We do a pretty good job in this country raising girls to be warm, caring, collaborative, and academically successful. Generally, they are great team players. But when it comes to asserting themselves, to expressing their opinions strongly, and to assuming leadership, even the most accomplished girls tend to be ambivalent at best, retiring at worst. This timidity arises from both internal worries and external realities.

What can we do to help parents, teachers, and schools raise girls who are not just respectful and relational—we do a pretty good job of that already—but who also have the self-confidence, skills, and understanding to speak out against injustices they face promptly and effectively, to represent themselves as equals in our world, and yes, when necessary, to successfully ward off male misconduct.

Currently, there is strong evidence that shows girls do not learn to do those things very well, and that schools, teachers and parents often fail to help them learn. Before we can know how to help schools, teachers and parents, we must understand what the girls are up against now. Good research, sponsored by the Girl Scouts of America and the Harvard Graduate School of Education among others, shows that the among the greatest internal barriers to taking strong, public stands, are a lack of confidence in their own skills, and anxiety caused by believing that they have to choose between being liked, having friends, and being leaders (see Brown & Gilliagan, 1992). Girls often stifle themselves because they are afraid to speak up in public for fear of becoming the objects of negative judgements, of appearing bossy and outspoken to other girls, as well as to boys (Gilligan; Field-Marvin, 2017). Kelsey Schoeder, in her forthcoming dissertation, argues that underlying these self-doubts are deep fears of social isolation and abandonment. Girls don’t just imagine these consequences.

They arise from real external experiences. Much evidence suggests girls (and women) face many real, strong, and disturbing gender biases. The gender gaps in pay and opportunities for women are obvious to them. They daily see women given less credibility then men by both men and women. A recent article in Newsweek captures this perfectly by reporting how a male and female resume coach received vastly different feedback from their clients. The man’s suggestions got strong, positive feedback and received much appreciation from his clients, while the woman’s advice received multiple complaints and negative comments. When the pair decided to send out their suggestions for a week, but sign each other’s name to them, client reactions reversed—now the man (signing as his female colleague) received the bulk of negative criticism and complaints and the woman (signing as her male colleague) got the bulk of the appreciation.

This anecdotal story reflects similar findings in carefully done research where simply switching the gender on job seekers applications for a medical laboratory position, while leaving everything else the same, changed the results dramatically: applications ostensibly from men, got reviewed much more favorably by male and female professors then ones ostensibly from women. Many other studies have shown such bias in everything from medical school admissions to choosing political leaders. One, by Okimoto, and Brescoll simply changed the name of a fictitious state senator from John Burr to Ann Burr, and added a description of each “person” as ambitious and having a strong drive for power. While male and female research subjects rated the male senator, who was described this way, to be more popular, both men and women expressed moral outrage at the driven Ann, and said they were less likely to support her.

Girls know about this. In school they experience such biases directly. Their peers more frequently choose boys over girls for student body president. In co-ed classrooms, girls are called on less, and expected to behave better. And boys seek to police girls’ behavior by shushing them or rolling their eyes when girls try to contribute to classroom discussions. Both adult and student researchers at the Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives, also have observed this phenomenon. Further, many teachers and boys hold lower expectations for girls’ performance than boys in science and math classes as well as in leadership positions. Even more disturbing, many mothers are biased against female leaders in general, and against their own daughters’ becoming leaders in particular.

These pervasive differences in expectations often create a stereotypic threat, where girls hesitate to participate because they fear fulfilling the negative expectations of others, as well as their own, internalized negative biases. In this way, girls’ recognition of biases and internalization of them became self-fulfilling prophesies. This may lead many girls to retreat into passivity and silence. It does not provide them with a solid footing from which to develop assertive roles in their lives.

These daunting internal and external barriers to girls becoming stronger and more self-assured indicate what schools, teachers, and parents are up against as they try to promote girls’ well being. I will take up the vital question of how they can begin to do this my next blog.