Girl Scouts Launch Leadership Campaign for Girls

January 31, 2012 - 3:15 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — High school senior Fiona Lowenstein is not known for a lack of self-confidence — after all, she once approached federal lawmakers for a sixth-grade paper on women and politics.

But running for student body president of Calhoun School in Manhattan last spring was a whole other matter.

"It was very, very nerve-wracking to put myself out there," said the 18-year-old, who won the office. "I had these fears — will I be laughed at? Made fun of?"

According to a study released Tuesday of how girls view the concept of leadership — commissioned by the Girl Scouts of the USA and conducted by GFK Roper — Lowenstein is far from the only girl to want to be both a leader and feel uncomfortable putting herself forward at the same time.

Through the survey of 1,001 girls ages 8 to 17, a portrait emerges of how young women see enduring barriers to their ability to assume leadership opportunities in a country where government and businesses are still dominated by men.

Among the key findings are that 3 in 9 girls think that while women can succeed in business, they rarely become corporate executives; and many believe they are more burdened by family than men as they try to succeed in their careers.

The results of the study were released as the Girl Scouts announced that it was throwing its clout behind a new campaign to cultivate the female leaders of tomorrow, saying too many girls are dropping out as contenders to be the next corporate executives or cutting-edge scientists.

The aim is to create equal representation of women and men in all leadership sectors of society within a generation.

Anna Maria Chavez, the organization's chief executive officer, said girls are ready to lead but often don't have the confidence to step up.

"We see that they have the potential to step into leadership roles," she said. "They just currently don't have the support system in place to take the next step."

The campaign is kicking off with a 12-month awareness campaign — including $76 million in contributed media — that will include a website, www.togetherthere.org, as well as public service announcements on posters and television.

In some of the advertisements, a girl is shown in a boardroom surrounded by middle-aged white men or depicted as a police chief sitting at her desk.

The Girl Scouts also has set a $1 billion fundraising goal for programs to support leadership development for girls.

The new campaign comes as the organization works to reverse a 14 percent decline in membership between 2006 and 2010. Last year saw the first increase since 2003, from 3,182,142 to 3,193,502 in 2011. There are about 25,000 Girl Scouts in New York.

Chavez said the campaign was not a membership drive.

"It's really (about) changing the dialogue around the perception of girls and what they can accomplish," she said.

The paucity of female leadership at the top of corporations — particularly in science, engineering and technology fields — has been well documented. For instance, last year's Study of California Women Business Leaders by the University of California-Davis found that women held 9.7 percent of top executive and board jobs at 400 of the largest publicly held companies in California, home of the tech engine of Silicon Valley.

"Most women at the highest ranks of leadership are faced with a choice of whether or not to put their family or work first. It's almost impossible to do both well," said Rachel Simmons, the co-founder of the Girls Leadership Institute and author of the book "The Curse of the Good Girl."

The government picture was no brighter in 2011. According to The White House Project, a national women's leadership advocacy organization, the U.S. ranked in 72nd place below Rwanda and Cuba in women's political representation.

Lowenstein, who attended Simmons' Girls Leadership Institute and blogs for the organization, is keenly aware of the challenge facing women seeking political office, whether at the student body level or on the national scale.

She said that during the 2008 presidential election, she was disheartened by the way Hillary Rodham Clinton was portrayed, while at the same time inspired that a woman was being taken seriously for the country's highest office.

"Hillary was often pegged as frantic or almost too invested in some sense or too emotional," she said. "I feel like men are very rarely questioned in that way."

Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist and author of "Full Of Ourselves: A Wellness Program to Advance Girl Power, Health and Leadership," said those images can be particularly powerful shapers of how girls view leadership.

"Every child, every girl, watches very carefully how women are really treated," she said.