Systemic sexism has increasingly been in the spotlight in recent years: the wage gap, the media’s attention on appearance, unequal attention in math and science classes, lack of respect in conference rooms. And there are many tomes of advice for adult women encouraging them to “lean in” to their careers, and to advocate for themselves.
But what can we do as parents to help our daughters develop grit and a growth mindset from a very young age? What can schools do to develop girls and young women who will be ready to thrive in the world as it exists today?
A new book, What Girls Need: How to Raise Bold, Courageous, and Resilient Women, shows us all how to prepare the next generation of women to confidently hold their own later in life, and to celebrate and own certain traits that will be more critical than ever in the new world of work.
Recently I had the chance to interview the book’s author, Dr. Marisa Porges, a former naval flight officer, counter-terrorism analyst, and senior advisor in the Obama White House. Today, she is head of The Baldwin School, one of the premier schools for girls in the country, just outside of Philadelphia.
Kevin Kruse: What inspired you to write this book, and why now?
Dr. Marisa Porges: I was inspired to write this book by the girls at my school. In fact, I got the idea from teaching a leadership seminar to my high schoolers. As I listened to their questions about how to prepare for the working world, I realized what lessons I’d learned throughout my career – in and out of the cockpit – were directly applicable. And I recognized how my stories alongside the practices we use at Baldwin could help prepare other young girls to boldly and courageously face the challenges that await women in the real world. That’s my hope for this book.
Kruse: When girls are in male-dominated spaces, they have a greater chance of being talked over or interrupted. What can parents and educators do to encourage girls to self-advocate?
Dr. Porges: It’s about finding small moments when your daughter might normally shy away from speaking her mind – at school, at a neighborhood store, or even at your dinner table – and, help her practice using her voice with your support and guidance. So that she gets used to asking for what she needs and figures out how she can speak her mind in a way that feels most comfortable. Over time, this helps young girls get used to advocating for themselves on a regular basis, so it becomes natural later in life when it matters most.
Kruse: You say raising kids who are competitive is a good thing. Tell me more.
Dr. Porges: We often dismiss how important a healthy competitive spirit is for both women and men – not just on a playing field but in the workplace and life. We also signal to girls that being competitive is bad, even as boys are actively encouraged to compete throughout childhood.
This combination does a disservice to young women, who must learn how to embrace a healthy competitive attitude to effectively navigate the real world, personally and professionally. It’s time to change that by nurturing girls’ competitive spirit, when they’re young.
Kruse: You say that girls are more naturally empathetic, and that this is strength. Why is empathy so important?
Dr. Porges: Now more than ever, empathetic thinking is a key differentiator for leaders in any organization, colleagues in any work environment, and in our personal interactions. This reflects the fact that the world is more and more connected, so we need to effectively communicate and collaborate with people from different backgrounds and all walks of life.
We’ve also seen that the most effective way to solve problems, work together in teams, and even find commercial success is when we understand and take into account someone else’s perspective. That’s why tapping into our girls’ natural empathetic tendencies won’t just make them better people, it will make them more successful too.
Kruse: If you had to pick just three things a parent or educator can do to help raise strong, confident, and resilient women, what would they be?
Dr. Porges: First, remember that role models matter at every age. Actively seek out women, in your personal life and in the media, that your girl should emulate and then talk to her about what tangible and intangible qualities make that person such a good model for others.
Second, it’s about practice, practice, practice. To improve her ability to self-advocate, have her practice using her voice by ordering for the entire family when you’re next out to eat. To build her competitive spirit, encourage her to try out for a team sport even if she doesn’t consider herself athletic. To foster her adaptability, steer her toward activities with different children from her school friends. These everyday ways, no matter how simplistic or silly they seem, help your daughter practice the basic skills that she will need as an adult woman in the real world.
This leads to a final critical step: Remember that little things make a big difference. The most important thing we can do is find small ways – including by sharing personal stories during daily conversations or finding casual moments to consciously draw out your daughter’s natural strengths – to reinforce with our girls the ways of being that are most essential to nurturing their boldness, confidence, and resilience throughout life.
Kruse: You were one of the few female aviators in the Navy, you traveled through the Middle East interviewing former terrorists, you worked in the White House. I have to assume you’ve personally faced a lot of sexism. Did you rely on your personal experiences for this book?
Dr. Porges: Every woman I know has faced sexism in her career, even if we sometimes didn’t notice it at the time. For me, it was both subtle and not-so-subtle moments when I saw my gender hold me back from what came easily to my male peers – whether because I didn’t know to negotiate my salary, was unprepared to self-advocate effectively, or had to find courage in the face of direct sexual harassment.
As the stories in my book show, I certainly didn’t handle these episodes well at every step. But over time and with the help of mentors and friends, I learned what skills were most critical to make me resilient and bold in the face of these everyday challenges. My hope is that What Girls Need makes that path easier for today’s girls.