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Even Moms Don't Believe Their Girls Make Great Leaders

Now, more than ever in history, girls have opportunities to achieve success in all the traditional ways success has been defined—education, status, money, power. And we're seeing that. Self-made women making the richest people in the world's lists. Females make up a majority of college students, both as undergraduates and graduate students. More women than ever are stepping around the shards leftover from some broken glass ceilings.

One place, however, where women still lag significantly in the U.S. is in top leadership roles. In industry and in government.

A study out of Harvard set out to find why and the reasons are quite chilling: Girls—along with their mothers!—by and large view top leadership roles as better served by a male.

According to the research, teen boys and girls appear to have biases against girls, and "many women leaders and teens perceive their peers as biased against female leaders," a summary of the report says. The research also finds that some mothers prefer teen boys over teen girls as leaders in school.

Which—what? How much are parents spending on pink engineering toys and supposedly empowering Disney movie paraphernalia? All that to then fall apart when it comes to something as low-stakes as who's leading the high school student council?

The study was part of the Making Caring Common project out of Harvard's Graduate School of Education. The projects aim is to help parents, educators, and communities raise children who are concerned about others and the common good.

Researchers conducted survey, focus groups and interviews over one year to gather data on students' and adults' gender and leadership biases. For example, subjects were asked whether males or females make better leaders in certain professions like healthcare, business, politics and childcare. Their largest survey included nearly 20,000 students from 59 middle and high schools serving populations from diverse backgrounds. In the surveys, students were randomly presented with student councils headed by leaders with names, as the report puts it, commonly recognized as black males, black females, white males, white females, Latino males and Latina females.

What they found was that nearly one quarter of the females preferred a male political leader over female. Only 8 percent of girls liked a female leader. The other 69 percent reported no preference in preference.

So, great—right? A large number wants the leader with the best qualities, not just toward which whatever gender they're biased. Well, the problem is, 40 percent of the teen boys preferred male political leaders. Only 4 percent of the boys preferred female political leaders. And only 56 percent expressed no preference regarding gender. Boys also preferred male business leaders at a higher rate than girls preferred them: 36 percent vs. 6 percent. Everyone preferred women in traditionally female occupations.

White boys were by far the preferred leadership group for both boys and girls and students were least likely to grant power to white girls. White girls tended not to give power to other white girls. This mirrors other studies showing that a still significant number of women (and men!) prefer males bosses. Oh no! A lack of support among girls is attributed to feelings of competition, low self-esteem and a lack of confidence projected on to other girls.

And moms. Look what too many moms think: "On average, mothers presented with councils led by boys expressed stronger support than mothers presented with councils led by girls," the summary stated. Not enough fathers participated in the study to determine whether they, too, held these biases.

Some glimmers of hope: apparently awareness of the biases decreases reports of bias, both in terms of gender and racial disparities in leadership roles. Which seems like a great place to start. Step 1: All moms should read this report. Step 2: All dads should read this reports. Step 3: All teens should read this report. Step 4: Get out of the way of progress.

Image via Twenty20

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