Confidence Boost: Helping Girls Become Strong Women Leaders Starts Early

Sorry, Cyndi Lauper, as it turns out, girls want more than just to have fun. And nearly 11,000 girls from across the country said so.In a new study that is a first of its kind, The Girls’ Index developed by the nonprofit Ruling Our eXperiences, Inc., many fifth to 12th grade girls report they are concerned about their careers and becoming leaders, but report they lack confidence, worry more about their appearance and do not think they are smart enough to have their dream career.“We didn’t segment by any demographic,” says Lisa Hinkelman, executive director of ROX and author of Girls Without Limits: Helping Girls Achieve Healthy Relationships, Academic Success and Interpersonal Strength. “So that stark drop in confidence from fifth to ninth grade is troubling and it does not go back up.”[bctt tweet=“Many 5th-12th grade girls report they are concerned about their careers & becoming #leaders” username=“takeleadwomen”]In fifth grade, 86 percent of the girls surveyed reported feeling confident. That number dropped to 62 percent by 12th grade. Also in fifth grade, only 20 percent of the girls reported that they wished to change their appearance. That number increased to 60 percent by 12th grade.“This is not a space that is positive,” says Hinkelman, a former faculty member at The Ohio State University, where she earned her PhDd in 2004, taught for seven years and left in 2011 to launch ROX, a partner in Take The Lead Day November 14.This groundbreaking study spearheaded by Hinkelman also uncovered that one in three girls say they are afraid to be a leader because they don’t want others to think they are bossy. Half of the girls report they don’t disagree with others and speak out because they want to be liked.[bctt tweet=“1/3 girls say they’re afraid to be a leader because they don’t want others to think they’re #bossy” username=“takeleadwomen”]“I think what we’re seeing is girls afraid to speak their minds and disagree because their idea of girls is they want to be seen as nice and kind,” Hinkelman says. “Somewhere along the way girls see that their ideas are less important. So instead of valuing what they bring to the table, they are holding back.”Others involved in the movement to empower women and girls around the world agree.Meredith Walker, executive director and co-founder of Smart Girls, wrote in TIME, “To build the next generation of leaders, we need to be interested in people and hear what they have to say. Not only the young women near and dear to us. Not only the ones who live in the same structures or dress the same way we do. All of them. Instead of always talking to young women, we would be so much better off by engaging them in conversations. Instead of telling them what to do, we would be better off by guiding those future leaders toward participating in life and becoming active in causes they care about.”Hinkelman says how she grew up contributes to the passion she has for her work in changing the way girls and young women think about themselves and how they contribute to the world.Growing up the youngest in her family with two older brothers in Pittsburgh, Hinkleman says she was a tomboy who loved sports. “I was always the girl who was too big, too loud, too something and not girly enough,” she says. “I always had pressure about what I was supposed to be.”The first in her family to attend college, Hinkelman graduated from Chatham University in 1999, while it was an all-girls institution. Now it is co-ed.As an undergraduate, “I started volunteering on a crisis hotline,” Hinkleman says. She says she expected calls in the middle of the night from people who were in the midst of a traumatic event.“But what I got was people who woke up with a nightmare about what happened to them when they were kids. So I wanted to be a counselor because I was realizing so much about those growing up years influences who we become.”ROX offers a 20-week curriculum for girls beginning in fifth grade that focuses on healthy dating, violence prevention, communication, relationships and leadership. It is now in nine states and this year is serving 2,000 girls in 153 programs. Since its launch, nearly 7,000 girls have been through this curriculum.The ROX curriculum is offered in private and public schools in rural, suburban and urban Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Michigan, Tennessee, Florida, New Mexico, California, Hawaii and Guam, and is paid for by private funding, individual donors, grants, foundations and state and local educational curriculum funding.The courses, taught by school counselors, educators of social workers who are trained over three days at ROX in Columbus, Ohio, emphasize to girls to “use your voice” because “you have a right to stand up for yourself,” Hinkelman says.This tenet aligns with Take The Lead’s Leadership Power Tool #3, created by Gloria Feldt, Take The Lead co-founder and president. “Use What You’ve Got,” means using your voice and whatever means you have to proceed. “What you need is almost always there. See it and use it with courage. Because power unused is power useless,” Feldt says.In the maelstrom created by the avalanche of #MeToo responses from women including Tarana Burke, Jennifer Lawrence, Reese Witherspoon, Alyssa Milano and thousands more speaking out about sexual harassment, sexual violence and rape, Hinkleman says, “The pervasiveness is less surprising.”The new Girls’ Index study shows that one in three girls have been asked to send a sexually explicit photo by the time they are seniors in high school. The same percent report they have already been in a violent or controlling relationship by the time they are in college.“We talk to young girls about recognizing signs of coercion, pressure and abuses of power,” Hinkelman says. “We teach them that they get to decide what makes them comfortable or uncomfortable.” And Hinkleman says they follow up with graduates of the curriculum for up to four years.“We see that they reframe their own attitudes,” Hinkelman says.Until then, many girls lack confidence and have self-doubt about their own aspirations. Forty-six percent say they are not smart enough to pursue their dream jobs. A majority, or 76 percent, say girls compete with each other too much.[bctt tweet=“Forty-six percent of #girls say they are not smart enough to pursue their dream jobs #girlleaders” username=“takeleadwomen”]“The voices of women are missing,” says Hinkelman. “If we are not addressing this for girls in the early stages, then we are perpetuating the stereotype. We need to instill in girls that your voice is as important as others.”This is no small mission, she says.“I want the world to start paying attention to girls differently, to take them seriously and realize their contributions matters. We want to help girls see their value so they can add value to the world.”Learn more about how you can work toward gender parity and fairness in leadership at Take The Lead Day November 14, a global day of action for leadership parity. Register for an event or host your own. Sign up and register here.