A recent study commissioned by the Girl Scouts found more than a third of girls surveyed between the ages of eight and 17 said they would not feel comfortable trying to be a leader. We look at the so-called gender ambition gap. What can be done to help raise strong and self-confident girls?

Girls and the Ambition Gap 2 March,2012forum

Peggy Orenstein, author of "Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture" and contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine
Simone Marean, executive director of the Girls Leadership Institute, a national non-profit based in Emeryville
Jennifer Berger, executive director of About-Face, a non-profit which tries to help women with self-esteem and body issues

  • Gerald Fnord

    Though I don’t doubt that this is a real problem, I’m troubled by the lack of criticism of the rat-race…back when people felt more prosperous, I think they were more in a mood to question the premises of the games inw hich we’re embedded, but now people seem to be desperate just to retain their little hold on them.

    That is to say:  I think we should aim for a society where there is something between “a success” and “a loser”, that being average should not be the occasion of fear…every Western European middle-class person I know has roughly the level of self-confidence and ease I’ve seen in rich kids, without the latters’ deluded sense of entitlement.

    Of course, what I think we of all sexes _really_ need is ‘not being a follower’ training—I have little use for leaders, save in the sense of people who are best at what they do doing it, and none at all for followers.

    (See: the “authoritarian follower” personality type.)

  • PrintDrachmas

    Hasn’t the Girl Scouts pretty much lost their credibility since it’s been exposed how they make their girls slave away selling junk food cookies in front of Walmart & elsewhere, the profits for which largely go to a greedy corporation and result in environmental destruction because of the use of palm oil? It always seemed dodgy that child exploitation was equated with patriotism, but scratch the surface and the details will give you a tummy ache.


  • Wallace

    Why would being a leader in the business community be laudable, respectful or advisable? We have seen greedy corporations ruin the economy, steal from the taxpayer, hijack over our democracy and pollute the environment and our bodies with their chemicals. It is rather pitiful and pathetic that anyone would look at business at anything other than a quagmire of degenerates and thieves.

    • Michael

       Your mind seems to be so made up with your outlandish notions of what business is that it probably would serve no purpose to explain to you the errors of your ways.  Your stilted view comes, I expect, from Hollywood movies and reading a few headlines, where the criminals are getting most of the publicity.  Ninety-five percent in the business world as managers are hardworking, honest folk.  Either you have never been on the inside of very many businesses or are projecting your own dark thoughts.

  • Rick Hayward

    It is ironic that Mrs. Sandberg works for a company was founded on the basis of an algorithm to use that attempted to determine who was the hottest looking girl

  • Beth

    Love this conversation. The dentist story reminded me of a time 15 years ago when I took my oldest daughter to a new pediatric dentist. The Dr. referred to my daughter as “Princess”, and my 3 yr gave him a serious look and said “I am NOT your princess”. I wanted to to cheer and disappear all at the same time. This daughter is now a strong, intelligent 18 year old getting ready to go off to college.

  • Jaber622

     I agree with a lot of the sentiment in the comment thread so far: I hate how the statistics about the lack of women in the c-suite is used to show that women are under-achieving.

    I am a woman, was promoted to be a VP at a large tech company, and was miserable. Often, the cost of being at the top of the corporate pyramid means very long hours doing ethically questionable things. I now have a c-level job at a mid-sized nonprofit, and — most importantly — my life doesn’t suck.

    The focus should be on both genders pursuing a higher quality of life, not on women racing to join men for jobs that are horrifically detrimental to personal happiness and block access to a complete life. I think that if men felt less pressure to have high-prestige jobs at a cost to their own happiness, there might be fewer of them in the c-suite, too.

  • Anne

    Speaking as a woman who raised two daughters, I think the responsibility lies on those of us who are raising girls. We can’t change the world, the media, the way men want women to look, but we can effect how girls feel about themselves, who they are, and how they view what other people have to say about them.  I am proud to say I raised two women who make an impact on their community and one who has ambitions to help those among us on the globe who need extra help. the way we approach this problem is the way we should be teaching our girls, with honesty, clarity and strength and by taking charge of the way we want to be in this world.

  • EH

    Where can we find the Girl Scouts study?

  • Angela B.

    It is incredibly frustrating to be 24 and still be called a girl. I am not a girl nor have I been for awhile. But everywhere I look on TV, radio, and movies women are consistently referred to as girls while their male counterparts are men.

  • SarahHeben

    I was traveling with my 5 year old niece in France. We were visiting castles and talking about history but also about princesses. She pulled me aside about halfway through the trip to tell me that she “likes Superheroes just as much as she liked Princesses.” It was a great moment. 

    Thanks for a great program. I am also a kids photographer in the Bay Area and I am very conscious of the ways in which we stereotype girls in imagery. Oftentimes the wardrobe we used is unisex.

  • calamitykel

    Our media, as you speaker indicates, is a huge element of our digression of girl’s esteem and it doesn’t stop at 17. Look at the lack and type of roles you see in the movies, or onstage. Even women as we age are put in the closet visually.  Schools (Colleges & Universities) don’t hire professional actresses when theatre programs have a professional arm they hire men why? because they are choosing to put out there male centric product.  Result is, women are not given the leg up to be professional, with all the benefits that their male counterparts have. Not just in the arts, but elsewhere.  We also see a huge disconnect in the amount of roles portrayed onstage with our not-for-profit theatre companies. Those companies who are supposed to “in their missions” be serving their communities. What has this to do with young girls? well Arts programs have student matinee’s… at least here in the San Francisco Bay Area a lot of student matinees.  The Bay Area Theatre has a horrible track record of putting women on it’s stages in inspiring women’s stories (25%/75% approx fem/male) and with the amount of funding they get for their student matinee’s, what is that teaching our young girls? Media and arts can do much better and from the beginning. Parents can demand this change.

  • Stpearls

    Teach your children the core values, girls and boys alike, teach them to be socially aware, good individuals, honest, independent, etc. it does not matter if they like to do this in all pink or all black it is the values that they learn from home and the confidence we give them that helps shape them to become self reliant, independent women.

  • Jenkran

    Empowering girls is very important and empowering boys to hear really listen to the girls is equally important. My son is almost 15 and one of the most respectful young men I know. Raising up our children is a hard job, I agree with your guests that we need to raise girls to be strong women and we need to teach our boys how to respect that, if we do not then the cycle will be an up hill battle. We must teach our boys to grow up into men who respect women and see beyond body image. 
    Jay in Fresno

  • Leilee Nikkhah

    I am a 31 year old woman, and I see a lot of women of my my generation raising their daughters as princesses. My question is to the speakers is that can the obsession with the “princess” image be due to my generation being raised to be strong and assertive by mothers who were lived through the era of civil rights and women rights movements? Maybe my generation sees their strength as a force that separates them from their feminism!

  • Jakki Kate

    I’m wondering if the recent comments Rush Limbaugh made are going to be remarked upon.  This is a classic example of those who use women’s sexuality as a weapon against them, threatening the violence of exploitation and exposure in response to women stating their needs and advocating on their own behalf.  If a woman’s sexuality is understood as external, that is purely for men (or for those other than herself in general) and not internal, stemming from her own desire, then to speak of her own needs is an absolute transgression, and it is not surprising (although still pretty heinous) that someone would use the kind of sexually charged language Rush used to intimate, ridicule and threaten Sandra Fluke–and by extension, all women who dare to want something on their own behalfs.

  • Dotes on daughter

    This conversation is great – so insightful! – enjoying it immensely. Can I mention that Peggy Orenstein will be giving a free talk this coming Tues fr 7-9pm at Prospect Sierra Middle School, 960 Avis Ave., El Cerrito. Really looking forward to hearing more about this important subject.

  • HappyMom

    My took GLI’s workshop with my 5th grade
    daughter.  It helped my daughter to
    handle her relationships better with others.  Being nice does not mean being passive.  My daughter is a leader and love pretty
    things.  She did have princess period,
    but she have graduated from that. 
    What the girls need to learn is to be herself whatever the society or
    media throw at her.  It means
    sometimes the girls go more priceless direction or sometime go toward more
    boyish direction.  Along the way, the
    girls will find the right balance for her.  The being a top executive is not necessary a right
    measurement of the success for the girls. 
    Especially the top companies are grotesquely large and what they do
    under name of productivity/efficiency/improvements is exploiting the people of
    developing countries.  No wonder
    that kind of leadership is not attractive to the girls.  Women should stop trying to be just
    like men, that is obsolete.  When
    we can do that, we are truly free.

  • Wallace

    When I go out in public I always see obnoxious parents being loud and acting like they don’t care what other people think and encouraging their kids to do the same. Meanwhile everyone else in the room is fantasizing about strangling them to death and throwing their bodies into a ravine.

    This “dorking out” is asinine, insensitive, disruptive, narcissistic, shallow and displays the peasant mentality of those who engage in it.

    • Wallace

      Not that I would strangle anyone: I love it when American peasants act obnoxious in public. Love it!

  • Eew

    Starting with my wife, I have observed a phenomenom “People Magazine ceiling.” She and her peers who are high level managers spend their off hours reading People, US, and Martha Stewart rather than the front page and business page of the newspaper, Fortune, Inc, etc.

  • Janet yeghissian

    talking about clothing. . . (the short shorts) I don’t know how to tell my 18 yr old that I don’t like all her choices of clothing.  We are at the age where my opinion is not important and more like likely will result in her doing the opposite. Any help?

    • Lauren

      i’ve found the best shorts for my daughter (12) at REI.  the new performance fabrics are fun, durable, comfortable, and not about revealing the body.  more about working with the body.  expensive, but major peace-maker in our house.

  • Going back to the issue that Peggy Orenstein mentioned with regard to the study on the decline of leadership positions among Princeton women: My daughter and I, both journalists and co-authors of Undecided, are regular bloggers for HuffPost Women, and one of our recent posts addresses the perfectionism that plagues so many young women today: they get on the treadmill too early, a slough of indecision, second-guessing and fearing that they will never measure up.

    here’s the link to the post:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/shannon-kelley/women-perfectionism-mediocrity_b_1266478.html?ref=women

    There’s another issue that I have noticed, both in the interviews we did for our book, and in the students I see in my journalism classes (I am a full time professor at Santa Clara University), that impacts women’s leadership roles, and that’s the fact that young women believe that at some point they will have to choose between motherhood and career.  This speaks, I believe, to the larger, institutional issues: a workplace culture that is often inhospitable to women and dual-career families.

    Thanks for the program!


  • I so agree about the need to have role models as women as capable and strong leaders. That’s why I write the kinds of stories I wished I had when I was a girl. Henrietta The Dragon Slayer, (Five Kingdoms #1) a fantasy novel for readers ages 12 and up, is my first novel, and 2012 Grand Prize winner of the California Book Fiction Challenge. I’m still hungry to see women as leaders making the hard decisions with the good of the group and hersel in mind. That’s the focus of book 2.

  • Tom

    I am a soccer coach for both boys and girls. I find that a majority of my boys do not want to be leaders. One third of girls don’t want to be leaders? This means that 67% of girls want to be leaders? In my experience this indicates higher ambition for girls than boys. And as you have said, girls are doing better in almost all catagories. Perhaps I am looking at a select grroup when I coach soccer? But perhaps generalizing from the group of girls that these experts get into their classes is also slanted. In the end I teach leadership skills to boys and girls. I teach skills for coping with growing up and joining the world of adults without leaning on the kinds of excuses the experts are promoting.

  • Ani

    It’s all nice and well to be trying to raise strong women at home but what are we doing to change the mentality of the adults in their lives?
    My daughter was constantly put down by a female math teacher when she questioned her teaching methods to the point she just became silent because she didn’t want to get in trouble.
    About the girl scouts, when she was little I thought it would be a great way to build character and leadership but found all they did were sell cookies and plan trips to the mall and all these ridiculous tasks that were meaningless. She then asked, why can’t I join a boy scout troop so I can learn survival skills?
    It is the overall culture that needs to change its mentality. Where do we start?

  • LawTigre

    College entrance statistics show that women now outnumber men both in matriculation and graduation rates.  Is this not translating beyond academic achievement?  Having had two children complete selective private high school application processes as well, I have learned that those schools regularly receive a higher percentage of applications from highly qualified female applicants than similarly qualified young men.  In order to balance gender representation in entering classes, young women can be disadvantaged in the admission process because they must compete for 50% of the available slots against a more competitive gender pool instead of the applicant pool at large.

    • utera

      its true the number of women in higher education is becoming lopsided, but book learning is still quite separate from how the real world works.   

  • My2cents

    Too many Americans politically act like passengers on a ship. Casual leadership is a lost art, both in males and females… of all ages.

    When I look at the positive “leaders” in society today I mainly find them in three places:

    1. The Occupy movement
    2. The Truther movement
    3. And in academia.

  • Lilia_Aguero

    What about girls of color? As a Latina, growing up I found myself invisible at best and suspect at worst when it came to interacting with individuals at school, in college, in the work place. I am reserved, but not shy. What sorts of  training offered by this organization support a girl of color to develop as a leader?

    • boziedancer

      I’m also a Latina who grew up in the 50’s and  60’s. The question of invisibility and prejudice is enormous. I’m glad there are more images of Latina’s now for young girls. I’d also like to know about organizational support of girls of color.

      • Purplepousette

        The Chicana Latina Foundation based in Burlingame has some great programming to support middle school Latinas living on the SF Peninsula.  http://www.chicanalatina.org/

    • Thoughts from a girl…

      As a caucasian women it is a wonderment to even have the discussion these days about women. We are overlooked as if all the work had been done in the 1970’s. There is not much discussing the backslide that has occurred for women in general. We are all made of the same stuff. Family cultures aside we struggle with the basic issues of childcare and knowing just how to act these days. Latina, Chinese, Caucasian it does not matter if you are caught up in an American culture that creates a girl box. 

    • utera

      being invisible isn’t the issue, expecting others to find you instead of you finding them is part of the princess mentality.

  • Shalini

    I have to disagree with the speaker’s comment that NCIS is an exmaple of a show that portrays strong women as unlikable. I’m not sure about this season’s episodes as I have not seen them, but based on past seasons, I have been very happy to see that two extremely competent strong female characters in major roles are portrayed as extremely likable and feminine in their own particular ways. As a female physicist myself, I have a particular soft spot for super-scientist/punk Abby, but Ziva the ex-Mossad agent is pretty impressive too! For most popular shows the speaker’s comment would be  correct, but occasionally there is something to celebrate, so let’s do that!

  • Tilly

    About the issue of PhD qualified women and making the opt out decision, see the article in American Scientist magazine “When Scientists Choose Motherhood.” http://www.americanscientist.org/issues/feature/2012/2/when-scientists-choose-motherhood

  • Tom

    Maternity leave is often cited as a reason for females not performing as well in the work force. I have a female friend that lost momentum and lost ground for her entire work life due to maternity leave.

  • boziedancer

    I agree with many of the points already made in the thread. Ambition does not mean leadership. I think the question of ambition needs to be looked at more critically rather than accepted as necessarily only a positive trait. Is it  because we live in a global capitalist culture that requires all of us to have ambition because there are so few jobs available to any of us. Which s why there is so much focus on entrepreneurship.
     I worked in one of the top art institutions in SF for many where the women in charge had so much internalized sexism that they treated the women  with less respect than they treated the men. It was obvious to both teachers and  students.  So the problem of women treating other women with lack of respect and contempt needs to be explored. How is it  learned and acted out in everyday life as well as work situations. Women in leadership do not need to act like men.
    The question of why female actors  are not used as much as male actors is a continuation of the belief that males have contributed more value to the canon of plays.

    • Wallace

      To me ambition is a dirty word, it suggests brown-nosing and Yes-men (er… Yes women).

      A better characteristic: Initiative.

  • Tom

    Thank you – I will use this information and read the book.

  • Sjohnson216

    Thank you so much for doing this program!! Fascinating subject! I grew up a total tomboy who also loved the princesses… I am now raising a little boy who loves to rock mamas necklace and push his shopping cart around the house. I see my nieces definitely “flattening” into pretty pink princesses… We were just discussing how girls actually excel at math and science until about 7th grade, then they seem to falter- maybe due to wanting to be socially acceptable? (aka, boys like dumb blonds?) So glad someone is addressing this and we can help support our girls. We NEED more women in math, engineering, and science. We are good at this stuff! 

  • I am a g-mom ( to qualify my age).  I was raised in the 50’s and 60’s and was raised on MS magazine so this conversation has been part of my life my whole life.  My parents were unusual – they treated us kids as people (for various reasons) our whole lives.  When I wanted a doll house my dad helped me build one out of a cardboard box – and we ran electricity using a large hobby battery and RR train lights through out.  Mom helped me cut and sew draperies and find corduroy scraps for carpets. We made models (visible woman so I could get my pregnancy lessons) and so on.  I lived in the Middle East at the time.  I got messages at home that were not endorsed by society, but they never left me. I felt comfortable with hand tools and with a sewing machine, with paint brushes and and art brushes. This isn’t to say that I didn’t suffer the slings and arrows of adolescents but I have a strong current of independence that has seen me through tough times.  I am grateful.

  • Gabrielle

    Only caught part of this broadcast, but it certainly reflects my concerns about the way my granddaughters have been spoon-fed the “Princess” pap practically from birth. I’m afraid the only children experiencing life as it is, are those sleeping in cars with their out-of-work parents! Surely reality is somewhere in the middle!

  • A woman.

    Cinderella was a bold young woman who was kind to her evil family and cleaned the chimney in her spare time. While she seems helpless and in rags in fact she was a leader of her own life- she did not let despair ruin her.
    I personally love that message of positive thinking and strength in the face of hopelessness as we all come to a place in which the best laid education and career paths can seem suddenly out of reach. I disagree that cultural heroes such as she are putting out the wrong message. To kill your own women’s myths as if they are horrible and unbalanced is in fact unbalanced. 

    Love the princess and love the electrician in you! Wear the dress in the mud 
    and be happy. Don’t define what makes people happy and think of Cinderella as just another mythological teacher. 

    • PrintDrachmas

      You’re right, Joan of Arc is totally not worth being inspired by.

  • A wrestler’s dad

    As the father of two teenage girls(16,15) and two younger boys(12,10), I have been breaking this ‘girl’s box’ for a long, long time. There are no segregated activities/chores in our house.

    My 15 year old just placed top 12 in the CIF girl’s wrestling tournament and was league champion last year in 8th grade. (NOTE: Girl’s and boy’s are split at the sectional and state levels in CA, coed at lower levels)

    I completely agree with the point made on the show that it starts at home. Parents, mothers especially, who emphasize their own physical attractiveness over other pursuits, and many of our peers are this way, will drive the princess theme into their girls no matter what is being said to them.

    Parents of girls: if you really, really want your girls to get away from the princess theme, get them into high level competitive sports. I’d, personally, recommend wrestling. I can tell you that there’s no better feeling than watching your girl take her place on the winner’s stand.

  • Randolph Belle

    As the father of 2 beautiful daughters, ages 6 and 4 months, it’s hard not to treat them like princesses, but point well taken.  My wife and I, and the rest of the family, are very aware of how we nurture them (the 6  yr old, at least) to be assertive and to ignore stereotypical boundaries.  I also abhor pretentiousness and the reality show reality in which we live, where women are often allowed or encouraged to get by on their looks, or feminine charms,  so I’m quick to ground my daughter in healthy attitudes regarding her stake and possibilities in life.  Funny thing, my mother was over the other day and almost snatched a bib off of the 4 month old, because it said “I’m pretty”.  She thought it was horrible and I understood where she was going with it, so away went with the bib.  My grandmother also used to have a famous saying, where she would ask, “What do you think, you’re gonna get by on your good looks?  Think again!”

    Although my big girl has been a princess for the last two Halloweens, and does have, dare I say, a couple of Barbie dolls, I spent countless hours and drove many miles to find a Lego set, free of movie themes and the like, to introduce some engineering themes- she loves them.  We also enrolled her in a Mandarin immersion school where they wear uniforms and are focused on producing high achievers above all, so I think we’ll have a good chance on developing a complete, well-assured young lady.

  • tiggeroo02

    What happens when little girls are encouraged to speak up?


    Two years after this hearing and the Legislature has taken no action to ensure that these statistics will not continue for the next 50 years.

    Not even the basics that the study’s co-authors found lacking: tracking each complainant from the beginning of the administrative process to the end of the legal process.

    After extensive research, the authors were able to track 400 complainants who had persisted to the legal process in the 2008-9 year.

    Of the 22 women who were granted a jury trial, only one prevailed.

  • kschoeck

    Liking Cinderella and Princesses doesn’t make women into non-leaders. Once women grow up with the same mentality as men do with having to be the family provider, then they will be just as assertive and career focused as men.

    • utera

      Won’t happen because being family provider is not an attractive trait for women to men.  Might seem unfair but that is how nature works, furthermore women themselves are wired to go for good family providers, not for “man wives”. The whole equal marriage bit was also a bit misguided, we live in the real world, not a theoretical ideal, why would a man choose a woman that only demands more compromises from him when others are willing to take a more traditional role, this is competition at work..and as I said before, women themselves don’t really like these beta males themselves.

      What stops women is the coddling, if made to feel uncomfortable when not being led by the hand or praised it has to be someone elses fault these days, and someone should be punished for not “supporting” women. With that kind of mentality that destroys leadership skills and creates thin skin and entitlement. You see a bit of this with the women in tech discussions, when women complain they feel alienated in classes of asperger nerds, as if they expect the boys in those classes to be charming as george clooney, its a weird sense of entitlement that expects others to change for them so they never feel hardship.

      Also in a perverse way programs like this probably do more harm than good, they speak as if only girls have problems in this world. Everyone has to face adversity, and trying to make everything a crutch doesn’t help anyone. Claiming women need this or that help or that every character has to be a role model is just incredibly limiting and actually sends the opposite message from intended, it says girls need special help because they are less capable.

      Anyways that video is a humorous exploration of the difference in primal drives which may account for quite a bit …

      You can’t question equality if you don’t take the bad with the good, 9 out of 10 prisoners are also male. Something rarely mentioned.

  • passerby (woman)

    it’s possible that men and women have different developmental stages;  
    maybe more women take on responsibility after they are mature.   this alone is inconclusive and misleading.

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