Saturday / June 22

Don’t Tell Girls “You can be anything you want to be.” Do This Instead.

These last few years have treated us to some amazing firsts.

First all-female fighter pilot flyover at the Superbowl.

First NASA astronaut all-female spacewalk.

First female vice president of the United States.

These and many more “firsts” that have happened recently are remarkable and worthy of celebration.  Girls are seeing women in spaces where they have never been—breaking barriers and charting new paths. However, the fact remains that, for girls, there are still many more “firsts” need to take place for them to see themselves as truly belonging in all occupations and places of leadership, and to see themselves as capable of achieving at the highest levels.

The Girls’ Index™, a national survey of more than 10,000 girls, showed that 46% of high school girls did not think they were smart enough for their dream job.  About 70% of girls believe that there are certain jobs that are better for men than women and 1/3 say that they stay away from leadership positions because they don’t want people to think that they are “bossy.”

Couple this with the fact that girls and women are not equally represented among the most powerful and influential positions in the United States and it truly is a perfect storm.

In the business arena, women represent fewer than 10% of Fortune 500 CEOs. In politics, about 27% of elected officials in the U.S. are women.  Even in the most female-dominated industry of K-12 education, women comprise 80% of K-12 teachers, but represent fewer than 20% of school superintendents.

So, when we tell girls, “You can be anything that you want to be”, there is still a bit of work that we need to do to make that true—and the work starts in schools.

Schools are often the first places that kids learn about careers and leadership. They learn about different occupations and they start to make connections of who does what. The opportunity to expose kids to a wide range of opportunities begins for educators when students are in kindergarten. This is often where they begin to make connections between the kind of jobs that different people do. They learn who does the physical tasks (like carrying boxes or moving furniture) and who does the clerical tasks (like serving as an office assistant). As they go through their educational journey, students more often see men as police officers, scientists, sports coaches, and superintendents and more often see women as nurses, teachers, cosmetologists, and secretaries. Simply through passive learning and observation, they make conclusions about who does what and they start to make some conclusions as to what they may or may not be able to access.

These realities tend to be further reinforced for kids as they get older. From sports coaches and athletic directors to school nurses and secretaries, the gender divide in occupations is as evident in schools as it is outside of schools. This lack of representation is not due to girls and women lacking interest in leadership or in certain types of careers, rather it is due to the individual and systemic realities that continue to impact girls as they progress through their lives.

While changing these statistics will take some time, there are some immediate ways that we can create classrooms and schools where girls can learn, grow, and thrive. If we want girls to continue to make history, let’s give them the tools, the environment, the opportunity, and the encouragement that they need to reach their full potential.

  1. Create learning opportunities where girls have clear leadership roles and where the traits and characteristics of leadership are clearly articulated to all 

Leadership traits have often been characterized by behaviors that are typically associated with men and boys. Assertive, decisive, bold, outspoken, direct. These words tend to conjure up a different connotation when applied to men versus women. When applied to boys and men, they are seen as strengths and signs of a strong leader.  Yet, when applied to girls and women, these traits can be viewed as abrasive or “too much”.

Help students recognize and identify characteristics and behaviors that all leaders should possess and give them chances to demonstrate—and be rewarded for demonstrating—such traits.

  1. Ensure that your girls see women in a wide variety of roles, occupations, and leadership positions.

When you are planning “Career Day” ensure that women and men in nontraditional careers for their gender are included among your guests. Ensuring students see that all careers are accessible to everyone can help diminish the perception that certain jobs are “better” for men or women.

  1. Build confidence through experiences, not through compliments.

Bolstering girls’ confidence does not happen by simply telling them how smart or pretty they are.  Confidence is built by the experiences that we have that stretch our expertise. It is fostered by trying a new skill or activity and growing our competency and comfort in that area.

We must create safe environments for girls to try new things and ensure they are encouraged and supported for their efforts.

Too often, we comment on a girls’ appearance, outfit, or hairstyle rather than comment on her achievement, effort, or tenacity.

Let’s go beyond giving girls a pep talk by telling they can “be anything they want to be.” Let’s equip them with the awareness, information, and skills that they need to navigate the challenges and obstacles they will face along their journey. Let’s advocate for more equitable policies and opportunities and let’s be willing to cheer them on while we actually help them get there.

Written by

Lisa Hinkelman, Ph.D. is a counselor, educator, researcher, and author and is the founder of Ruling Our eXperiences (ROX), the national nonprofit leader in programming, research and education focused on girls.  She is the author of the new book Girls Without Limits: Helping Girls Achieve Success in Relationships, Academics, Careers and Life (2nd ed.), (Corwin Press) and is the principal researcher of The Girls’ Index: New Insights into the Complex World of Today’s Girls.  Connect via email at 

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