Girls’ lives are hard and, let’s face it, adults don’t really understand what girls are going through. Sure, we might know what it’s like to be a teenager, to struggle with academic or family issues, or to deal with complicated friendships or relationships. But we don’t know what it is like to be a girl today—trying to figure herself out, getting ridiculed and judged on social media, constantly comparing herself to others, never quite feeling good enough, and so afraid to fail that she is plagued with stress and anxiety on a daily basis.
Effectively educating, supporting, or parenting girls requires a deep and genuine understanding of their lives, experiences, perceptions and behaviors—an understanding that can only come from actually listening to them, asking about their experiences, and learning what they want and need from the adults in their lives.
As an educator, counselor, and researcher who has spent her career working with girls, I wanted to deepen our collective understanding of the world of girls. My research team and I designed and deployed the country’s largest survey of its kind with nearly 11,000 girls. This survey, called The Girls Index™, was designed to help us better understand the lived experiences, opinions, and behaviors of girls in Grades 5–12. We asked nearly 80 questions that focused on relevant and timely issues affecting girls, such as relationships, social media, body image, leadership, academics, sports, and careers. We partnered with schools across the country to survey girls through online and paper-pencil assessments and also held dozens of focus group discussions and individual interviews.
Here is what we learned.
1. Girls’ confidence drops 26% from 5th to 9th grade and it doesn’t rebound.
The adolescent years can be really difficult for girls. There are so many changes that girls are experiencing physically, mentally, and emotionally. But we often fail to realize that these years can also have irrevocable consequences for the self-esteem of girls. Girls who were once confident and outgoing may turn inward and become timid and insecure. Girls who robustly shared their opinions, raised their hands in class, and took healthy risks suddenly stopped engaging with the same veracity.
Confidence is not built by providing compliments, it is built though providing experiences. Experiences change the way that a person perceives their abilities. Experiences build competence. We need to provide girls with safe environments to try new skills and experiences themselves. We then ensure that their confidence is internally driven rather than contingent on the receipt of compliments from others.
2. 46% of high school girls think there are certain jobs that are better for men than women.
We live in a country where women comprise only 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs and where, despite the recent influx of women in politics, females represent fewer than 25% of our country’s elected officials. Even in the most female dominated industries, like education, women make up 85% of K-12 teachers, but only 15% of school superintendents. With statistics like these, it should come as no surprise that girls view certain occupations as “better for men.”
A typical approach to encouraging girls is to tell them that they can “be anything that they want to be.” However, what this generalized encouragement fails to account for is the fact that girls aren’t seeing people who look like them in many fields—STEM, construction, politics, school leadership, military, finance, etc. When girls don’t see representation of women in specific careers, they perceive those occupations as “off-limits”—because you can’t be what you can’t see.
When you host a career day at your school, ensure that you have women represented among police officers/firefighters, city government, sports management, and finance occupations and that men are represented in the nursing, early childhood education, and cosmetology fields. We help both boys and girls by having them recognize that all careers are accessible to them and appropriate for them.
3. 1 in 3 girls stay away from leadership opportunities because they are afraid that others will think they are bossy.
Are girls raising their hands in your classes at the same rates as boys? Are they volunteering to lead mixed-gender teams, school-wide initiatives, and student councils? Do girls with leadership potential shy away from the spotlight because they fear the reactions they will receive from others?
Our research showed that overwhelmingly girls want to be leaders; however, a full one-third believe that, by displaying traits of leadership, they will be viewed as bossy. This is not a concern held by boys. When boys and girls demonstrate the same leadership behaviors, girls are more likely to be identified as aggressive or harsh and boys more likely to be labeled decisive or assertive.
We need to ensure that both boys and girls have access to schoolwide leadership positions. We should take special care to encourage girls to reach for the opportunities that they might not otherwise pursue and commit to celebrating their strength, assertiveness, and decision-making skills.
4. 55% of girls don’t speak their mind or disagree with others because they want to be liked.
What are you missing in your classroom, school, or community if more than half of the girls are not sharing their opinions and ideas?
When girls lack acceptance or feel insecure or unsafe, they are less likely to speak up. This is particularly true when they perceive that their contributions may conflict with the opinions of others. From very young ages, girls learn the importance of being nice and of being liked, and at times their own insecurities inhibit their contributions.
Ensure that you create a safe classroom environment where girls know that speaking their mind is welcome and that their opinions will be heard and respected. Reiterate to them that their voice and opinions are valuable and that your school or classroom is a safe place where their creativity, contributions, and competence are welcome and needed.
5. 30% of girls with a 4.0 GPA (or higher) do not think they are smart enough for their dream job.
Girls with the highest levels of academic achievement are not immune from the confidence challenges that plague many girls. While often overlooked, high achieving girls also struggle with confidence, the need to be perfect, and a desire to secure outside approval from others. In fact, in my research, the highest achieving girls are ones who are the least likely to speak their mind or disagree with others for fear of not being liked.
It is rare that educators single out the top performing girls as in need of additional social or emotional support. However, these girls are often “pressure cookers” who are struggling with stress and anxiety but can’t admit their weaknesses for fear they will disappoint. We must remember that the way that we view these exceptional girls is not necessarily the way that they view themselves. They also need support, encouragement, and confidence–building opportunities.
To develop a deeper understanding of the beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, and perceptions of the girls at your school, you can apply to participate in the next iteration of The Girls’ IndexTM survey. This underwritten project provides participant schools with custom data collection and analysis including a summary report and recommendations and strategies on how to support girls’ social and emotional learning needs.