Sheryl Sandberg called out a problem with getting girls to lead. Here’s how we solve it.


Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer and Lean In author, recently offered some thoughts about women in leadership roles, identifying an obvious problem in the messages boys and girls receive from an early age. Appearing on BBC’s Desert Island Discs, she said:

What I really believe is that we start telling little girls not to lead at very young ages, and we start telling little boys to lead at very young ages, and that’s a mistake. I believe everyone has inside them the ability to lead, and we should let people choose that, not based on gender, but on who they are and who they want to be.

She’s right, we have to start encouraging little girls to lead. But it’s not as easy as just telling them to do it. Women are more likely than men to obtain college degrees and pursue higher education, and yet men continue to earn more and occupy leadership roles. Ostensibly given the same tools, women aren’t elevated to the same positions.

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We know that a number of barriers stand between women and leadership: Studies have found that teachers tend to focus on male students, allowing them speaking time at the expense of their non-male peers and heaping praise upon boys while tacitly silencing girls. Studies have also shown that girls whose confidence is bolstered tend to do better in math and science, but the reverse is also true. Women whose confidence in those arenas has been torpedoed can pass that on to female students, perpetuating a vicious cycle of math anxiety that keeps women out of traditionally male-dominated careers and allows gender disparities to thrive.

If women are locked out of the fields that increasingly drive our economy, and if our fundamental educational systems favor one sex over the other, then women ascending to leadership positions is at best an improbability. So the question then becomes, what can we do to communicate to girls that they can and should lead?

“In the end, it’s about identity,” Judy Vredenburgh, president and CEO of Girls Inc. — an organization that, among other development-related skills, helps anyone who identifies as a girl build leadership instincts — said in a phone interview.

“We start with role models,” she explained, “access to and exposure to diverse women leading in various sectors so the girls can say, ‘Oh, she looks like me, I could do that.’ That really raises her expectations and self-perception of what’s possible.”

It’s important, she noted, that young women don’t hear the word “scientist” and think Albert Einstein — “messy hair, and ... white and a man in a lab coat.” They should be able to conjure up an image of a relatable woman, from their same background. It’s the reverse of the “you can’t be what you can’t see” theory: Being able to envision yourself in a top science, or tech or business position pulls back the curtain on a much broader future. (Sandberg touched on the necessity of role models, too.)

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There’s data to bear this out, too: in a 2013 study, researchers placed various photos — of Hillary Clinton, or Bill Clinton, or Angela Merkel — in the eyeline of 81 Swiss women as they made political speeches. The researchers found that women who looked at Hillary Clinton or Merkel not only ranked their own performance higher, but also spoke for a longer period of time and resonated better with their audience than did the women who looked at Bill or no photo at all. Having a role model seems to improve our expectations about what we can do.

Having “a sisterhood of support” is also crucial, Vredenburgh said. “Every girl needs a time and place where she’s protected, she’s safe and she can build and exercise her own voice and skills, her own leadership.” That means creating girls-only spaces where girls can feel comfortable articulating their own ideas and listening to others.

In this context, the Girls Inc. Girls’ Bill of Rights — which promotes body positivity, self-confidence, enthusiastic self-expression, risk-taking, pride in personal success and the right to “resist gender stereotypes” — has more room to take hold. In the absence of outside influence that might shame girls for their appearance; box them into limiting gender roles; or simply vaunt a boy’s contribution above (or at the expense of) a girl’s, young women are free to dig into their own skill sets and develop their senses of self.

The value of girls-only spaces — along with the necessity of role models — is something the Girl Scouts of the USA has always emphasized.

“Girls are more likely to be ultra-competitive with each other in environments where there’s only one or two spaces for them to take the lead,” Andrea Bastiani Archibald, chief girl & parent expert for Girl Scouts of the USA, explained in an email, “but when they are in an all-girl environment — like Girl Scouts — every leadership opportunity is given to a girl, so girls learn to champion each other and collaborate rather than feeling threatened by each other.”

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Here, too, the research is clear: Students in girls-only schools tend to return higher test scores than their counterparts in co-ed institutions. And while there are obvious benefits to a classroom in which kids of all genders sit side-by-side as equals, we know that many teachers unconsciously stoke male dominance in classrooms, encouraging boys to keep raising their hands and speaking out as girls sit silently. Black girls, especially, may face flat-out hostility in the classroom, as well as damaging stereotypes that drag down their confidence.

Promoting girls-only environments isn’t about exclusion; it’s about compensating, Vredenburgh said. And that’s really what we need to get girls feeling comfortable in leadership positions: concerted efforts to bring them into conversations in which they’ve typically been sidelined. That means a special focus on fields like STEM, which are infamously female-unfriendly, and fostering girls’ interests early.

With an eye to closing that particular gender gap, the Girl Scouts now offer a range of badges in cybersecurity, environmental sciences, engineering and more. Girls Inc. runs Operation SMART, introducing participants to mentors and immersing them in science-, technology- and math-oriented activities.

Launching girls in leadership positions requires the adults around them to do better, to confront their own implicit biases. According to Vredenburgh, it’s about “listening to your daughter, or your niece or your neighbor’s child, and really understanding who she is and what she needs and going with her strengths.” Not encouraging her away from sports or science, but “helping her … develop those strengths and then celebrat[e] those strengths.”