Despite recent progress, it’s harder today for girls to become leaders. Here’s why.

In some ways, it was easier for girls in the past to become a leader because they weren’t inundated with as many mandates about how they should lead their lives. Today, from an early age on, girls learn that they should go for it, be all that they can be, they have no limits, they can be and do whatever they want, get straight A’s and go to a top tier college and then onto their job as CEO, lean in, get out of line, make waves, bust through stereotypes and break glass ceilings. I don’t necessarily disagree with any of these directives individually. What worries me is that many girls interpret these decrees as obligations and expectations and that anything less is a failure. Thus, I counsel girls so many girls who are stressed out because it’s: make the top club sports team or you are behind; gain acceptance to a top tier college or bust; quickly get hired into your dream job right out of college or you are a failure. Look no further than data on college student’s mental health status showing high levels of depression, anxiety, stress, loneliness, and overwhelm to see the results of these pressures. 

Young leaders in past times

It was a different story for girls and young women in past times. Around 1500 BC, Hatshepsut’s father died when she was 12 years old, and she followed him onto the throne to become the Pharaoh of Egypt at age 15. In 1443, the Trung sisters, as teenagers, led an army of 80,000 soldiers into battle to drive the Chinese out of Vietnam. As a 17-year-old peasant girl, Joan of Arc persuaded the French army to allow her to lead them in their fight against the English. Eliza Lucas Pinkney took over running the family plantation at age 16 when her dad was called away for military duty. She became an agricultural entrepreneur whose contributions were so respected that President George Washington requested to serve as one of the pallbearers at her funeral. These adolescents followed their passion and the needs of the moment to lead the way. 

Women have always had to overcome gender bias and limiting stereotypes in order to step into leadership positions. Despite progress in these areas, it’s still a struggle for girls and women to find their voice and leadership position in the world. Today’s girls also have to face the historically unique challenge of unrealistically high expectations to be all and do all. The life path for girls in the past was limiting; primarily mother, nurse, or teacher. Today, it’s a different kind of constraint: the linear path that requires good grades, top college, and a high paying career that includes climbing quickly to the top. Girls and their moms tell me they experience the pressure to become a perfect wife and mother with 2.5 perfect kids, have a great, high paying job while leaning into and climbing to the top of said career. They must do this in addition to being the person who handles most of the duties at home and school. And they must accomplish all of this and make it look effortless. No pressure there, right? 

Different definitions of leadership

For every roomful of 100 girls and women, there ought to be 100 different definitions of how they lead and what “having it all” means. Instead of requiring girls and women to conform to an antiquated, masculine vision of leadership, we need to blow up the old model and value every woman’s unique style of leadership. We also would do well to demystify all of the unconscious pressures and expectations we’ve been heaping onto girl’s plates. Give your daughters the freedom to forge their own path and guide them to acquire the skills to carve out the life she deserves and desires.

For more insights into this topic, read Dr. Jordan’s new book,  She Leads: A Practical Guide for Raising Girls Who Advocate, Influence, and Lead


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