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How to Be a Role Model for Girls

Together we can encourage the next generation of female leaders. Girls often look to the women in their lives for cues about how to think and act. When we speak confidently, take risks, and own our accomplishments, we set positive examples for girls to follow. There are countless opportunities every day to help girls gain the confidence and skills they need to lean in and take the lead.

Special thanks to Rachel Simmons and the team at Girls Leadership for their expert insights on empowering girls.

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1. Coach Girls to Speak Confidently

Did You Know?

Boys often get more airtime in class than girls—they are more likely to call out answers and less likely to be interrupted.1 Teach girls to counteract this by raising their hands and speaking confidently when they’re called on.

Situation

Girls can undermine themselves when they speak. Many girls use phrases like “kind of” and “sort of” to weaken their statements. Some introduce opinions with disclaimers (“I’m not sure if this is right, but . . .”) or use upspeak so their statements sound like questions (“Martin Luther King, Jr., was a civil rights leader?”). These verbal crutches hinder a girl’s ability to share her ideas clearly and confidently—a habit that often carries over into adulthood.

Solution

Speak with confidence so girls hear what it sounds like. Avoid hedging your opinions with disclaimers or apologies. If you observe a girl falling into these same habits, explain how it undermines the point she’s trying to make. Remind her it’s not just what you say that matters, it’s how you say it, too.

1. Coach Girls to Speak Confidently

Did You Know?

Boys often get more airtime in class than girls—they are more likely to call out answers and less likely to be interrupted.1 Teach girls to counteract this by raising their hands and speaking confidently when they’re called on.

2. Teach Girls to Navigate Conflict

Lean In Activity: Problem Solving with G.I.R.L.

Help girls cultivate their problem-solving and conflict-management skills with G.I.R.L., a framework to help them organize their thoughts, weigh options, and strategize a solution. Download Activity >

Situation

Girls are often taught to suppress their feelings in order to get along with others.2 As a result, they do not learn to speak openly and manage conflict. Fast-forward to adulthood: too often women avoid giving each other honest input to avoid being seen as unkind or fall into the trap of personalizing constructive input we receive. Because we shy away from giving and getting direct feedback, many women miss out on the input we need to be our best selves and advance in our careers more quickly.

Solution

Model honest, direct communication for the girls in your life. When faced with a difficult situation, talk to the people involved—not about them—and share your true feelings. Encourage girls to speak their mind and avoid social shortcuts like texting and social media. Role-play difficult conversations together, and ask girls to reflect on what worked and what didn’t. Explain that conflict is an inevitable part of relationships—it’s the way we handle it that matters.

3. Encourage Girls to Own Their Success

Did You Know?

The confidence gap starts young: between elementary school and high school, girls’ self-esteem drops 3.5 times more than boys’.7

Situation

When girls are confident in their abilities, they are more likely to take the lead.3 The problem is that girls are often underestimated by others—and underestimate themselves—which erodes their confidence. When girls are complimented on their achievements, they also tend to deflect praise or minimize their accomplishments,4 yet internalizing success is an important part of building self-confidence.

These same dynamics carry over into adulthood. Women often get less credit for successes and can be blamed more for failures.5 We also tend to underestimate our own abilities and attribute our success to external factors such as “getting lucky” or “help from others.”6 Because we receive less credit and give ourselves less credit, we often feel less self-assured, and it curbs our appetite for taking on new challenges.

Solution

Model owning your accomplishments for the girls in your life. Say “thank you” when you receive a compliment instead of deflecting it. When girls see that it is okay to own their success, they will feel more comfortable doing it themselves. Moreover, look for opportunities to celebrate girls’ success and acknowledge their strengths, and push back if they fall into the trap of sidestepping praise.

3. Encourage Girls to Own Their Success

Did You Know?

The confidence gap starts young: between elementary school and high school, girls’ self-esteem drops 3.5 times more than boys’.7

4. Inspire Girls to Go for It

Lean In Activity: Goal Setting

Use our goal-setting activity to help girls break down their goals into achievable steps—and see a clear path from where they are to where they want to go. Download Activity >

Situation

Because girls often struggle with confidence and fear making mistakes, they are less likely to take risks. Some girls don’t speak up in class unless they’re 100 percent sure they have the right answer, while others shy away from trying new subjects or activities. This same reluctance also holds women back. Compared to our male counterparts, we can be less likely to take on high-profile projects or lobby for more senior positions.

Solution

Model taking healthy risks. Talk about the times you’ve stepped out of your comfort zone, and explain how good it feels when you succeed and how much you learn when you don’t. When you hear girls say they’re “not ready” or “can’t do it,” gently push back and remind them it’s an opportunity to learn and grow. Make sure girls know that being brave is rarely about dramatic moments: it’s a skill acquired, little by little, over time.

5. Celebrate Female Leadership

Did You Know?

More than 80 percent of female executives played sports growing up.11 When girls participate in extracurricular activities, they gain leadership skills that stay with them for life.12

Situation

Girls and boys get very different messages about leadership. We expect boys to lead, so we applaud them when they do. On the other hand, we expect girls to be kind and communal, so when they speak their mind or take the lead, they often face pushback. As a result, girls often worry they’ll make people mad or be laughed at if they assume a leadership position.9 It’s no wonder that by middle school, girls are less interested in leading than boys—a trend that continues into adulthood.10

Solution

Talk openly about your own experiences taking the lead and celebrate female leaders in your life and in the news. If you hear a girl being criticized for asserting herself or referred to as “bossy” or “aggressive,” step in and explain she should be applauded, not chided, for her leadership skills. Finally, make sure girls understand the benefits of being a leader, like having a voice and making things happen!

5. Celebrate Female Leadership

Did You Know?

More than 80 percent of female executives played sports growing up.11 When girls participate in extracurricular activities, they gain leadership skills that stay with them for life.12

Endnotes

  1. Myra Sadker and David M. Sadker, Failing at Fairness: How America’s Schools Cheat Girls (New York: Scribner, 1994); AAUW, How Schools Shortchange Girls (1992).
  2. Girls, Inc., The Supergirl Dilemma: Girls Grapple with the Mounting Pressure of Expectations (2006). girlsinc-monroe.org/styles/girlsinc/defiles/The%20Supergirl%20Dilemma--Summary%20Findings--low%20res.pdf.
  3. Girl Scout Research Institute, Change It Up: What Girls Say About Redefining Leadership (2008). girlscouts.org/content/dam/girlscouts-gsusa/forms-and-documents/about-girl-scouts/research/change_it_up_executive_summary_english.pdf.
  4. Girls Inc., The Supergirl Dilemma.
  5. Madeline E. Heilman and Michelle C. Hayes, “No Credit Where Credit Is Due: Attributional Rationalization of Women’s Success in Male-Female Teams,” Journal of Applied Psychology 90, no. 5 (2005): 905–26; Michelle C. Hayes and Jason S. Lawrence, “Who’s to Blame? Attributions of Blame in Unsuccessful Mixed-Sex Work Teams,” Basic and Applied Social Psychology 34, no. 6 (2012): 558–64.
  6. Sylvia Beyer, “Gender Differences in Causal Attributions by College Students of Performance on Course Examinations,” Current Psychology 17, no. 4 (1998): 346–58.
  7. AAUW, Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America (1991), aauw.org/files/2013/02/shortchanging-girls-shortchanging-america-executive-summary.pdf.
  8. Georges Desvaux, Sandrine Devillard-Hoellinger, and Mary C. Meaney, “A Business Case for Women,” The McKinsey Quarterly, September 2008, 4. talentnaardetop.nl/uploaded_files/document/2008_A_business_case_for_women.pdf.
  9. Girl Scout Research Institute, Change It Up.
  10. Deborah Marlino and Fiona Wilson, Teen Girls on Business: Are They Being Empowered?, The Committee of 200, Simmons College School of Management (April 2003), nttac.org/views/docs/jabg/grpcurriculum/girls_on_business.pdf; Jennifer L. Lawless and Richard L. Fox, Men Rule: The Continued Under-Representation of Women in U.S. Politics, Women & Politics Institute, American University School of Public Affairs (January 2012), american.edu/spa/wpi/upload/2012-Men-Rule-Report-web.pdf; LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company, Women in the Workplace (2015). womenintheworkplace.com.
  11. MassMutual Financial Group and OppenheimerFunds, From the Locker Room to the Boardroom: A Survey on Sports in the Lives of Women Business Executives (2002).
  12. Girl Scout Research Institute, Change It Up.

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