Teen Girls, Gender Biases, and Leadership

By Roberta Attanasio, Forever Leaders Editor

For the past few decades, women’s movement into leadership roles and occupations previously only held by men has been gradually improving. However, gender biases and discrimination against women in leadership roles still persist. Results from a variety of studies show that Americans, men and women alike, continue to endorse gender stereotypes, even for men and women in powerful positions. It’s not surprising, then, that gender gaps still permeate our society. Women leaders view “stereotypes and preconceptions of women’s roles and abilities” as a major barrier to their advancement in their companies. The result of gender biases is that women struggle to reconcile the expectations related to their feminine gender role with those that are necessary to lead others—such as assertiveness and competency—which are seen as more masculine.


Photo credit: William Warby, CC BY 2.0

Recent research suggests that even teen girls—who are key to closing the gender gap—still face gender bias. These biases could be powerful barriers to leadership for a generation of teen girls with historically high levels of education. The research was carried out by Making Caring Common, a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, during the 2014-2015 school year. The resulting research report—”Leaning Out: Teen Girls and Gender Biases“—was released in July 2015. The research was based on the assessment of the explicit (conscious) and implicit (unconscious) biases of teen girls, teen boys, and parents with regard to gender and leadership.

For the study, researchers conducted several surveys, focus groups, and informal interviews to better understand students’ and adults’ biases related to gender and leadership. They asked students, for example, whether they viewed males or females as better leaders in specific professions including health care, business, politics, and child-care. Their largest survey—19,816 students from a diverse range of 59 middle and high schools—included an implicit bias scenario designed to detect unconscious biases.

The research findings suggest that many teen boys and teen girls have biases against female leaders in powerful professions such as politics, that many teen girls have biases against other teen girls as leaders (white girls tended not to support giving power to white girls), and that many teens perceive their peers as biased against female leaders. Further, the research suggests that some mothers have implicit biases against teen girls as leaders, as they prefer teen boys over teen girls as leaders. There are a variety of reasons for students’ biases against girls and for white girls’ biases against each other, including highly competitive feelings among girls, girls lacking confidence and self-esteem and projecting that lack of confidence onto other girls, and girls being viewed as too emotionally “dramatic.” These findings are consistent with those resulting from other research on girls.

Richard Weissbourd, a faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and co-director of Making Caring Common, said in a press release: “Our study points to insidious bias against girls as leaders that comes from many sources. Bias can be a powerful—and invisible—barrier to teen girls’ leadership. Yet parents and teachers can do a great deal to stem these biases and help children manage them.”

What can parents and educators do, then, to stem these biases and help children manage them? Making Caring Common recommends the following strategies:

  • Check your own biases.
  • Cultivate family practices that prevent and reduce bias.
  • Teach teens to spot and effectively confront stereotypes and discrimination.
  • Don’t just let “boys be boys.”
  • Challenge teens’ biased assumptions and beliefs.
  • Use programs and strategies that build girls’ leadership skills.
  • Use the report “Leaning Out: Teen Girls and Gender Biases” to spur discussion.

However, fully preventing gender and other biases, and clearing pathways to leadership for girls and women, will require changes in many sectors of our society.

Copyright © 2016-2018 Forever Leaders.


  1. It is true that biases, whether they are regarding gender, race, or any other characteristic of an individual, are ingrained in us as we develop. What I appreciate about this blog post is that it takes note of the role of those that influence us the most as we develop, our parents and teachers, on the conscious and unconscious biases that we acquire. I believe that the main mode of passing on biases from generation to generation is the parent. Whether the belief is based in religion, tradition, or personal belief, most of our personal beliefs and perceptions are either directly transferred to us from our parents or are greatly influenced by our parents in some way. For example, I am a single child raised by a single mother who made sure she instilled in me at a young age the belief that I am not above or below anyone else and that I can achieve anything as long as I dedicate the time and hard work required to achieve it regardless of my gender or the color of my skin. My mother breaking the cycle of passing on the same traditional beliefs that were taught to her on to me resulted in not only me seeing myself as a competent and capable equal of anyone I encounter but also in my projecting that same belief onto others. I do not see anyone else as being greater or lesser nor more or less capable of anyone else, and I attribute that to what was instilled in me by my mother during my early development. When the majority of parents and teachers cease to simply teach the next generation the same beliefs and biases that were taught to them, and instead actively decide to instill the youth with beliefs characterized by equality and self-confidence, then we as a society will see a lasting change and progress in not only gender equality but equality and advancement in all aspects of humanity.

  2. I agree with you Sallay, throughout the day I will catch myself saying some off hand comment about other females. It makes me feel terrible once I think it over and realize how unnecessary it was. In my opinion, I don’t think gender bias will completely go away, we just have to be more conscious of what we say and think. It’s about you personally checking yourself. Growing up I was the only girl and lived with 4 other boys. My mom and grandma always told them not to play to rough with me and to treat me like a lady. As a child I never liked it because I just wanted to play like everyone else. I really think to make an impact on gender bias, it starts with parents not conforming their children to gender norms. They should just let their kids be kids.

  3. I am glad I took this class because it was my first time getting to talk about gender bias in a safe non confrontational space. To be honest, it is rare to go a whole day with out judging someone based on there gender. Especially if you work in the real world. I would suggest that if you want to see what biases you hold you should record your conversations or take notes on when you mentioned some type of gender-related comment. You would be surprised!

  4. We as women have to learn how to support each other in order to stop gender bias. We can’t expect men to get rid of those bias if we don’t do it ourselves. I see on a daily especially in the African American community how much women don’t support each other as if you could catch a cold from telling another woman good job or simply that she’s beautiful. I think more girls should learn to be confident as well as support other people, to cheer other women on just as they long to be cheered for. Gender bias didn’t start amongst women but we have to take responsibility and stop it.

  5. Aigner, the video you posted was awesome. It is good to see a father instilling confidence into his daughter. I wish my father would have done a better job with that. I do agree with the research concluded from the article because it reinforces what I have personally seen. Women are taught to be in competition with each other. Usually this competition is for the attention of men. Besides that, I personally have acted different when working with men. For some reason I would be ashamed of being feminine around them because I was afraid that they would equate it to weakness. I notice that I would tell different types of jokes and wear a tough skin. I was not being myself, and feel if I was being myself I would not be any less competent. Change starts with me. As others have stated above me, open discussions about biases are extremely important and effective for positive changes. I am grateful that I am an extrovert, and have no problem starting these types of conversations when needed. Over time, equality will progress and people will become more open minded.

  6. It is not surprising that gender stereotypes are still being perpetuated in our society today. As a Nigerian, gender stereotype is something that I see and witness everyday. In the Nigerian culture, women are expected to do all household chores and care for the kids. Once married, women are expected to simply fall into their role as a full housewife. Most times, women that tend to defy these norms and fight to achieve success in the workforce are looked at as arrogant or incapable of starting a family. I do not want to have to conform to these set roles. I have goals; goals pertaining to both my future career and future family. I want to be able to achieve success and not be judged for wanting to also start a family. Once I do start working as a physician, I want to be able to take on leadership roles without being judged or face bias because I am a woman.
    In addition to the strategies mentioned in the paper, I believe that boys and girls should be treated equally right from the time they become aware of their environment. The ideas that parents engrave in children’s mind are the same ideas that are contributing to the bias that exist today. If the problem is addressed while children are still young, I believe that the next generation will experience less bias and more equality.

  7. In my opinion, gender gap bias begins at an early age. As a little girl growing up in a household of just me, my sister, and my mom, one would assume that I was raised as a ‘girly girl’. But the opposite is true. I was never discouraged from climbing trees, getting dirty, or playing basketball with the neighborhood boys. I was always coming home with a new scrap or bruise from playing too hard. But I think that majority of girls growing up are pushed towards playing inside with barbie dolls and tea sets (don’t get me wrong, I had more barbies than I could count) and taught to be more ‘lady like’. The same goes for little boys raised to tough and manly but discouraged from participating in anything ‘girly’. These differences seem insignificant, but I think that they heavily carry over into puberty when boys and girls are starting to distinguish themselves as such. When we’re young we don’t care about what people think, but as I got older and my schoolmates began to call me a tomboy it made me think twice about joining the guys on the basketball court. I think it would be interesting to see a study done on younger children to find out exactly where the split happens. I also think that when you are raising a child, that balancing their exposure to ‘boy’ activities and ‘girl’ activities is important so they learn to appreciate both.

  8. Gender bias, in the society that we have molded, is inevitable. As children grow up females and males are socialized differently, which makes having conversations with young children about true equality even more essential. Without having these conversations with the younger generations, as well as older generations, our societal biases will remain the same for years to come. Weather conscious or not we all feel certain ways towards specific genders in different situations. My mom used to say “your first thought is what society has told you to think, your second thought is how you really feel” so when thoughts cross our mind that we know are based on false biases it’s important to make each thought process more deliberate.

  9. In my opinion, it would be nearly impossible to fully prevent gender and other biases. Unfortunately, gender biases interfere with the ability for women to be great leaders. In response to Dasom’s question, I personally do not believe that gender biases will ever disappear. One reason I believe that it would be nearly impossible for gender bias to disappear, is because in 2016 we still have issues about race in our society. Almost fifty years after the Civil Rights Movement, there is still apparent discrimination against Blacks. I believe gender biases are following the same pattern. For example, I have acquaintances, male and female, that still believe it is a man’s job to make the money for the family, while it is a woman’s job to stay at home with the kids. While there is nothing wrong with that, there is a problem with discriminating against a woman if she chooses a path to pursue her own education and career. Although many people are in support for the progression of women, there are many that are not. Most of the biases formed against race and gender are not addressed because people do not think they are guilty of having these biases. Each and every one of us is guilty of having some sort of bias even if we are not consciously aware.
    My hope is that with each year that passes, people in our society will work to reduce their own biases. If we all make an effort to make these changes, there will be more support for women to take on leadership roles. The recommendations that were made by Making Caring Common are excellent recommendations to begin making changes in the way teen boys and girls think. I believe the saying “anything boys can do, girls can do better,” holds a lot of meaning. This is what we should teach teen girls and show them they have the ability to do anything they wish.

  10. As long as the history can recall, the gender bias has been around. In the colonial period, men went to schools and were educated while women were to stay at home and learn how to cook and sew. Unfortunately, this has continued up until the 21st century, and people–both men and women–are unconsciously led to believe that men are superior. Were we brainwashed from thinking that way after decades of gender discrimination? Would have anything been different if there was no discrimination between the genders to begin with? Many are vaguely aware that the different opinions we hold on men and women in the same field are driven by what their genders are. Ironically, even though I am a female, I discriminated against other females in so many occasions without realizing it. At my previous workplace, I was treated “differently” from my male coworkers by my manager who was also a female. Gender bias does not simply differentiate someone by their gender but treats someone unequally because of their gender. Recently, more news have been showing companies’ attempts to alleviate the differences in gender pay, but it genuinely makes me wonder: will the gender bias ever disappear?

    • Dasom, you’re right in the fact that all of history has been predominantly based on patriarchal beliefs. However, before the agricultural revolution, almost all of the nomadic tribes were egalitarian out of necessity (except for some of the settled hunter/gatherers). Everyone provided to the tribe, so everyone had a say so in the tribe’s decisions.
      Like, Sallay, I have really benefited from having a safe space in which to explore the differences in gender and the resulting biases from a society recovering from patriarchy. And like many of the other commenters on this blog, I have held gender biases for so long all the while trying to do the opposite. In an attempt to prove the bias wrong, I was simply perpetuating it. I climbed trees, skated on boards, rode four wheelers, and broke bones with the other neighborhood boys, but I always believed that I was a girl oddity.
      Usually, I came home covered in mud, and you wouldn’t catch me dead in a skirt. Secretly though, I always admired dresses and the gentler side of things, but I put up a tough skin, like Jade. While I have since made amends with my feminine side and have found myself now with more female friends than male (which would have been inconceivable at 14), I hadn’t really addressed my bias consciously. I had only begun to meet amazingly powerful women (besides my mom) at the same time as becoming more aware of myself, my emotions, and how I was unconsciously acting out of pre-conditioning and fear a lot of the time.
      It all starts with us. When we can look at and challenge our own biases, as well as others’, we can effectively create a space in which others realize that bias is within them and conscious effort is their responsibility as well.

  11. We are all guilty of gender stereotyping. It’s something that has been ingrained in most of us since birth, so it is understandable we struggle in this department. This is not to say that because we live in a society riddled with gender bias and stereotyping that it is a get out of jail free card to allow it to continue. Having the awareness, and the willingness to become aware that this is going on is the only way that any meaningful change will be brought about on this issue. Even Sheryl Sandberg admitted to having gender bias against a female colleague. She came to the realization that the only reason she was upset with her colleague was because she was a woman, and she would likely not be upset if the colleague was a man. Instead of going through the motions, Sheryl allowed herself to reflect on her emotions, which allowed her to become aware of the bias that was occurring. This is what every woman needs to do, young, and old, we need to become aware of the biases that we endorse. This awareness, and subsequent work to change is what will make changes for young girls and boys to grow up in a more gender equal society.

    • Gender Bias is nothing new. It has been ingrained into our society through institutions such as family and religion which it is then passed down from generations to generations and societies to other societies. That is not to say that religion and the traditional definition of the traditional family is the cause of gender biases but more so that we humans tend to take definitions and cater it to our benefit. In this case, biblical texts have been used to justify the hierarchy between males and females for thousands of years because a group of people in the past took a few verses and used it to justify that men are more powerful than women. Since we all grow up with these teachings, it becomes ingrained to our unconscious to span throughout the rest of our lives. Fortunately, the more we become educated about gender biases and that women and men are actually equal, then we can allow equality to flourish. It is true gender biases continues to prevail, but with more people being willing to listen and learn can we pave a better future for our children and our children’s children.

  12. This blog post is incredibly important! I agree with Alexandria Cook on both points that she made: “gender bias continues [because] it is not openly discussed” and “…a lot of [gender] bias is held subconsciously.” Perhaps if we were all more educated on the topic of subconscious (and conscious!) gender bias, we could become more aware of the biases held by not only those around us, but by ourselves as well. Only after being able to clearly identify the problem can we begin the process of taking the necessary action to correct it.

    Additionally, the study referenced in this blog post pointed out the fact that many women feel competition among each other; this theme that was also recognized by Sheryl Sandberg in her powerful novel “Lean In.” During one of the final chapters, Sandberg specifically discusses the competitive nature found among women in the business world; unfortunately, based on the evidence provided in this blog post, this way of thinking is perpetuating into the next generation of women. If we all take the time to self-reflect, motivate ourselves to personally correct gender bias, and choose to view other women as individuals who can help us succeed instead of as people who will get in our way, a better world for future women can surely be the result.

  13. The main reason that gender bias continues is that it is not openly discussed. Another key reason is that a lot of this bias is held subconsciously. We may believe that our workplaces, schools, homes, etc. are completely or mostly equal, yet still perpetuate gender bias on a daily basis. If we were to have discussions led by someone who is versed in this issue of addressing bias, it could enable people to have these discussions on their own in the future. The advice given for parents to alleviate gender biases with their teenage children is great. I would have appreciated my mother having this advice to follow when I was growing up. Often times, when I would ask to take her car and drive places, she would give me a speech about driving safely and act so nervous about the idea of me driving. However, whenever I mentioned that my boyfriend would be with me, she would ask him to drive and feel relieved. The ironic part about this circumstance was that I was older than my boyfriend and also had a clean driving record. On the other hand, my boyfriend had received numerous tickets and been involved in a few car accidents. Yet, because he was a male, my mother was unintentionally discriminating against me in favor of him.

    • I definitely agree with you Alexandria, gender bias discussions should definitely begin in the home. Little girls pick up their first thoughts about themselves in the home. Just to touch on that, Actor Tyrese Gibson teaches his young daughter self confidence in the home in this video.
      However in many homes, parents aren’t having these types of talks with their daughters. Especially in families where parents have sons and daughters. For example, in my family I don’t have a brother. Yet my mother always reminds us of what we could have done if we were boys. For example, because I am a female I can’t have a boyfriend till I am a specific age. The only reason being because I am unwillingly capable of producing offspring. But if I were a boy I could date who I want when I want. Another example, mom wouldn’t let us spend the night at other little girl’s houses because she was afraid something might happen. However if I were a boy, (as Beyonce would say) I could go to my friend’s house. Parents make these decisions because they care for us, but a lot of times they don’t explain the deeper reasons behind it. They often times just come up with the rules. Unfortunately this can leave little girls feeling incapable and maybe wishing that they were boys so that they would be permitted to do more things! And this is where the bias begins.

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