Helping Girls Become Confident Leaders

Contributed by Michele Borba
Parenting advice on how to raise strong, confident daughters from the inside out based on research by the Girl Scouts of the USA

What parent doesn’t want his or her daughter to be a leader? After all, that top role – be it debate captain, head cheerleader, newspaper editor, play director, student body president – is deemed the epitome of success. These are the kids whom adults applaud and peers look up to.

Make no mistake, each leadership success is one more step up a ladder, and each rung up the ladder gives girls that needed “edge” to be accepted to their choice college, win that scholarship or lucrative job. But even more important: those positions are the best ways to build our daughters’ character, integrity and confidence.

There is some truth to that old “We’ve come a long way, baby” slogan. Our girls have come a long way in overcoming the “’Boys Only’ Leadership Club.”

But we still have a ways to go in helping the female gender reach its leadership potential, and interestingly, it’s the girls themselves who tell us we must do more to help them reach that goal.

What Girls Say Impedes Their Potential

The Girl Scouts of the USA conducted a national study of almost 4,000 youth ages eight to 17 on a broad array of issues related to leadership. Their research (entitled Change It Up!) offers important clues as to what our girls say is impeding their potential to leadership. Here are just a few critical findings from the report:

  • Girls say the greatest single barrier to leadership is their self-perception: They lack self-confidence in their own skills and leadership competencies.
  • Girls say that providing supportive environments in which they can acquire leadership
    experience is essential.
  • Girls say that a successful leadership program must address their need for emotional safety, and desire for social and personal development.
  • Girls report that environments in which they can develop leadership skills are scarce. They want more leadership opportunities offered at younger ages.

All four of our girls’ key concerns are solvable. Positive leadership traits are also teachable, though as girls themselves would say, the earlier we begin the better.

Solutions to Boost Girls’ Leadership Abilities

There are proven ways to help kids follow less and lead more. But the best news is that these same leadership traits will help boost your daughter’s potential for success in every arena of life both now and forever. So what are you waiting for? Here is how to apply those findings from my book, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions, to help our daughters succeed:

Be a Leadership Example
The Girl Scouts of the USA study found that regardless of age, regions, or income, girls identify immediate family members and relatives—most particularly their mothers—as those they most admire. Be the example you want your daughter to copy.

Push the pause button on your behavior just this past week. How would your daughter describe your leadership style? Do you…

  • Speak up at home and in public?
  • Help out in causes that concern you?
  • Share your opinions with your family?
  • Stay current with what’s going on in the world and talk about them with your daughter?
  • State your political opinions (and listen to hers)?
  • Vote?
  • Bring your daughter along to charitable events you are organizing?
  • Let her know you believe in her traits and boost her confidence?
  • Share examples of women who are strong leaders?
  • Watch media shows that portray confident, strong women?

Don’t undermine your power! Our girls are watching and copying our actions.

Break Those “Sexism” Stereotypes, Pronto!

Girls–and boys–must understand that gender is not a barrier to leadership. Period! We’ve come a long way, but the report shows we still have work to do.

It is crucial that we catch a stereotype (i.e. “Women can’t be leaders…”) before it becomes an engrained belief, locks in doubts, and derails a girl’s confidence for a lifetime.

One way to dispel a stereotype is by starting a family rule: “Anytime a family member says a sweeping generality such as ‘Girls can’t…’ or ‘No woman ever…’ say: “Check that!” The sayer must then give evidence to counter the view.

For instance, your daughter says: “Women can’t be leaders.”

You say: “Check that! Let’s think of women who are! What about…” And then give her an example of a strong woman leader who counters that stereotype.

Here are a few female leaders-past and present-to get you started (and keep adding to the list).

  • Queen Elizabeth II of England
  • President Pratibha Patil of India
  • Queen Margrethe 2 of Denmark
  • President Mary McAleese of Ireland
  • Governor-General Hon. Dr. Dame C. Pearlette Louisy of St. Lucia
  • President Cristina E. Fernandez de Kirchner of Argentina
  • President Tarja Halonen of Finland
  • President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo of the Philippines
  • President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia
  • Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany

Stress “There are different leadership styles”

Girls need to learn that there are different leadership styles from active, reflective and supportive.

Provide various examples of strong women leaders such as Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton, and Golda Meir in books, magazines, videos, or in the news.

Point out the quiet, compassionate leadership styles such as a Mother Teresa vs. supportive, team-building styles of others such as Pat Summitt of University of Tennessee.

Help your daughter identify her own leadership style.

The key is to emphasize: You don’t have to be strong and pushy to be a good leader. In fact, a recent study in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests that the traits of sensitivity and caring are strengths – not weaknesses – for women leaders.

Stress “You need to find your own unique strength and talent, then lead from it. Don’t copy anyone else. Be true to yourself!”

Encourage Her Voice

Girls say their fear of public speaking (followed by shyness and embarrassment) is the biggest obstacle to assuming leadership roles.

If this is your daughter, find ways to build her confidence in speaking up so she is less likely to be intimidated. Here are ways:

  • Enroll her in speech and debate or theatre.
  • Hold family meetings at home in which she learns to share her feelings.
  • Put her in supportive learning environments (girls say such an atmosphere is critical to building confidence).
  • Reinforce her views. Encourage her views. Let her speak!
  • Don’t speak for her!
  • Let her know you value her opinions.
  • Encourage her to find friends who aren’t always the bossy, domineering type so she can
    learn to find her voice.

Provide Early Leadership Opportunities

Girls say that environments in which they can develop crucial leadership skills are scarce. And when we finally do provide those leadership opportunities, they are often “too late.”

The Girl Scouts study found that a girl’s desire to be a leader changes with age. It peaks at 44% among eight- to 10-year-olds, then drops to 36% for 11- to 13-year-olds, rises to 40% for 14- to 15-year-olds, and drops back to 36% for 16- to 17-year-olds.

The crucial lesson: Find ways for your daughter to practice leadership skills earlier so that she finds ways to be in charge, gain confidence and practice those crucial leader skills.

Also, don’t think of leadership roles as only elected positions such as class president or team captain.

Any opportunity for your child to lead another is fine.

For example: babysitting, tutoring the neighbor child, watching a younger sibling, or teaching a small Sunday school class.

The size of the group also doesn’t matter; the opportunity to lead is what does.

Also, watch out that you don’t enroll your daughter in too many adult-supervised, highly-structured activities. Girls will never be able to practice leading if someone always leads them.

Find Ways to Help Your Daughter Make a Difference

The fact is any leader—young or old—can’t lead without a cause.

Start by identifying your daughter’s passions or concerns–polar bears, cleanliness, fossil fuel, graffiti..or whatever!–and then expand her knowledge about that issue.

Cut out news articles, check out library books, surf the Internet, but increase your child’s interest and understanding about that issue.

Encourage her to be in charge of the church clothes drive for the women’s shelter, raise money for flood victims, volunteer to do community service, plan a garage sale for the homeless, or stop the bullying epidemic at her school. Find her passion!

Also, encourage your daughter to develop a plan to connect with like-minded kids to voice their concerns and lead a group–whatever the size–and make a difference through positive leadership.

Then cheer her on and on and on.

In fact, don’t stop cheering!

Let’s keep finding those leadership opportunities and keep cheering our girls on until we can finally say without any reservation: “We really have come a long way, baby. In fact, we’re there!”‘


Resources for this Blog:

Girl Scouts Research Institute, Change It Up! What Girls Say About Redefining Leadership. New York: Girl Scouts of the USA, 2008. National online survey of 2475 girls and 1514 boys between the ages of 8 and 17 years fielded from June 22, 2007 to June 29, 2007.

Need for single-sex, safe environments for girls to confide in trusting adults and others girls: Girl Scouts Research Institute, Feeling Safe. New York: Girl Scouts of the USA, 2003.

K. Mishra, “Your Older Sibling Really is Smarter, Study Says, More Time With Adults May Be a Major Factor,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 22, 2007.