It is literally never too early to talk with girls and gender expansive youth about leadership. One of the key findings in our She Knows Her Power research with kindergarten to 5th-grade girls is that girls have nuanced and sophisticated notions of leadership that include advocating for their beliefs and sharing power with others. Our findings support our years of groundbreaking research that show how girls across the U.S. see themselves as leaders, aspire to a life of impact, and are practicing the skills to do it well.
Unfortunately, too many girls, especially girls of color, come of age in schools and after-school programs or sports organizations where they aren’t seen or celebrated as leaders. So what can adults do to help girls realize their true leadership potential? The influential adults in girls’ lives — parents, caregivers, educators, coaches, program staff — need to take girls’ definition of leadership seriously, name the gender and racial bias that girls will face in their leadership journey, and learn what supporting their leadership looks like for them.
If you have been wondering how to do this, here are some questions to guide you through it:
How To Talk With Girls About Leadership
Ask about role models
A great place to start a conversation is asking, “Who are your role models and why do they inspire you?” This question centers a girl’s perspective but is something of a warm-up because it involves observations about a role model instead of oneself. Pay attention to the qualities about the role model that are inspirational to the girl. You will probably learn a lot!
Ask about their perspective on leadership
What you learn from a girl about their role models can lead to a question such as, “What does being a leader mean to you?” or “When do you feel like a leader?” You may learn, for example, that a girl feels most like a leader when she is supporting someone like her role model. It’s worth noting young girls understand that they can be powerful role models. Nirvi, a 2nd-grade Asian girl in our She Knows Her Power research study, shared that leadership means “me being the model for someone” when other girls are too shy to stand up to boys.
Talk about gender
Continue the conversation by asking about gender with a question such as, “Does gender impact leadership capacities?” You will likely hear what we have heard countless times from girls we work with: girls are 100% capable of leadership on par with that of boys but they see differential treatment based on gender. You can extend the conversation by asking, “Why do you think there are still gender gaps in leadership roles in business, tech, politics, sports, the arts … every industry?” or “Why do you think there has never been a woman as president of the U.S.?” We’re pretty certain the girls you talk to will have an opinion!
Offer your support
An essential part of the work for adults is truly listening and then offering support by simply asking, “How can I support you?” In our recent research we found that 50% of Black and 50% of Asian girls believe leaders are people who advocate for change and stand up for what they believe in; they must be willing to make things right and come up with better solutions. So, for example, your supportive role may be helping to brainstorm solutions, staying out of the way with a project so they can learn from their own mistakes, or helping them assemble the supplies they need to launch an idea.
Girls are a force. We need to trust them. They know their power.