Skip to main content

Teach girls to be more like boys

By Rachel Simmons, Special to CNN
April 30, 2013 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
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
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1947 GMT (0347 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2156 GMT (0556 HKT)
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2221 GMT (0621 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 0217 GMT (1017 HKT)
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2139 GMT (0539 HKT)
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 1215 GMT (2015 HKT)
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT