Why do little girls hate being called “bossy,” and how can their fear of being stigmatized affect them as adults? Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s CEO and author of the now widely-circulated book Lean In, believes that this particular “b-word” sets the stage for a lifetime, among women, of trying to avoid being viewed by others as assertive, aggressive, controlling, and obsessed with power. Research on training programs to promote leadership in adolescent girls supports this “anti-bossy” movement. Sheryl Sandberg might be onto something with her “ban bossy” campaign.
Decades of research on gender stereotypes in the workplace support the idea that women struggle with the way they are perceived by others, including other women. They’re less likely to ask for a raise, afraid to pose a threat to their male colleagues by looking too competent, and to worry about sounding like they’re nagging when they want a request fulfilled. Gender stereotypes, which we internalize at a very young age, can keep women from achieving their full potential as leaders.
From her own experience, Sandberg knows that it takes a great deal of personal resolve to confront and challenge these gender stereotypes. In 9th grade, she learned that her teacher took aside her best friend and advised her to dump Sheryl because she was too bossy. Girls are punished for showing the same leadership traits that are rewarded in boys. To avoid being shunned by their peers, young girls quickly learn that it’s better to take a back seat and let boys run the show.
Several studies on leadership training programs for adolescent girls show that Sandberg is onto something important. In 2008, UCLA psychologist Michael Hoyt and Arizona State psychologist Clara Kennedy tested a leadership training program on a small group of female adolescents from public high schools in New York City. As they expected, prior to the intervention, the teenagers had a narrowly traditional view of leadership, and were reluctant to see themselves as potential leaders. Noting that girls turn into women in a society where traditional femininity is both “expected and devalued,” Hoyt and Kennedy tried to expand this narrow view to help the girls accept their own potential to be leaders.
Because adolescence is prime time for identity development, Hoyt and Kennedy believed it was critical to intervene at the point when women are beginning to define themselves in relation to social expectations. The girls represented a range of ethnicities and were primarily sophomores and juniors. They submitted application essays for the program in which they discussed their commitment to leadership. However, the girls selected to participate had also expressed reservations about actually becoming leaders. The intervention consisted of a six-week curriculum that provided rigorous coursework, mentoring, and programs in which the students designed and led their own activism programs in the community.
This combination of didactic and experiential learning helped the teen girls gain greater understanding of the concept of leadership. It also, importantly, gave them opportunities to practice their own leadership behaviors in a way that would solidify their identities as leaders. Comparing their interviews before and after the program, the researchers found that through these experiences, the girls were less likely to see leaders as “bossy” and more likely to see leadership traits as desirable ones to have.
The feminist approach to leadership focused on in this training allowed girls to view leadership as more inclusive and cooperative, and to be able to incorporate a positive view of leadership into their own identities. The girls also learned that they could become change agents in their own communities, and in this way improve the conditions around them in their own environments. This was an important lesson: Leadership applies not just to rising through the corporate world, but to improving the ways that people can live productive lives.
Educators from around the world are beginning to develop leadership training programs for young girls. Macquarie educator Nicole Archer seems to be paving the way (e.g. Archard, 2013), but there are also reports from India (Beaman et al., 2012) and Napal (Posner, et al., 2009). Sandberg is partnering with the Girls Scouts, which seems like a natural alliance and, indeed several studies on leadership development were conducted with Girl Scout Troops. This includes dissertations conducted in southwest Texas by Iolani Connolly (2010), one on girls in an affluent northeastern suburb (Benjamin, 2006), and one on Latina girls in Texas (Butler, 2008).
The features these leadership training programs seem to have in common are very consistent with the training used by Hoyt and Kennedy in their study of New York City high schoolers. To help young girls embrace the concept of being leaders, we need to help them see leadership as a positive social quality that they want to incorporate into their identities.
Mentorship is another key ingredient to helping girls and women define themselves in positive ways as leaders. University of Virginia educator Angela Henneberger and her collaborators conducted an experimental study in which they compared seventh grade adolescent girls, primarily of nonwhite ethnicity, in a Young Women Leaders Program (YWLP) with a control group who did not participate in the program. The YWLP included both group and one-on-one mentoring for four hours per month. The girls and their college-student mentors engaged in activities such as going to dinner, attending sporting events, and doing homework. They also engaged in discussions focused on self-determination theory, which focused on helping them feel more competent, connected, and self-directed. The mentors were taking a college-level service-learning course, and they committed to the program for one year.
Typically, over the course of a year, girls at this vulnerable age during the transition to adolescence show a decline in key indicators of mental health including self-esteem. The YWLP girls did not show this decline, but the control group did. The girls in the training program also showed no decline in feelings of competence (school self-esteem) but those not in the YWLP did, again, a finding that is typical for this age group. The only negative aspect of the study to emerge was a decline in feelings of competence among students of lower socioeconomic status. Henneberger and her team advise that mentorship programs should specifically address potential mismatches in social class between mentors and mentees.
Adding mentorship to leadership training seems to be a crucial ingredient. We know that teenage girls are looking for role models, and as a result, will identify with those they view as having qualities that they desire. By supporting leadership identification, mentors can serve as positive role models while, at the same time, providing valuable concrete help and support.
Instead of the “B” word, we need to use the “L” word to support identity development in teenage girls. Sandberg’s campaign, to the extent it takes advantage of these empirical studies, may go a long way to helping young women define themselves in new, and more fulfilling, ways.