5 Strategies to Reduce Gender Bias Against Girls As Leaders

These five tips may help close the gender gap in leadership for teenage girls.

Posted Jul 29, 2015

J. Howard Miller/Public Domain
Source: J. Howard Miller/Public Domain

When my niece, Annelise, was in high school, her dream was to be a U.S. Senate page for a semester. Her dream came true. During her time in D.C. as a teenager, my niece was galvanized to seek leadership positions and to stay engaged in politics despite the gender bias she experienced from her peers. 

Unfortunately, many of my niece's classmates—especially some ‘mean girls’ from her hometown high school—were the opposite of cheerleaders when it came to supporting her aspirations. It seemed that a lot of her male and female peers were resentful or threatened by her determination and drive. Other teenagers seemed eager to cut her down and derail her ambitions.

Luckily, her parents, teachers, and athletic coaches nurtured Annelise's quest to get involved in politics and to pursue leadership by supporting her at home, in school, and through sports. 

Mavericks like United States Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Jeanne Shaheen became mentors and role models for my niece. Fortunately, initiatives like “Off the Sidelines” fortified her teenage confidence and conviction to be a trailblazer, in spite of many naysayers. 

Teenage Boys and Girls Are Biased Against Teen Girls Who Seek Leadership

A new report from Harvard University Graduate School of Education called Making Caring Common (MCC) confirms that my niece’s experience is indicative of national trends that reflect multi-faceted bias against teenage girls who pursue leadership. 

The report from MCC concludes that if steps aren't taken to minimize biases against teen girls who seek leadership, these biases could create critical roadblocks. We have a generation of teen girls with historically high levels of education who are in a position to close the gender gap in leadership. They deserve our unanimous support. 

The July 2015 study, "Leaning Out: Teen Girls and Gender Biases," assessed the explicit (conscious) and implicit (unconscious) biases of teen girls, teen boys, and parents with regard to various dynamics regarding gender and leadership.

Making Caring Common conducted the research during the 2014-15 school year. The survey included about 20,000 students from a wide range of 59 middle and high schools. The researchers also conducted smaller follow-up surveys and a series of focus groups. 

The findings suggest that an alarming number of teenage boys and teenage girls have biases against female leaders in positions of power such as politics.

Interestingly, teen girls were found to have biases against other teen girls as leaders. The researchers also found that some mothers have an implicit bias against teen girls as leaders. For more detailed information on the research methodology and specifics about the findings of this study please check out the full MCC report here.  

In a press release, Richard Weissbourd, a faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and co-director of Making Caring Common said,

Our study points to insidious bias against girls as leaders that comes from many sources. Bias can be a powerful—and invisible—barrier to teen girls' leadership. Yet parents and teachers can do a great deal to stem these biases and help children manage them.

Based on these findings, Richard Weissbourd and Luba Falk Feigenberg from MCC created the following five strategies to help parents and educators reduce gender bias.

5 Tips For Reducing Gender Bias Against Girls As Leaders

1. Check Your Own Biases

Parents' and educators' biases influence whether children develop biases. None of us are immune from bias, but we can work to identify and manage our own biases. Encouraging honest and wholehearted feedback from family and friends can help keep each of us aware of our implicit and explicit gender biases.

2. Engage Your Kids in Making Your Home a Bias-Free Zone

Parents and other adults can help prevent gender biases from forming in children by working to develop innate reflexes and practices that become implicit. For example, parents can commit to creating a home that is a bias-free zone. Including children in the process of creating a bias-free zone can make the changes more likely to stick. 

3. Teach Teens to Spot and Effectively Confront Stereotypes and Discrimination

Adults need to mobilize both girls and boys to identify and actively combat gender bias everyday. Adults should brainstorm with children and teens to help them form explicit strategies for responding to gender bias in their daily lives. Being cognizant of bias can help children consciously develop strategies to cope and respond to gender biases and stereotypes in the real-world. 

4. Don't Just Let "Boys be Boys"

Adults should be on guard to address gender-based insults whenever and wherever they occur and "call out" any false bravado or degradation of girls. Boys are important allies for girls, but they can also be antagonists. Parents and educators should intervene anytime boys are demeaning to girls, and step in immediately to curtail the behavior. 

5. Build Girls’ Leadership Skills and Self-Confidence

There are a wide range of local and national programs that foster leadership skills in young girls and teens. Parents and educators should take advantage of these programs and strategies to build girls' leadership skills whenever possilble. 

Exposing girls to a variety of inspiring examples of female leaders can nourish the confidence and moxie needed to seek leadership. Girls often avoid leadership because they don’t feel comfortable doing things such as public speaking or because they fear their peers will be judgmental or disaprove. Practing and mastering the skills needed to be a leader can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Conclusion: Let's Make Gender Equality a Reality for Future Generations

Hopefully, the research and advice presented by Making Caring Common will motivate each of us to reduce gender bias in our daily lives. 

As the father of a 7-year-old, I'm optimistic that my daughter and her generation won't be subjected to the same gender biases her mother faced in the male-dominated world of Wall Street private equity ... or that my sister faced as a Boeing 777 pilot for a major airline ... or that my niece faced from her peers when she became a U.S. Senate page. 

Women in leadership, such as Kirsten Gillibrand and Sheryl Sandberg, have played an important role in putting gender biases in the media spotlight. Each of us has the power to put these 5 tips from MCC into action in our homes, schools, and playing fields. Let's work together to make gender equality for future generations a reality. As Rosie the Riveter exemplified during World War II, "We can do it!"

© Christopher Bergland 2015. All rights reserved.

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