About this Episode
Between grade school and high school, girls’ confidence drastically drops—and feelings of “I’m not smart enough” and “I’m not good enough” become all too common. On this episode of Tilted, we talk to the author of “The Confidence Code for Girls,” Claire Shipman, founder of Girls Leadership, Rachel Simmons, and educators from KIPP and Girls’ Middle School about how we can all (not just parents) help girls be their best, most confident, and most resilient selves.
Girl 1: A moment when I lost confidence was when I got a bad grade on my math test. Even though I studied hard. I still struggle with math confidence today.
Girl 2: I wish my dance teacher would know that a lot of people are working really hard. And that it's important to reward the people who are working really hard and not just the people who are naturally gifted.
Girl 3: There was a time when my mom told me that my face was shaped like an oval and it made me lose confidence because I felt like I wasn’t pretty.
Girl 4: I don’t like it when people interrupt me because it makes me feel like I’m not important enough to be heard.
Girl 5: My mom always tells me not to be so hard on myself, but then she’s hard on herself.
Rachel Thomas: Welcome to Tilted, a Lean In Podcast. Each week we explore the uneven playing field—the gender bias that lurks in unexpected places, the impact it has on our everyday lives, and what happens when women lean in and start driving change. I’m your host Rachel Thomas, co-founder and president of Lean In.
Rachel Thomas: Here’s something everyone with a daughter should know—and I remember the first time I heard this it just stuck with me, and has stuck with me ever since—between elementary school and high school, girls experience a big drop in confidence, and far bigger than what boys experience.
Rachel Thomas: As the head of Lean In—and the mother of an 11-year-old girl, Haley—this frankly terrifies me, and I’m guessing it terrifies everyone else listening, as well. So I went looking for answers. I wanted to know what we as parents, but not just parents, but all of us who love the girls in our lives—can do to help our girls be their best, most confident, and most resilient selves.
Rachel Thomas: I sat down with four experts:
Claire Shipman, journalist and author of the best-selling book, “The Confidence Code for Girls.”
Rachel Simmons, founder of an amazing organization called Girls Leadership and author of “Odd Girl Out.”
Tevera Stith, who works for KIPP, a network of charter schools in underserved communities. Tevera runs a program that helps KIPP grads transition to college and then into their careers.
And finally, Jennifer Ayer, who runs a great progressive middle school for girls right here in Palo Alto fittingly called Girls Middle School.
Rachel Thomas: We covered a lot of ground together, from how to help girls step outside their comfort zones to how they can say what they really mean to their friends. Because we covered so much ground, we’ve organized my questions and their answers by theme. That means you’ll hear me jump from expert to expert, but you’ll get all of their best material on each topic grouped together.
Rachel Thomas: Let’s dive in and learn more about the middle-school confidence drop and what we can do about it.
Rachel Thomas: Claire, in your book you write that before age eight, girls and boys are equally confident—there's almost no difference between the two. But all of that starts to change as kids grow up. What's going on?
Claire Shipman: What we found in our research is that the confidence gap between boys and girls really starts at puberty. Starting at about age 8, there is a plummet—literally of 30%—between the ages of 8 and 12. Girls lose 30% of their confidence, and in many cases, we never get it back. Our confidence often is never as high again as that of men.
Rachel Thomas: Jennifer, one of the things I find really interesting is that you’ve decided to focus just on girls and just on middle school. What is going on during those years that’s so unique?
Jennifer Ayer: Middle school is such a crucial time in a girl's life. And it is a time of maximum awkwardness, I would say. A time when girls often feel uncomfortable with the rapid changes they're going through and in which their development really diverges from boys substantially.
Jennifer Ayer: Girls hit puberty earlier than the boys, and they also tend to be able to think abstractly earlier than the boys. They're often taller, they're starting to develop breasts, getting their period, and the boys often still look like elementary school students. Girls have an easier time being organized earlier than boys, and so some tasks of middle school are easier for girls than boys. But they also have more difficulties sometimes with three dimensional reasoning than the boys.
Rachel Thomas: That’s so interesting. Girls are developing faster than boys, but we also know their confidence drop is bigger, too. Why?
Jennifer Ayer: Boy that's a good question. I think that—and I'm going to answer this not based on deep research, but on my sense as an educator—that girls are so attuned to how they are perceived in the world vis-a-vis other people, and pleasing the people in their lives. Whether it's by society’s influences or for some other reason they have a tendency not to want to raise their hand unless they're sure they're right, to stop and process a question before they raise their hand—there's a lot of data about that.
Jennifer Ayer: If a teacher asks a question, the girl will process it and the boy will shoot his hand up just for the sake of some movement perhaps. And then trust that he can process the question on the fly and give the answer. Girls don't tend to do that. But whether there's just a kinetic way that the boys are in class that tends to quiet girls, you know to shut girls down, whether it's wanting to impress boys but not, feeling that the messages in society are you can't be smarter than the boys.
Rachel Thomas: And Tevera what does this look like in the classroom? Do girls behave a little differently, or do you see differences in the way that boys and girls raise their hand, speak up, and take the lead in school?
Tevera Stith: I think it depends on the school setting, it depends on the teacher, but I think this idea of answering a question when you think you already know the answer and not just going out there and saying, “I'm not sure if this is right, but I have a logic to it to put me to that place.” And so I do think that there is this phenomenon where a boy will just raise his hand and say, “Well look, let me go out there and throw it out there.”
Tevera Stith: There are two choices: I'm right or I'm wrong. Where a girl is far more calculated and really confident that she's right before she raised her hand. The problem in that is not that she's confident, she raised her hand, perhaps she's right, but that one instance when she's wrong can shut her down from raising her hand for weeks and months to come.
Rachel Thomas: As I spoke to all of our experts, the biggest theme that bubbled up over and over again was the importance of getting girls to step outside their comfort zone and take risks—and I know I’ve seen this with my own daughter. Rachel Simmons calls these “little acts of assertiveness,” and everyone agrees they help girls build confidence and resilience.
Rachel Thomas: I know there's no silver bullet but I am on a quest to get all the best information I can possibly get to use with my own daughter, and I know Claire you're doing this at home. What haven't we talked about that you think is critical that we do with our girls, that we say to our girls, and that we encourage our girls to do? What can we do as parents to get this right?
Claire Shipman: I would say just understand that if your daughter is always wanting to be comfortable, she's not in the right place. You've got to push her out of her comfort zone and that might be literally walking to the library, it might be ordering in a restaurant, it might be cooking an egg and messing it up 400 times. There are a million different ways to force her to use that risk-taking muscle, but if she's not doing some failing—it doesn't have to be failing her junior year, every class, but it’s just targeted failing—she's really not learning or more importantly, I think, building confidence.
Claire Shipman: And then the other thing I think is there's almost like a trick we can use to help girls exercise their confidence muscle and they will start to do it in other ways. And that is: get them to take risks on behalf of something greater than themselves. So they might not want to shoot their hand up for every math question or to answer every history question. But if—you know there's been some really interesting research, this woman who did this with middle school girls found that she started a club for girls who are interested in animal welfare. And every girl is pretty much interested in animal welfare, so they would speak up on behalf of these animals and dogs and take risks and then that translates. Once you learn those skills, you can translate them into something else.
Rachel Thomas: One of the things that you said that I just want to go slow to go fast so everybody really internalizes it—because I think it is so right—is that if you girls aren't failing they're actually not building confidence. It takes a little minute for those two ideas to fit together. It feels counterintuitive, but it's not. Because it means they're not putting themselves out there, and you have to put yourself out there, and do it, and pick yourself back up, and that's where confidence comes from.
Claire Shipman: Right. The formula for confidence is doing a little bit of failing, a lot of learning, and eventually mastery. So you have to do, and you have to do some failing.
Rachel Thomas: Rachel, when we worked together on Ban Bossy—and for everyone listening, this was a campaign that highlighted the ways we inadvertently discourage girls from leading—you had this great activity to help girls break down big challenges into manageable steps. Can you walk us through how it works?
Rachel Simmons: Sure. And this is an activity by the way I use with girls and women of all ages, which is fascinating. It just goes to show so many women and girls have similar work to do, and that is because we're often under a lot of pressure to be really ambitious right out of the gate when we have a challenge in front of us.
Rachel Simmons: It's like we want to build Rome in a day, we want to do something polished and fabulous. But one of the things that I've found, and that other researchers have found, is that when you break something down into smaller bites, it's a lot easier to get it done.
Rachel Simmons: But here's the problem: when you talk to girls about taking their big ambitions and breaking them down into small pieces they look at you like you're crazy. And they're like, “This is so dumb. I want to do something awesome.”
Rachel Simmons: And so we have to start the conversation with girls by saying, “Actually, when you lower your standards, you can do great things.” Because it is by pushing ourselves to be so perfect all the time that we often end up falling short of these crazy standards, feeling ashamed, giving up, or in general just avoiding the situation. So the activity is: find something that you want to do that makes you scared, that really pushes you out of your comfort zone, and then break down that goal into three steps.
Rachel Simmons: The first is what's your comfort zone? So what are you doing right now that comes easily to you. And I'll give you an example from my own life, which is you know I wanted to learn how to host people in my house. When I moved cities and I was single. I was like I got to make friends, but I was really scared to do that. My comfort zone was basically going out to eat and not inviting anybody. Now here's the exciting piece of the exercise. I asked myself, “What is one small thing that I could do to get me closer to having people over to my house, that makes me nervous, but not terrified?”
Rachel Simmons: We have a better shot of accomplishing things that are hard, but not terrifying. Psychologists call that “desirable difficulties.” That sweet spot between something that's super easy for you and super hard. For me, that low risk was having somebody over for bagels and orange juice. Something that would make me uncomfortable because I'd have somebody in my house, but I wouldn't have to do a ton of cooking. My high risk zone, which is that third bucket of “what am I going to do to get to my goal?” The higher risk zone is the thing that's still really scary for me, and that would be having somebody over at my house for hot food that I would have to prepare in the moment.So I did the bagel thing and I didn't die.
Rachel Thomas: Well, thank God you didn’t die! And, Rachel, I love this activity. I love, love, love it. I’ve always thought this was a great tool. What’s an example of using it with, say, a young girl?
Rachel Simmons: A good example for a girl would be, a girl who's starting a new school and wants to make new friends. For a lot of girls the idea of sitting down at a new lunch table is absolutely terrifying, and so I'm always telling parents, “Please don't recommend that your kid just do that right off the bat because that's just the worst.”
Rachel Simmons: But what would a low risk towards making friends look like for a girl? Well it might look like just saying hi to somebody new at school tomorrow. And that's really key, ny the way, is to come up with a time and a day that you're going to take this low risk so that you can be accountable to it. And then you can ask the girl, “Hey, did you do that? Did you say hi to that person?” And if she says no, that's actually ok, too, because you can say, “Well did you get anything out of not doing it? What did you take away from that or why didn't you do it?”
Rachel Simmons: And then another low risk might just be like following somebody that you don't know on Instagram or on Snapchat. Because when kids do that with each other, it's kind of a way of shaking hands with them. And so that can also be a low risk. It's really important for parents, too, to make sure they are lowering their standards for their daughters, because we may want our daughters to be more social and to be more outgoing as they start a new school. And it's so important to remember that we have to parent that kid we have and not the kid we wish we had.
Rachel Simmons: Breaking things down into small goals can really help. And I think that you get such a good rush. I mean if you look at the rush of confidence that a girl gets, that we all get, from doing a small act of courage. You take that rush and you leverage it for the next one. You parlay it into the next act of courage and you build up over time. Courage, for me anyway, is a muscle that I have to flex over and over again. I always tell my students, “You know, you're not just going to wake up one day and know how to tell your friend what's bothering you. You're not going to wake up one day and know how to ask someone for a raise. You're going to have to build into that skill. Like when you go to the gym, you don't start lifting 100 pound weights. You've got to build up. And so that's also a really important thing for girls to understand is that it's little by little, like they're practicing a new skill.
Rachel Thomas: We've talked a lot about confidence, and sometimes girls having a little less for a lot of reasons. What are the implications of this lack of confidence? What does it look like and what can we do?
Claire Shipman: One thing parents should always remember, and I've learned this the hard way, don't try to analyze the failure with them immediately because they're really upset. You've got to give their amygdala time to recover. Let them chill out, watch TV. Then when they're ready, you can start to work through some of what happened and different ways to get through it and then how to move move on from it so that they can get past it. It's so important that we try not to encourage perfectionism in our daughters, but that we also avoid it ourselves, as mentors, as mothers. I mean the number one thing they're taking from us is what we're doing as role models for them. So I've tried to come home all the time and talk about, “Gosh, I'm worried about this. I think I messed up today. What do you think? My editor hates this part of my book, I'm a little bummed. What would you do?” And really try to let my daughter see that not only am I not perfect, I'm not even striving for it.
Rachel Thomas: I have to say that all this material on the importance of stepping outside your comfort zone, taking risks, learning to fail, I think this is so critically important. I do this with Haley all the time, but I’m going to do even more now. The other thing we know that is incredibly important are healthy, supportive friendships. They are important to all of us—and they are particularly important as girls are growing up and finding themselves. Rachel and Tevera shared a few insights on girls and friendship that struck me as spot-on.
Rachel Thomas: And then is there anything that you do when you're working with girls in terms of how they talk to each other in their own relationships. So I think that's an area where I am at least watching with my own 11 year old daughter. She sometimes struggles to feel comfortable saying what she really truly means.
Rachel Thomas: Rachel, in your work with girls and women, you talk a lot about the importance of speaking up—and let’s be honest, speaking your truth—in friendship. I think this is really important, too, but it’s scary because you can’t control how it turns out. What if they respond badly? How do you prepare girls for these conversations?
Rachel Simmons: Yeah, that's such a tough one. It's really unpredictable what's going to happen in a friend conversation. So what I do with my students is, I say, “Listen, even if you do tell your friend how you feel and she doesn't give you the reaction that you were wanting, what is the minimum benefit?” So meaning, what's the least good thing that comes out of this situation even if it doesn’t go my way?
Rachel Simmons: What girls will often say is, “Well, the least good thing is that I spoke up, and I said my piece. I used my voice and I wasn't silent.” Or they might say, “The least good thing is that I learned who this friend really is.” In other words, “I spoke up, this friend reacted poorly, and she gave me a message about the fact that she's not a good listener, she's not particularly respectful, and that's useful information.”
Rachel Simmons: Now what are we doing in that conversation with a girl? We're basically saying, “Can you respect that even if the outcome doesn't go exactly the way you want it, there's a lot that you get from the process.” Perfectionists are not into the process. Perfectionists are all about the outcome. So part of what we need to do with girls is be like, “On the journey, you're actually getting a lot of growth. And that sometimes just proving to yourself that you are stronger than you thought is like gold.” I mean that's a pretty sweet thing to walk away from a situation or a conversation that didn't go your way with.
Rachel Thomas: Tevera, we know friendships are really important to all of us, and definitely to girls. How do you think about friendship?
Tevera Stith: It's about the longevity of relationships. Are we providing opportunities where girls are in relationships that really go over time? Like their lifelong friendships, their lifelong relationships, but just also exorcising people who aren't good for you. The folk, the person who isn't going to encourage you, male or female or whatever. I mean women tend to be really loyal over a long period of time and so even if someone doesn't prove to be really great, they keep it. I equate it to that dress that I don't look very great in, but I still have it in my closet. I don't think one day that dress is going to look better on me. It's not about my size, it's just an awful dress.
Rachel Thomas: Free yourself from the dress!
Tevera Stith: But for some reason, I'm like, “This is a dress and I bought it and I committed to the dress, right?” I think sometimes we commit ourselves to relationships that aren't good for us, and no one says just drop that! That doesn't work out for you, so move on. So I think it's also about longevity, but it's also realizing when you've had enough.
Rachel Thomas: That's a great tip for parents: encouraging their girls if you're in a relationship that just doesn't feel good. Like the dress, it just doesn't make you feel like you're everything you can be. That it's OK to let those friendships go. But also what I heard from you, which I wholeheartedly agree with, is and then doubled down on those friendships that feel good.
Rachel Thomas: Switching gears... A lot of us tell our girls that they can be or do anything—but I think that’s an incomplete message. We also need to prepare them for the gender stereotypes and sexism they’re likely going to face at some point. I asked our experts about this, and I loved what they had to say.
Rachel Thomas: It was brought to my attention that I was using a little bit of Pollyanna-ish language with my daughter. A lot of you could do anything, the sky's the limit. She goes to bed every night in female CEO t-shirts, etc. And it was pointed out from a social scientists that we do a lot of work with—she said, “You know, Rachel, the problem with that messaging is it is harder for girls. And it is harder for women. And in particular, if you add women of color, or LGBTQ women, or you know women who were immigrants, it just gets harder.
Rachel Thomas: When we message the very pro, “we believe in you, we believe you can do anything,” that message. If the girls hear that and don't hear the other side, they’re not preparing for that. And it may catch them by surprise, in a way that isn't productive.
Claire Shipman: I have really struggled with this, raising my daughter. I remember early on, when my daughter was so young, and you have those placemats with all the pictures of all the presidents, and my son loved learning the names of the president's. With my daughter, I was like, “I'm going to hide these. It's too embarrassing to me that we don't have a woman on this placemat yet.”
Claire Shipman: And so for years I would always try to hide the truth in a way, when she was younger. Not literally, but I didn't want to talk about the unpleasant reality. And I think because I'm a journalist, because of all the research we've done, that I've come to understand that knowing this stuff is powerful for girls. It's a lot of pressure to be representing your entire family and the generations of women. But it's also a lot of motivational power. And so if I can start to show my daughter, and we can start to show our daughters, “Look where we've come, look where we still have to gom and you're going to have to strap in and get in the game and just keep fighting for this.”
Claire Shipman: And look at the things that bother them as a challenge. I mean my daughter and I experience this a couple years ago. She loves to play basketball. We went to a big named sports store, I won't say the name because it might get everybody in trouble, but she wanted basketball shoes. Turns out they don't stock women's basketball shoes in this gigantic store at all.
Rachel Thomas: This happened to us too, the same darn thing.
Claire Shipman: Yes and all she wanted was—three floors of shoes. And it was so demoralizing. Not to mention that all the pictures of the girls were of girls posing, not actually playing a sport at all. I tried to just flip it and say, “What do you want to do? Do you want to talk to the manager? Do you want to write a letter? Let's make it make it into something.” And I think it's important to talk about reality.
Rachel Thomas: Rachel, too often we fall into the trap of being really “rah-rah” with our girls, and not being real and honest about the pushback they’re going to sometimes face. At least I know I do. How do you think about that and what do you recommend we do?
Rachel Simmons: Wow, these are the big ones! These are the big questions, Rachel, you're not going easy on me today. It's funny, you can have that conversation in a range of ways. Like I will give you an example with my own daughter, who's six years old. When she sees me putting on makeup, she says, “Why are you doing that?” Because I don't wear makeup everyday. Usually I wear makeup when I'm leaving my little quiet town that I live in.
Rachel Simmons: And I say, “Well, because there are some people who don't take women seriously if they're not wearing makeup, and that's not fair. There are some people who think that women shouldn't get as much respect at work if they're not wearing makeup, and I don't agree with that. But that's something that I feel like I need to do and I don't like it and I'm not happy with it.”
Rachel Simmons: And that's my gentle way of letting her know that as lucky as we are, and as much agency as we have, there are forces outside my control that are shaping some of my choices. And it's very important for her—I'll give you another part of this answer—but it's really important for her to understand, as you point out, that she doesn't have all the power. Because I think the girls who have a lot of opportunity can believe that. And actually when things don't go their way, they take it a lot harder. The other thing that I would say you can do as a parent is: just remind your kid periodically that sometimes life isn't fair, and sometimes you think you're going to get what you want ,or you've made a plan that seems airtight and it just doesn't happen.
Rachel Simmons: You go online and you realize that you were left out. You're not going to get invited to every birthday party. You're not going to get in every Instagram tag. And that is part of life. That doesn't mean that you've done something wrong. That's not a bug of life, that's the future of life. And I think preparing your child, your child will be so much better off knowing that that's coming and that that's part of life, than being shocked by it.
Rachel Thomas: Another way to prepare girls for the road ahead is to make them really good students and encourage them to try new things. Given she’s an educator—and a very accomplished one at that—I talked to Jennifer from Girls Middle School, about how to do this. Here’s what she told me.
Jennifer Ayer: I think it's very important to focus—whether you're raising boys or girls—not on what they got on the test or the quiz, but on what they're learning and what intrigues them, and what interests them. It is important that they understand your own educational journey, and that it was not without bumps and struggles, and that you were a beginner at subjects, too. I think it's even better if you can model being a beginner at something. Why not start playing the guitar or the piano or learning a language as an adult to show your child what it feels like to be a beginner? That it takes practice to master things, so if you can show that growth mindset and you can show them your own journey as a learner, that's very, very powerful. They tend to see us as if we arrived on earth fully formed and with all the things we know how to do, and we know that's not true.
Jennifer Ayer: I also think that it's important to take an interest in the things that interest them. To engage with them in those things and they may not be of innate interest to you. But I think if you can watch a show they love and talk about it, watch a movie they love and talk about it, engage in a game they love and talk about it. Then they will become the teacher, and you will become the learner, and that's a very powerful thing for boys and girls to see.
Jennifer Ayer: And it's important that that you were genuinely playing a supporting role in their interests, rather than—it's easy to slip into taking control and getting a little overly excited. No matter how quirky their interests are, there is real benefit to pursuing them. If they want to perfect icing a cake, and you think it would be more important for them to go to robotics camp, let them ice the cake. Let them learn how to do that. Let them do research on that. Let them try it. Because the things they learn about agency, and about pursuing their interests, and about how to get better at something, it really almost doesn't matter what they're learning about.
Jennifer Ayer: Try to free them to pursue their interests, and support them in pursuing their ideas, and engage with them in their ideas. I also think if you happen to be a handy person and you have some tools in the basement, teach your girls how to use them. Definitely don't just teach your sons how to use the power drill and the power saw. Have your girls learn to do it, to do projects with them that involve making things. But it really doesn't matter whether it is a drill press or a sewing machine. You can give them confidence that they can create and get their ideas across in many different mediums.
Rachel Thomas: OK, Jennifer, the million-dollar question, what do you do to get your girls excited about computer science and STEM more broadly, and what can we do as parents at home?
Jennifer Ayer: I was listening the other day to our sixth and seventh grade computer science teacher at back to school night. She is someone who graduated from MIT, and worked at Google, and is a very capable computer scientists at this point. But she can talk still to the challenge of those early computer science classes, and the feeling of being behind. And it is important to understand about computer science that the amount of energy it takes to get to the point where you really understand it, and can use it in powerful ways, is a lot. There is absolutely no reason that girls can't be as good at computer science as boys, they were the early computer scientists at the beginning of the field. And it was only more recently that it became more predominantly a male field.
Jennifer Ayer: I think giving, as you frame for girls, and understanding that engineering in general is about solving problems for people. They get very excited about that idea, of you know whether it's a bridge or a software program, that they're solving a human problem. And I think it's important to look at the types of challenges that kids are given in computer science, and make sure that they are not innately more boyish. You know, I've watched GMS girls build a robot that came over to you and delivered cookies to you. And that is no less worthy than the robot that can go into a ring and engage in combat, and more often—
Rachel Thomas: I prefer the cookie version!
Jennifer Ayer: I prefer the cookies, too! But to find tasks that really amuse girls is also important. So what can you do as a parent? I would look for programs that offer basic computer programming skills focused on girls, and there's a growing number of them. I would be wary of the camp that is 90% boys or 80% boys, unless you've got a girl who already has a lot of chutzpah and willingness to exist in that very boy dominated world. So I would look for the girls programs. As to math, and encouraging girls in math, it is enormously important that we, as parents, don't send the message to either our boys or girls that we’re not math people and we don't like math. It would be ludicrous, I think, for people to say, “Oh I'm not a book person. I'm not a literature person, I'm not a history person,” whereas they're very quick to sort of throw up their heads and say, “I'm not a math person.”
Rachel Thomas: Jennifer mentioned coding camps, and there’s also a great free online program from MIT called Scratch. I’ve used it with my kids, and you’ll find it at scratch.mit.edu. And, wow, her point that we’d never say we weren’t book people—or we didn’t like to read—really resonates.
Rachel Thomas: We’ve covered a lot of ground together, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about how it can be harder for girls of color, LGBTQ girls, and girls from other underrepresented groups. They are having a different experience, and it’s important we understand this as parents, teachers, and as people who love them and want them to succeed. So I talked to our experts about this.
Rachel Thomas: We know from our research that women of color have a far worse experience than white women do. Tevera, do girls of color have a confidence gap? And if so, what does it look like?
Tevera Stith: Yeah I'm sure it's probably mimic that of women of color. I mean if you think about all the challenges we've talked about here—authenticity, place, and space— historically in America and around the world, women of color have been last. Not only are you dealing with the multitude of issues that come with race and how people see you as either worthy or unworthy, and then you add that piece of gender along with it. For lots of women of color, that's really difficult. And the adverse that's happened, particularly I think with assertive African-American women, is that it puts you in a different category.
Tevera Stith: When you're absolutely assertive, people don't know what to do with you, are not sure where you fit, and so they take your gender away as a result. And so because I'm assertive and I'm brown, then I'm no longer as much a woman as someone else. We see that in so many. Sojourner Truth would say “Ain’t I a woman?” because she was so confident and she was so sure in where she was so that her femaleness—those things that make women tender and loving—seems like something you don't get to espouse because you're also a woman of color.
Tevera Stith: I think it shows up differently. I'm not going to say every race is the same. I certainly don't want to speak for every racial group or every woman of color but I do think that there is an extra layer to that piece.
Rachel Thomas: Rachel, I know you do a lot of work and a lot of research around girls of color and LGBTQ girls. How are things different for them?
Rachel Simmons: Well that's a great question. I mean I think there's a lot that is different for girls of color and particularly for black girls. You know when we see girls—first of all we know that black girls get suspended and expelled from school. They experience disciplinary action, are reported to the police from their schools, at something like six times the rate of white girls. And one of the reasons for that is that there’s enormous discomfort with the anger of a black woman or a black girl.
Rachel Simmons: And that discomfort will often cause assertiveness to be coded as aggression. So in other words, I say something in a particular voice, when a black woman says it that way, she is seen as aggressive, I am seen as assertive—which is not that dissimilar from the double standard women and men experience around assertiveness versus aggression.
Rachel Simmons: But when we talk about girls who have multiple identities that are underrepresented or minority identities, so they're not just girls, but they're also a girl of color or they're also a gender nonconforming girl, that girl may experience—let's look at an LGBTQ girl. While it would be amazing for every LGBTQ girl to have a supportive family and supportive peers and like teachers that are completely fine and accepting. You know that's just not the experience for most of those kids.
Rachel Simmons: And so they're going to suffer attacks on their confidence, on their sense of self, on their safety, on their security, on their comfort in a way that let's say a white heterosexual girl isn't going to experience. You can't get more confident if you don't take risks. But if you are busy protecting yourself because you feel threatened because of your identity, you won't be in a position to take risks and grow. You're going to be spending all your time just trying to get through. And so that's a big difference for those girls. And it's really important for particularly any woman working with girls to keep that what we call intersectionality in mind. That every time we layer on a different part of a girl's identity—her race, her gender identity—she's probably experiencing things in a different way than a white girl is.
Rachel Thomas: Jennifer, I know you are very open to talking about sexuality and identity at GMS. As parents, how can we support girls who are questioning their own sexuality or their own identity?
Jennifer Ayer: I think our goal as parents should be to be one of the adults that your children turn to for questions and questions about sexuality, about gender. And again, it's important not to be too shocked when they ask you a question.
Jennifer Ayer: It's always good advice to answer the question factually but not tell them more than they actually may want to know. So you can answer that question and wait for another one. Often these conversations happen when you are not looking them face to face, because they're uncomfortable, so it can often happen when you're in the front of the car and they're in the back of the car. Bedtime is a very good time to have conversations with middle school students and with girls.
And if you are perceived as a safe person to talk to and you make it clear to them that whatever their sexuality and even whatever their gender, that you will love them and accept them, you will make life so much easier for them if they are one of those students who goes through questioning or wondering about their sexuality. And I think gender is new, for many of us, and is harder, and many adults don't even have the language to talk about it. Teenagers are far ahead of us on thinking flexibly about gender. And I think it's very important to listen.
Jennifer Ayer: If you have a child who is going through some questions about gender or sexuality. I think you should reach out in your community to find the resources that can support them. I would talk to your pediatrician, I would talk to whatever resources are in your community to support these kids. To make it clear that you will accept them and cherish them no matter what. And that is the message you can send as parents for a child who's asking these questions.
Rachel Thomas: This week’s guests have given me—and hopefully you—a raft of ideas for how to support the girls in our lives. Because I know that I want my daughter—and all girls— to be confident. I want them to be able to achieve their dreams and be strong enough to overcome the obstacles that get in their way.
Today’s confident girls will be tomorrow’s leaders.
And in the here and now, it’ll mean happier lives and brighter futures for all our daughters and all the girls we’re lucky enough to know and love.
Please subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts.
Our producer is Jordan Bell. Special thanks to Ali Bohrer, Katie Miserany, Sarah Maisel, and Megan Rooney from the Lean In team, and Laura Mayer at Stitcher.
Our engineer is Ryan Roberts and our music was composed by Casey Holford.
This has been Tilted, and I’m your host Rachel Thomas.