Girls With Ideas is an organization that exists among the intersection of many different disciplines, the most salient of which are leadership and gender. We believe in the power of education to teach leadership skills, as leaders are developed rather than born. We also believe in the power of girls and women to make significant contributions to our local, national, and global communities through leadership. Many people, however, do not value girls’ leadership, and this disbelief is well documented in many communities. We see this as a problem that needs to be solved.
Like many identity-based topics, gender is a construct that can be complex, individualized, and—if not explored effectively—polarizing. We acknowledge gender is more diverse than male and female, though from a systemic lens, the gendered leadership bias has been prevalent among female-identified leaders. We are excited to help eliminate this bias and offer leadership development for girls because the problem affects girls.
Within months of creating this organization, we have faced no shortage of questions that probe us to explain our commitment to solving this problem. As a man working for Girls With Ideas who often gets pigeonholed into the “What about boys?” conversation, I thought it would be important for me to articulate some core premises on which my—and our—work relies:
In most cases, boys do not need a boy-specific leadership curriculum because gendered leadership bias benefits boys. Data shows that boys, girls, and adults expect boys to be leaders in classroom settings and teams, unconsciously grooming them for leadership opportunities. The key element differentiating boys’ and girls’ leadership needs is empowerment, which most girl leaders cite as a key deficiency in their leadership development.
I’ve already received backlash lamenting that girls are not oppressed in the classroom—after all, they demonstrate positive character, strong work ethic, and academic success as early as primary school, not to mention being “teachers’ pets,” as if that is an empowered role. The important distinction to recognize is that while girls may be developing leadership skills and excelling as non-positional leaders, boys are collecting leadership titles that cause them to be visible, admired, and identified as role models. While non-positional leadership is essential and its value should not be underestimated, Girls With Ideas believes we need more female positional leaders. When a girl obtains a leadership role on a team or in school, she acknowledges her own worthiness of leading girls and boys. She, too, should be visible, admired, and identified as a role model. In most cases, girls must be intentionally empowered to create ideas and execute them, while boys’ innovation and eventual success is often assumed due to the network of support surrounding them.
Male empowerment occurs naturally; boys are accustomed to holding leadership roles, so they authorize themselves. Regarding leadership gender bias, research shows girls need to be authorized at a significantly higher rate than boys before they pursue a leadership role. Due to various influences, such as our government’s functioning for hundreds of years at the control of men, traditional conceptions of gender roles in heterosexual marriages positioning fathers as family leaders, and decades of male heroes in popular film and media, girls look for leaders and see men. For the same reasons just mentioned, boys are comfortable authorizing themselves to pursue leadership roles because when boys look for leaders, they see men—they see themselves in the future. A boy’s dream of holding a formal leadership role is not far-fetched; not only does it appear to be something he should do and can easily do, but it is a way to earn power during his transition to manhood.
Girls With Ideas believes girls should feel the same confidence that boys feel when authorizing themselves to pursue leadership roles. Our intention is not to diminish the number of boy leaders because boy leadership is bad leadership. Rather, our intention is to increase the number of girls pursuing leadership roles because girl leadership can also be good leadership. When the most talented and qualified children pursue leadership roles, the most talented and qualified children become positional leaders, regardless of their gender. Girls With Ideas strives to give equitable opportunities to girls who may have traditionally been out of the running because of their gender identity.
Girls and boys receive explicit and implicit messages every day about gender norms, stereotypes, and privilege, and many of these messages tell girls their ideas don’t matter. Our hope is to help girls develop ideas in a space where they know they are empowered and respected. The use of language in Girls With Ideas curriculum and Leadership Experiences intentionally discourages feelings of girls’ victimization and accusations against boys for being “oppressors.” Rather, girls are taught that executing their ideas from beginning to end requires collaboration with everyone in their community, including people who are unlike them. We encourage the idea that girl leaders and boy leaders should have the capacity to work together in schools, instilling long-term gender cooperation for when these girl and boy leaders become men and women leaders.
As our organization grows deeper, I look forward to developing opportunities to engage boys in this conversation. We know they must be included; however, our current curriculum serves a different purpose than offering a space for gendered intergroup dialogue. I see the future as a both/and for the two purposes rather than an either/or. For now, we are excited to meet our girl leaders who will continue shaping our thoughts around gender and give significant meaning to the work we do.