Tool Envy: Who Are You Trying To Fix?

 To perpetuate the narrative that girls need tools or “fixing” is to turn a blind eye to the very structures that oppress them. Instead of asking, “what about tools for girls?,” we should encourage adults and teachers to ask a different question. 

When I coach professionals on how to be culturally responsive and trauma-informed with their female-identified youth, this question often surfaces.

“But what about tools for girls?”

During our coaching sessions, we explore how societal pressures, inequities, and ignorances negatively impact girls, so it’s understandable why folks would want to equip their girls with tools and skills to cope. I truly believe this question comes from a good place—a place of wanting safety, security, and power for the girls in their lives. But, if my work for the Army as an educator in the field of sexual assault prevention taught me anything, it’s that the wielding of a tool only goes as far as the tool is respected.

Asking soldiers about the tools girls could use to “avoid” sexual assault, I heard, “don’t drink,” “don’t dress provocatively,” “don’t be alone with a guy,” “avoid alleys,” “pack pepper spray,” “kick,” “scream,” “carry your keys like Wolverine, ready to stab someone!” and on and on and on. While tools are valuable in equipping girls with a sense of empowerment, let’s not conflate empowerment with actual power. Power is conferred by social systems. Therefore, when a girl (a member of a less dominant group) utilizes a tool and isn’t respected, it’s neither the girl nor her tool that are at fault.

As a Black woman, I am all too familiar with the systemic limitations of an overflowing toolbox. I was brought up with the adage, “You have to be twice as good to get half as far.” But, being twice as good as a White, male drill sergeant, in my argument in favor of verbal consent, wasn’t enough to keep him from spewing degrading remarks about my body, while I stood before a room of 500 privates—when he couldn’t dominate me intellectually, he berated me physically.

My Black, female-identified students encounter this too. Their teachers claim to support their development of leadership qualities like confidence, strong opinions, and a willingness to confront authority, yet these are the very behaviors that black girls get suspended for at six times the rate of White girls. Sometimes what keeps girls from using their tools is the understanding that their tools make them vulnerable to the two-faced reaction of either respect or resentment.

So how do we fix this? Well, we get clear that girls aren’t in need of “fixing.” To perpetuate the narrative that girls need fixing is to turn a blind eye to the very structures that oppress them. So, if we, as the adults in our girls’ lives, attend to the structural transformation, we just might create conditions in which our girls’ individual transformation actually amounts to something.

When I coach professionals, I draw this distinction not to undervalue personal responsibility—quite the opposite, in fact. I draw this distinction to invite them, the majority White women who work in education, to take personal responsibility for the environments they provide for their youth. And to ask their girls, “What tools do I need to better serve you?”

“What tools do I need to better serve you?”

If you missed Jordan’s webinar, we’ve got you covered. The next free professional development webinar will guide you through the following questions:


  • What is the relationship between social-emotional learning, leadership, and bias? How does that relationship impact girls of color?


  • What is Girls Leadership’s response to our latest research on girls of color and leadership?


  • What does healing centered engagement look like with distance learning?


Leave a Reply