Skip to main content

Teach girls to be more like boys

By Rachel Simmons, Special to CNN
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue April 30, 2013
Women need to feel authorized to take leadership roles, says Rachel Simmons.
Women need to feel authorized to take leadership roles, says Rachel Simmons.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • At prestigious Phillips Andover Academy, only three girls have been school president
  • Rachel Simmons: The real problem is that girls don't feel authorized to be leaders
  • She says girls from childhood onward get mixed messages about displaying power
  • Simmons: Awareness and education can help close the leadership gender gap

Editor's note: Rachel Simmons is cofounder of Girls Leadership Institute and author of "The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence." Follow her on Twitter: @Racheljsimmons

(CNN) -- Phillips Andover Academy, one of the most elite and selective boarding high schools in the country, failed again to elect a girl to its top student position -- the school presidency.

Since the school went co-ed in 1973, only three girls have held this office. In a letter that launched a fiery debate across its campus, senior girls implored their peers to look hard at the school's "staggering gender imbalance" in student leadership.

Headmaster John Palfrey responded by telling The New York Times, "Girls have not had equal access to top leadership positions." Yet, access for girls is rarely the problem when it comes to pursuing leadership.

Rachel Simmons
Rachel Simmons

Feeling authorized to take leadership roles is the problem.

It starts early. From childhood to adolescence, girls face mixed messages about displaying power and authority.

The girls at Andover and elsewhere are socialized to be likeable, to please others, to not tout their own successes and to speak softly like proper girls. As a result, they face powerful psychological barriers to attaining leadership roles.

The impact of what I call the "curse of the good girl" effect first appears in friendships, when young girls take pains to avoid direct conflict with peers. "I want to tell her how I feel," a typical girl would say in my research interviews, "but what if she hates me or turns other people against me?"

These girls often resorted to gossip and other forms of indirect communication, or they internalize their feelings in unhealthy ways.

Over time, pretending not to be angry with a friend when you are, or turning to a text messages instead of having an honest conversation, becomes a formative habit of communication. Meanwhile, the muscles that girls need to assert their strongest feelings and opinions atrophy.

By the time girls join sports teams and school organizations, many have imported these social habits into student leadership contexts.

In a study by the Girl Scouts, girls from 8 to 17 worried that leadership positions would make them seem "bossy" and lead to negative attention from peers.

By college, a skills and confidence gap becomes apparent. On the nearly 40 college campuses that run Elect Her, a program that trains women to run for student government, female students comprise over half of the student body but only hold about a third of the executive positions in student government.

A study by Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox, co-authors of "It Still Takes a Candidate: Why Women Don't Run for Office," found that self-doubt plagues young women ages 18 to 25 who are considering a run for public office. In contrast, their male peers were 60% more likely to view themselves as "very qualified."

Parents, too, play a role.

The same study shows that parents are key influencers in a girl's decision to run for office. Not only did the data show that many more boys than girls are encouraged by a parent to run for office, but half of the students whose mothers suggested they run said they would like to in the future, compared with only 3% of those who got no nudge.

Everyone -- women and men -- need to be more aware of the social cost of punishing girls for being too assertive. Just as a woman becomes instantly less likeable when she asks for a raise -- as research indicates -- a teenage girl can lose social standing when she seems too opinionated.

The penalties are different, but the message is the same: Be too "bossy" or say too much, and you will pay the price. The potential for a girl to become a leader seems over before it even begins.

We can help girls feel more confident as leaders by teaching them the right skills early on, such as talking to a person you don't know or negotiating a compromise.

Organizations such as the Girls Leadership Institute teach girls as young as 5 to express their feelings with friends and how to be assertive. Our educators should consider integrating leadership skill instructions into lesson plans.

The White House recently convened a conference on girls' leadership to address the public leadership gender gap. As the father of two girls, President Barack Obama must understand how important it is to educate girls so that they can grow up and become leaders -- if they so choose.

It is time for all of us to help close that gap.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rachel Simmons.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT