Dania Sandfia was working at a nonprofit when she met a perfect mentor: a strategy consultant who worked at Boston Consulting Group, the exact kind of place she hopes to work after college.
The only problem?
The consultant came across as direct and intimidating, hardly the nurturing type she hoped for. “He commanded a lot of authority. I didn’t know if this was a person who was open to helping anyone," she said.
Sandfia, a junior at Barnard College majoring in psychology, is often seen around campus tapping at her lavender laptop decorated with stickers of the yellow Minions from the animated film “Despicable Me.” But Sandfia is not a shrinking violet.
The last day the consultant was visiting her office, she asked him about his job, and he gave her his card. And since then, he's given her resume help and offered to coach her through interviews. Now Sandfia has high hopes for a consulting internship this summer.
Being assertive and taking risks are skills that young women need to succeed, but research shows they are not always well prepared for a situation like Sandfia's. Studies indicate that girls are socialized differently than their male counterparts: for girls there is an emphasis on likability and “playing nice.” While boys' behavior that is assertive or calls attention to themselves is often rewarded. And for girls, the same behavior can be considered threatening or unattractive.
In the United States, even though women make up 50 percent of college graduates in America, they still struggle to attain leadership positions: Only about 14 percent of executive officer positions are held by women, and women make up a meager 17 percent of elected officials.
Leadership programs for girls and young women aim to change that.
Boss or bossypants
Girls may attend the same schools as boys, but they’re not always receiving the same messages. In a 2012 Girl Scouts study conducted by Roper Research that surveyed 1,000 girls between 18 and 17, nearly 40 percent of girls said they have been laughed at or put down for “being bossy” when they try to lead.
This rings a bell for women who have similar issues in the workplace, where they have to strike a balance between being liked and being a leader. “The double-bind is real, it’s not imaginary” says Tomika Rodriguez, leadership development training manager at Barnard College’s Athena Center for Leadership Studies. “There’s not a biological reason girls struggle with that balance. There is a socialization reason: We’re raised differently, we’re taught to play nice.”
Rodriguez echoes the double-bind that Northwestern professor Alice Eagly has discovered in her research on gender stereotypes and leadership, which indicates that when women behave in ways that are competitive and ambitious, co-workers see their behavior as inappropriate or presumptuous.
What’s a teen girl to do when faced with a difficult conflict-resolution situation — like, say, when one of her friends blows off plans to see One Direction in concert?
Fifteen-year old Ally Duren-Lubanski, from Northern New Jersey, found herself in this situation last fall, when a friend promised her an extra VIP ticket to see the popular British boy band, but ended up taking someone else. “Instead of burying my feelings or acting like ‘I don’t care,’ I talked to her about it. It doesn’t work as well over the phone, so I did it face-to-face at a football game,” she says.
Ally says this kind of "healthy conflict" didn't come naturally to her — she's an active 10th grader involved in the Relay for Life cancer fundraising event, and other clubs, but she's had to "learn how to be assertive without being aggressive, but not being passive either." She has attended summer camps and weekend workshops with Girls Leadership Institute, a program for girls operating in California, Colorado, New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts. Tools that she's learned at GLI have helped her with everything from better eye contact with teachers to talking to her peers.
Navigating a tense moment between girlfriends may not sound like training future CEOs, but relationships are the perfect opportunity for young women to practice conflict resolution, because women tend to excel at building relationships, and value them highly, says GLI executive director and co-founder Simone Marean.
“There is more pressure on girls to be liked and connect with others, and that can be a strength — but it can also hold them back. When we ask girls 'Why didn’t you say what you were thinking,' it always goes back to ‘If I said what I thought, I was afraid she wouldn’t be my friend,’” says Marean.
Workshops at GLI involve role-playing games that are designed to be fun and get girls out of their comfort zone. Marean says it's important to let girls be “silly” and let themselves get embarrassed, to take the emphasis off being “attractive and popular.”
“When girls are young, they are not learning the importance of being assertive,” she says. “So many of us struggle with the assertive piece, because we’re practicing for the first time when we are 26, and it has never been valued.”
One thing that remains hard for Ally is self-promotion. She would like to be in a leadership role in a club her senior year, but self-promotion "feels like bragging, it feels funny." She notices that it seems more acceptable for boys, who have no problem doing a victory dance after a touchdown, for instance. "I worry that people, especially other girls, might think I'm self-centered," she said.
Entrepreneurs in training
For the last 20 years, women have been starting businesses at higher rates than men, especially in micro-busnesses (less than five employees), and women will create over half of the 9.72 million new small business jobs expected to be created by 2018, according to Forbes.
Women’s colleges are tapping into that, and last July the Athena Center at Barnard College, which offers leaderships workshops and seminars, partnered with the Girl Scout Leadership Institute in New York to create a 10-day summer entrepreneurship program.
The summer program is open to high school juniors and seniors, and is designed to help them develop their own socially responsible start-up and pitch it to notable start-up leaders and investors at Barnard's campus in New York City. Last year’s pitches included a self-filtering water bottle company that would donate to communities without clean water, and an app that recorded stop-and-frisk activity in New York City and mapped it by location and neighborhood.
The Roper Study found that four out of 10 girls say they haven't interacted with successful women during the last school year, which may be why only 21 percent of girls surveyed thought they had the skills to be leaders.
That's why it's so important to connect young women with role models, says Melissa D’Andrea, Program Manager, Girl Scouts of Greater New York. “When girls are exposed to a lot of career opportunities, and are able to shadow people who work these kinds of jobs, whole new career possibilities are opened to them."
Indeed, only 21 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs in the United States are women, so tapping women’s creativity and leadership is key, not only for equality, but for improving innovation. Last year, for the organization's 100th anniversary, Girl Scouts launched a fundraising campaign called To Get Her There to promote leadership and encourage girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education.
Women account for less than 20 percent of bachelor degrees in engineering, computer science and physics, yet in the next decade, the U.S. will need 3 million more scientists and engineers. “Women have a different style of leadership that’s more collaborative,” says D’Andrea. “Women and girls have a unique voice that will increase the marketplace of ideas.”
MaryAnn Lubanski, who enrolled her daughters in Girls Leadership Institute, had similar hopes for her two girls, Ally, 15, and Julia, 9, that their voices would be heard: "I just want them to be able to advocate for themselves,” says Lubanski. “You see so many people who are talented or intelligent, but they don’t get further if they don’t ask and speak up. Girls are less likely to do that.”
As for Ally, her future plans are more simple: She would like to be a medical professional, she says, and she would like to work for herself.