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When the Glass Ceiling is a Mirror

Problematic biases against girls as leaders — often from other girls
When the Glass Ceiling is a Mirror

A new report from Making Caring Common, a project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, suggests that girls contend with stubbornly negative opinions about their abilities as leaders. These biases, many of which girls confront in their interactions not just with boys but with other girls and women, threaten to limit the progress women have made in closing the gender gap in leadership.

The Big Picture

Over the last year, Making Caring Common (MCC) set out to investigate gender bias in young people, conducting a large study of roughly 19,800 middle and high school students from a diverse range of 59 schools. The report that resulted, called Leaning Out: Teen Girls and Leadership Biases, shows that “bias can be a powerful — and invisible — barrier to teen girls’ leadership and can come from many sources,” says lead author Richard Weissbourd, MCC co-director and an HGSE senior lecturer. 

Even as girls and women chalk up impressive gains in academic achievement and professional success — even as a woman leads the early pack of 2016 presidential candidates — girls face lingering biases about their leadership capacities, the report shows.

Among the findings:

  • Many boys and girls expressed bias against girls as leaders in powerful professions, including politics.Almost a quarter of teen girls preferred male over female political leaders; 8 percent preferred female political leaders, and 69 percent reported no difference in preference. Forty percent of boys preferred male political leaders; only 4 percent of boys preferred female political leaders, and 56 percent reported no preference.
  • In response to a scenario intended to detect implicit (unconscious) biases,students on average were least likely to support giving more power to the student council when it was led by white girlsand most likely to support giving more power when it was led by white boys. (See the full report for more on the implicit bias scenario and for findings related to race/ethnicity.)
  • White girls appear to be biased against other white girls. White girls on average were more likely to favor giving support to a student council led by white boys than by white girls.
  • Some mothers appear biased against teen girls as leaders. In the implicit bias scenario, mothers’ average level of support for councils led by boys was higher than their average support for councils led by girls.

What to Know

  • “Bias can be a powerful — and invisible — barrier to teen girls’ leadership,” Richard Weissbourd, Harvard Graduate School of Education
    Biases against girls have many causes.
    The report suggests a few, consistent with other research: highly competitive feelings among girls; the sense (among boys and girls) that girls lack confidence and self-esteem; and girls being viewed stereotypically, as too emotionally “dramatic.”
  • Awareness of bias may make a difference. Although white girls tended to support student councils led by white boys over white girls, white girls who perceived high levels of gender discrimination at their school showed greater preference for female-led councils. 
  • The interplay of race/gender perceptions needs further study. “Some of our reported findings are specific to white girls and boys, because that is where we saw the most statistically significant findings,” the report states.  But the available data, consistent with other research, suggests that black and Hispanic students face racial biases, and yet “students and parents do not view students’ capacity for leadership through one simple gender or race lens.”

What to Do

Educators and parents can play an active role in reducing and preventing bias, the report finds. Recommendations:

  • Become aware of your own gender biases as a critical first step.
  • Cultivate family practices and routines that prevent and reduce biases and ask children whether family practices are gender-biased.
  • Teach teens to notice — and work with them to confront — stereotypes and discrimination on television, in songs, and in daily interactions.
  • Don’t accept a “boys will be boys” tolerance of behavior that demeans girls.
  • Constructively challenge teens’ biased assumptions, many of which are explicit — for example, men are better political leaders and women are better childcare directors.
  • Embrace programs and interventions that build girls’ leadership skills.
  • Talk with your teenaged students or children about this report.


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