Opinion: Girls can have their own say. Let’s step aside and let them lead.

A scene from the 62nd Commission of the Status of Women Youth Dialogue. Photo by: Ryan Brown / UN Women / CC BY-NC-ND

Disparities between men and women continue today. Pay gaps, uneven opportunities for advancement, and unbalanced representation in important decision-making are some of many factors that keep women and girls from reaching their full potential. These disparities cost communities and countries billions – if not trillions – of dollars annually in the form of lower labor force participation, wage disparities, poorer health, lower investments in early childhood development, and higher levels of violence.

With all that is at stake, why is the world still reluctant to give women and girls their corresponding platform?

The rhetoric of influencers fighting for women and girls’ empowerment has long centered around power dynamics, unlocking potential, challenging stereotypes, shattering norms, and advancing equal rights agendas. With this cause gaining in momentum, we have the opportunity to shine a light on the surprisingly resilient and deep issues that have kept girls at the margin of society.

We know that gender diversity improves management and governance, translating into improved performance and healthier bottom lines. We also know that, in order to increase diversity in management and governance, representation and mentors matter. If we are to live in a gender-equitable world, we need female leaders in positions of influence to serve as role models for our girls.

Misconceptions around girls’ inability or lack of interest to lead persist. But the recently published report, “Taking the Lead: Girls and Young Women on Changing the Face of Leadership,” tells a different story. Plan International and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media’s new research provides fascinating insights into female leadership.

The survey, which reflects the voices of 10,000 girls and young women, ages 19-25, from 19 countries, including the United States, shows that 76% of girls aspire to be leaders in their country, community, or careers. And instead of the traditional authoritarian and controlling form of leadership, they seek to be collaborative leaders.

Girls want to lead. But they are eerily aware of the pervasive and deep-seated issues that create barriers to realizing their aspirations. Blatant sexism, stereotyping, gender discrimination, and harassment were all named as barriers. Another report that surveyed adolescents in the U.S. on their perceptions of gender expectations, “The State of Gender Equality for U.S. Adolescents,” found similar results.

Societal expectations based on gender can prevent both girls and boys from taking advantage of opportunities to fulfill their potential. Girls, bombarded with ads, TV shows, and movies portraying women with unrealistic bodies, in addition to hearing remarks from friends and parents about their appearance, end up thinking their external qualities are more important than pursuing academic interests or leadership opportunities. Boys who are expected to never display emotion or only show strength may end up in positions of power, but with harmful ideas of how to exercise authority.

This is why efforts to empower girls and promote girls’ leadership are not about replacing boys and men in positions of leadership and authority, but about questioning and altering social arrangements that are hurting everyone. Recent youth-led movements such as the gun control efforts led by the Parkland students in the U.S., and the climate change demonstrations around the globe, are clear signs that young people today are taking matters into their own hands and leading powerful movements of social change.

Such engagement and empowerment is not possible everywhere. This is where we come in. Our role as a community is to enable girls so they can combat those obstacles that are keeping them from fulfilling their potential everywhere. Implementing programming and advocacy that start and end with girls at the center, while also engaging boys in the dialogue, are how we move to finding solutions to tackle deeply engrained social norms that influence negative expectations and beliefs.

But let’s be clear. This is not about our agenda. It is about girls’ agenda. Our efforts are not about unlocking the potential of girls, which implies that, somehow, we hold the key to their empowerment. We don’t.

As the many thoughtful discussions from global influencers continue, the crucial questions that must remain in sight are: Are we investing enough in girls’ leadership? What else do we need to be doing to arm girls with the adequate tools and skills they need to shape and facilitate their own future? Then, clear the way so they can lead.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Tessie San Martin

    Tessie San Martin is a co-chair of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network and president and CEO of Plan International USA.