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A chance to lead: Girls and the leadership gap

Published: Thursday, Feb. 13 2014 12:30 p.m. MST

Fatoumata Barry prepares to present her small business idea to top New York entrepreneurs and investors.

Girls Scouts Leadership Institute

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.

Leadership school

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.

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