Girls Don’t Want to Be Leaders

April 06, 2008

Girls don’t want to be leaders. That’s what the first sentences of a Washington Post article on a newly released survey from the Girl Scouts USA leave you with. Girls are more interested in “fitting in,” “making a lot of money,” and “helping animals or the environment.” Let that sink in for a moment. But then you begin to wonder, Who was surveyed? How did the respondents define leadership? Were the girls much different from the boys?

Covering youth ages 8–17, the survey goes on to say that it’s not that girls don’t want to be leaders; they want to be a different kind of leader. They reject traditional top-down approaches to leadership. (Really … who likes being told what to do?) According to Judy Schoenberg, director of research and outreach at the Girl Scout Research Institute and lead author of the study, “Girls today appear to be redefining leadership in terms of being more inclusive and serving a larger purpose.”

These results point to why it is critical to invest in experiences for girls and young women that help them begin to envision themselves as leaders. Girls are faced with a variety of mixed messages in their lives on what will garner acceptance among peers and the greater world. (Take the recent example of Miss Bimbo, the newly infamous online game.) Gaining the identity of a leader takes time, just as gaining confidence and learning leadership skills take time.

AAUW has invested in younger women’s leadership for years, focusing most recently on empowering college women at our National Conference for College Women Student Leaders. The conference tackles contemporary leadership issues, with speakers, workshops, and plenty of time to dialogue and network, because both peer support and role models can help demonstrate the many ways young women can be leaders in their communities.

We also look to invest in activities that women are engaged in on their own college campuses with our Campus Action Projects. This year seven campuses are implementing activities that highlight the gender pay gap. AAUW, along with Girl Scouts USA, is also a partner on the National Girls Collaborative Project, which focuses on building collaboration among girl-serving STEM organizations.

One might question whether this survey’s findings would be the same in previous generations of 8- to 17-year-olds. Would you have said you wanted to be a “leader” when you were a teenager? What influenced you to identify as a leader?

Kate Farrar By:   |   April 06, 2008


  1. I believe that as the influence of the web expands, top-down leadership will fail and bottom-up, network-wide leadership will prevail. The big, top-heavy, CEO-loots-and-leaves business structure will crumble as employees realize they no longer need that CEO and people will work for what they believe in, finding a different structure to work within.

  2. Avatar Emily Hajek says:

    Great blog Kate! Girls (and women) in my experience have a unique style of leadership and management that has yet to be truly appreciated in our culture. What is unfortunate is that many women push down their natural tendencies and try to adopt a more male-oriented approach in order to be seen as tough and effective. I hope we can move towards a time when that leadership style is not only accepted but envied and imitated!

  3. Avatar Mary Schaefer says:

    Importantly, both girls and boys can benefit from early, strong encouragement, education, and experiences that define goals, develop strengths and enable leadership skills and concrete capabilities, practical. If the statistical compilations of the girls’ and boys’ survey inputs are accurate, then both the Washington Post AND the report writers have misreported and misinterpreted the inputs to the survey by the respondents. (1) But, objectively viewed, the survey may yield some useful observations. A key takeaway point is that the girls surveyed self-assess themselves NOW as leaders–with statistically significant higher rankings than boys in every ethic group, although Caucasian girls and boys as the ethnic sector with the tandem lowest self assessment at 56% would appear to benefit most from guidance and support. In Table 1, Definition of a Leader, the presentation of the percentages of boys and girls on survey items, the highest percentages of BOTH boys and girls gave the same key definitions. (1) A leader is someone who brings people together to get things done. (2) A leader is someone who stands up for his or her beliefs and values. (3) A leader is someone who tries to change the world for the better. On those three top items, it is not statistically significant that 7 to 8 percent of boys ranked other choices higher. And, in the lower tier of Table 1, boys’ and girls’ rankings vary only 1-2%. Percentage wise, again in Table 2, Types of Leaders, girls and boys have the same top rankings. It appears that girls, however, by higher percentages believe that leadership is standing up for your values, bringing people together to get things done, and changing the world for the better. Translated into the board room or the conference room, would those not be courage, vision, effectiveness, getting things done, and making positive changes? And, don’t most effective leaders know to use other’s strengths WITH their own to get things done? On the Top Goals chart, look at what young girls rank topmost compared to the accomplishments and values needed to succeed: stay off drugs, do well in school, get into college, be the best. If girls’ aspirations are toward education, leadership, success, useful skills and qualities development, fulfilling dreams, helping others AND believes they HAVE the qualities to be a leader–how is it a negative that they are also altruistic, want to change the world for better??? Let’s support those aspirations and strengthen education and educational opportunity. Potentially, it may also be wise to strengthen girls in the significance of salary negotation, the (potential) importance of being your own boss, and knowing that you CAN help who you are. The second half of the survey, with its consideration of barriers that need to be dealt with and viable influences seems to be the most important part of the survey and MOST WORTHY OF CONSIDERATION, because it is fertile ground for detecting how organizations and individuals can assist youth. It is simply not the “headline” (and the survey synthesizers themselves) report (as negatives, it seems ????) that girls ALSO want to help others, work with animals, etc. (values that I had not previously heard of as nonpositive–even as part of the path or the package that makes for leadership or effective living.

  4. Avatar Carolyn Hayek says:

    I was glad to be able to read what the Girls Scouts said about their study. It isn’t a matter of girls not wanting to be leaders. They report that most girls already consider themselves to be leaders and that they want to lead to help people and to change the world for the better. What they were less interested in was leadership as a means of exercising power.

  5. Avatar S Hans says:

    Speaking as a Girl Scout leader, I can honestly say girls do want to be leaders. My girls eagerly await their turn to serve as Patrol Leader for the month. If it’s a short month (such as December, when winter break hits), they groan and complain they have been ripped off. I once tried to delete the Patrol system in our troop because we had gone down to only 9 members (and it’s recommended for 10 or more) and the outrage among my girls was so extreme it immediately decided the Patrol system would stay in place. No, not all of them are natural born leaders, but I can point out every one of the leaders to you. The ones who aren’t, by the way, are still great artists, great musicians, and honor students. Oh, and I’ve watched one struggle through the last election process as her friends all wanted to vote one way and she went off and researched the candidates to determine how to vote on her own….at age 11! Maybe not a leader, but not a follower either.

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