Empowering girls before they lose their voice at Girls Leadership


A Girls Leadership workshop includes working on skills in class and at home. Photo: Girls Leadership

For girls destined to lead the world, the path towards “leaning in” is not always so clear. Without great role models to instruct them, girls can have a hard time speaking up and advocating for themselves. Girls Leadership, an organization started by educator/social entrepreneur, Simone Marean and bestselling author, Rachel Simmons, is empowering girls and their family members to speak up and prioritize their feelings. Through a series of classes taking place nationwide, girls (and their caretakers) learn how to be more confident, take risks and recognize their own power.

Over 60,000 people have gone through the program, according to the organization, including girls, caretakers, teachers and coaches. The workshops dive deep into friendships (“Tools for Sunny Days and Cloudy Days With Friends”), authenticity (“Be Who You Are, Say What You Mean”) and speaking up (“4 Steps For Getting What You Need”). Various classes are geared toward kindergarteners through 8th graders, but because the workshops are for girls and their caretakers, parents can reap the benefits of these classes too. Upcoming workshops in New York can be found here. For those interested, but not able to make it to the classes, check out their free girl & grown up online book club (appropriate for girls in 2nd through 8th grade) which includes books choices and toolkits to do at home.

We spoke with Co-Founder and Executive Director, Simone Marean, about the program and raising girls today. 

“Most parents aren’t aware of the cost of gender expectations on their girls. When you look at media, clothing, toys, and even seemingly innocuous objects, like Band-Aids, our kids are growing up in an increasingly gendered environment.”- Simone Marean Photo: Girls Leadership

BB: How did this organization form?

SM: The catalyst for the organization came from working with high school girls in the early 2000s on traditional leadership skills, and learning that the barrier to leadership wasn’t the performance of skills, it was the internal fear of what others might think. This is when we started working on the “internal resume”, an invisible skill set of social and emotional tools that we need to take risks, recover from mistakes, and influence others.

BB: What are the goals of Girl’s Leadership?

SM: Girls Leadership wants every girl to have the confidence and the skills to lead. Every day we all make countless decisions that could influence others. Do we make eye contact, recognize others, raise our hand when we know the answer, raise our hand when we don’t know the answer, choose a seat at lunch, invite others to join us at lunch, take a risk to try a new activity, or support others doing the same? We want every girl to recognize her power in those countless choices, and use it. So often people think that others get to decide if we are leaders, but the skills to influence others can all be taught, practiced, and acquired.

BB: Why are these sorts of workshops necessary?

SM: Because the social expectations of girls too often focus on being liked, belonging, pleasing others, and external validation. This process leads many girls to pleasing parents, teachers, coaches, friends, and romantic interests, often at the expense of her own needs or desires. The result is girls who excel academically, but struggle to develop an influential voice for either personal or professional agency.

BB: What is a typical workshop like and what does it entail?

SM: A typical workshop begins with games where girls and their caregivers practice letting go of fear of what others may think, and following their instincts. Then the group talks about the at-home practice from the previous week, before learning a new skill, and practicing it up on their feet.

BB: What is the theory behind why the workshops are broken up the way they are by age group?

SM: The workshops are broken up into developmental age groups (K/1, 2/3, 4/5, 6/7/8), using stories, teaching methods, and abstract concepts appropriate to each age. Yes, girls’ confidence tends to sharply decline around age nine or ten. By working with many families before that age, we hope to connect on the preventative side, so that many girls never absorb the gender expectations that diminish their self-perception.

BB: Why include parents in the classes?

SM: Our workshops are for girls and their grown-ups, including dads, nanas, aunties, or any adult giving girls the scripts and permission of how to be in the world every day. We started working with adults in 2005 when they came to us asking for the skills that we were teaching their girls. What we discovered through a series of pilot programs was that when we teach a girl together with her number one influencer (what our research shows parent figures to be, especially moms), then we are creating lasting impact. We were thrilled to discover that teachers were the number two influencer on girls, because we have a great opportunity reach teachers through professional development.

Modeling plays such an important role in a girl’s life. Caretakers get as much out of the workshops as their daughters. Photo: Girls Leadership

BB: What are some things that parents might not know about raising girls that might be beneficial for them?

SM: Most parents aren’t aware of the cost of gender expectations on their girls. When you look at media, clothing, toys, and even seemingly innocuous objects, like Band-Aids, our kids are growing up in an increasingly gendered environment. For girls those gendered expectations often focus on being liked, belonging to a group, and being attractive in every way (easy going, caring, kind, pretty, etc.). We start to see the cost of these expectations around age 6, when studies show that girls start to think of males as brilliant. Before the onset of adolescence girls, particularly White and Latina girls, experience a precipitous loss of voice and confidence. In adolescence, we see the rates of depression and anxiety in girls [grow to] about twice the rate of boys, and continuing to increase at a faster rate. Parents and caregivers have an opportunity in the early years to claim values, practices, and habits to prevent the loss of voice and the wellness struggle that too many of our girls experience.

BB: What is the one thing mothers can do at home with girls to help raise the next generation of leaders?

SM: While moms play an important role in girls’ lives, it is important that we include the dads and men in their lives too. The most important things we can do is realize that we are modeling every day for our girls. Every time we speak, we are giving our girls scripts and we are giving them permission. The grand version of the answer is that we need to exercise the power of our voice, by which I mean prioritizing our thoughts and feelings over being likable and fitting in. In the everyday sense, this means sending back cold food in a restaurant, or advocating for marginalized members in our community who might not have the safety to speak up for themselves, or saying no to a request, or asking your girl to do something for you.

BB: What are your future goals?

SM: At Girls Leadership we are focused having the understanding, staff, curriculum and funding to truly support all girls across differences of culture, race, income level, and geography. Last year we launched a local board in New York to help us build the community and the resources to expand our reach in New York into more low-income communities. Last year we served over 1000 families in New York, but there are over one million girls, so we have a long way to go. We are building an amazing team of partners and staff; all aligned around the powerful vision of all NYC girls exercising the power of their voices.

BB: Anything we haven’t touched upon?

SM: In order to help free our girls from their fear of what other people think of them, we first have to let go of our own fears. This process can be daunting, but it is also, ultimately, fun. It doesn’t happen overnight, but as we practice day by day sharing feelings, needs, ideas, and mistakes, our peers get to know us better. The communities that grow out of this work are powerful, in-person who communities that love us despite embarrassment, mistakes, and messiness. Is anything better for us and our girls than that?

If you’d like to schedule your own Girls Leadership workshop or if you have any questions about this organization, contact Lauren Wessler at lauren@girlsleadership.org

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