SAN ANTONIO — The research is clear: A confidence gap prevents many women from ascending to higher levels of leadership, and that lack of confidence begins early.
In fact, between 5th and 12th grade, the percentage of girls who say they are confident plummets from 86% to 62% and never returns to pre-middle school levels. Between those same grade levels, the percentage of girls who want to change their appearance spikes from 20% to 60%.
These are among the findings of The Girls’ Index, a series of school-based surveys of 10,678 girls in grades 5-12 nationwide conducted by Ruling Our eXperiences, or ROX, and released in 2017. ROX is a nonprofit that partners with schools to help girls develop social, emotional and academic knowledge and skills in safe and empowering environments so they remain confident and assertive well into adulthood. The organization is in the process of compiling an updated Girls’ Index based on 2022 survey data.
During a Thursday panel at the National Conference on Education, held by AASA, the School Superintendents Association, ROX Founder and CEO Lisa Hinkelman presented some of her organization’s research, and two superintendents shared what’s working in their districts.
While a counselor education faculty member at Ohio State University, Hinkelman said she saw little being done to address the complex challenges girls face that lead to this crisis in confidence.
“I saw girls go through adolescence and go from exuberant, outgoing, outspoken girls to girls that turned inward and became so consumed with what everyone else thought about them, what everybody else thought about how they looked,” Hinkelman said. “I watched super high-achieving girls hold themselves back because they didn’t think they were smart enough.”
To that end, ROX’s Girls’ Index surveys found 46% of high school girls don’t believe they’re smart enough for their dream career, double the share of 23% of elementary school girls who say that. Even more damning: About 33% of girls with GPAs above 4.0 say they're not smart enough for the career they want.
This is rooted in the messages girls take in regarding what’s available to them, what they can or should be, what they should look and act like, the kinds of classes they can take and the kinds of careers available to them, Hinkelman said.
As much as we want to say girls can be anything they want, and you can do it and you can be it, it’s not necessarily what girls have been seeing or experiencing.
Founder and CEO, Ruling Our eXperiences
In Fortune 500 companies, women represent about 6% to 8% of CEOs on any given day, and women still make up only about 27% of political leaders despite an influx of women in politics in recent years, Hinkelman said. Even in K-12 leadership, she added, only 15% of superintendents are women — while over 80% of teachers are women.
“As much as we want to say girls can be anything they want, and you can do it and you can be it, it’s not necessarily what girls have been seeing or experiencing,” Hinkelman said.
When asked what they need to be successful, the No. 1 response from girls was “confidence.” For instance, a third of Girls’ Index respondents reported they’re afraid to be a leader because they don’t want to be seen as “bossy.” And almost half refrain from disagreeing with others or saying what they really think because they want to be liked.
ROX’s findings also correlate with recent findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which found nearly 3 in 5 teen girls felt persistently sad or hopeless in 2021, 1 in 3 teenage girls seriously considered attempting suicide, and 1 in 5 saying they had experienced sexual violence in the past year.
Girls’ Index data shows time spent using technology impacts levels of sadness and depression in girls. Those spending eight or more daily hours using technology were five times more likely to say they are sad or depressed nearly every day than those using technology four or fewer hours a day.
Furthermore, effective friendships are critical for girls’ confidence, as girls who get along well with and trust other girls and have supportive friends report lower levels of sadness and depression. But 76% of girls said they believe most girls are in competition with one another.
“We have insanely competent girls, insanely competent women — they’re not seeing themselves the way we see them,” Hinkelman said. “We have to do things differently in the world of girls if we expect different outcomes.”
To change this, Hinkelman said, educators must be proactive, know the data, recognize the challenges, and implement supports.
Candace Singh, retired superintendent of California’s Fallbrook Union Elementary School District, introduced two districts taking just those steps.
Aldine Independent School District in Houston, Texas
Aldine Independent School District occupies 111 square miles in Houston and serves 62,000 students — 9 in 10 of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, 75% are Hispanic, and 22% are Black.
When Superintendent LaTonya Goffney was in the research phase of formulating and launching a strategic plan for the district in 2019, she and other leaders saw a “dramatic difference” in how young women were performing compared to young men. Recognizing the need for different options to meet girls' needs, they looked to a single-gender model that had been implemented in nine other Texas districts — the Young Women’s Leadership Academy.
In her 2020 state of the district address, Goffney announced the model as an option for young women in grades 6-12. “Long story short, y’all know what happened: COVID hit,” Goffney said. “We had a choice. We could focus on COVID and all those protocols, or we could continue to deliver on the promise of our strategic priorities, which was to create great school options in our district. So we did both.”
In 2021, the district held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Aldine Young Women’s Leadership Academy, an event Goffney called one of the proudest moments of her career.
Some 300 girls in 5th grade were admitted to the school after going through a rigorous selection process, Goffney said, and all are enrolled in advanced academic programming. “Every single student has risen to the occasion.”
We had a choice. We could focus on COVID and all those protocols, or we could continue to deliver on the promise of our strategic priorities, which was to create great school options in our district. So we did both.
Superintendent, Aldine Independent School District
Nearly 90% of students make the honor roll every nine weeks, and 100% are on pathways to college. The academy’s students also outperformed other students in the district on the most recent State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, the state’s annual standardized test, Goffney said.
Still, Goffney and other district leaders are looking toward how to address girls’ social, emotional and academic needs across the entire district in a strategic way, because this is just one school, she said.
Finally, she advocated for superintendents to enlist their own student ambassadors to tell them what the district can improve upon and what is or isn’t working. “Listen to your students,” she said. “They will tell you everything you need to know about your district.”
Airport Community Schools in Carleton, Michigan
Michigan’s Airport Community Schools is a small district serving roughly 2,700 students. The district is small enough that Superintendent John Krimmel’s office is “located right about in the middle” of the middle school building.
“I don’t have to ask them about what’s going on in the school, I hear it every day. I hear sounds that are very unique, but I certainly have a pulse of what’s happening around me,” Krimmel said. At the middle school level especially, he said, more hours and people power were going into addressing non-academic issues like personal conflicts.
Krimmel noted, however, that he doesn’t love the term “drama” — a word commonly associated with girls’ problems and concerns — because boys have drama, too. “And plenty of it.”
“We quickly understood it was a communication problem. It’s not a drama problem,” Krimmel said. “We had to focus on our girls at the middle school to understand how to communicate, because the only model they’ve had was not appropriate. The things they were doing and the way they were talking to people, both in-person and online, was exactly what they had seen all their lives.”
There’s a timing shift in middle school where boys’ views of girls as leaders drops. Working in a middle school, you can see it happen before your eyes.
Superintendent, Airport Community Schools
Krimmel relied on a “familiar formula” to put a plan in place.
Identify a champion/program to lead supports: After an elementary school principal put ROX on Krimmel's radar, the superintendent worked with the district’s restorative justice coordinator to partner with the organization on programming.
Secure funding sources to sustain programming: “When you start talking about programs like this that support middle school girls and the research that goes with it, you’ll get the funding and the support,” Krimmel said. “Our community foundation has supported us in the past with this. Verizon supports us with this. People understand this, organizations understand this, and they want it to be better, too.”
Gather data that demonstrates a program’s effectiveness: Firsthand testimony from girls participating in Airport Community Schools’ ROX programming includes “ROX has given me more self confidence so I can be myself around people” and “I would describe it as a safe place for girls.”
Data also shows 83% of girls in the district feel more confident dealing with conflict, and 97% say the programming taught them to use their voices to keep them safe. In web-based sessions during COVID, the district also found moms were sitting in on sessions with their daughters.
Asked how men in leadership positions can champion gender equity and also improve how boys’ perceptions of how girls change during grades 5-12, Krimmel wrapped up the session reiterating, “Don’t be afraid of the data.”
"There’s a timing shift in middle school where boys’ views of girls as leaders drops. Working in a middle school, you can see it happen before your eyes. You have to be intentional and prepare for that.”