks and confront challenges that make them feel uncomfortable. In doing this, girls learn that they have what it takes to step into leadership roles and amplify their voices.
A version of this post was published October 9, 2020. It has been updated.