Girls have higher grade-point averages. They are more likely to be members of the National Honor Society. And more women than men graduate from college and then go on and get graduate degrees.
But four out of five girls believe they don’t have what it takes for leadership positions, Jamie Vazquez says, citing a study conducted by the Girl Scout Research Institute. Even though girls are excelling in academics, something is going on under the surface that is keeping them from becoming leaders.
Vazquez, who is president of W&T Offshore, an exploration and production company that is one of the largest acreage holders on the conventional shelf in the Gulf of Mexico, hopes to reverse that female leadership drain as a board member of the Girl Scouts of San Jacinto Council.
Part of the problem, Vazquez suggests, is that young women have a harder time seeing themselves as business executives or top political officials. Young men, however, have an easier time seeing themselves as a CEO.
“We thought we were past that,” Vazquez says. “We thought girls can do anything, but girls themselves don’t have that faith.”
Vazquez cites a Girl Scouts survey of 2,475 girls and 1,514 boys between ages 8 and 17. The sample was weighted to reflect racial and ethnic groups, and has become key data for the 100-year organization as it tries to propel more young women forward.
Well beyond cookies
The effort, which the Girl Scouts have dubbed “To Get Her There,” is a bid to go beyond the image of selling cookies, says Vazquez, who remembers her own days as a Girl Scout nearly four decades ago.
She’d also like to see more girls gravitating toward science, technology, engineering and math. They’re already interested, but many still see gender barriers.
The Girl Scouts study discovered another troubling detail. Nearly four in 10 girls report they’ve been discouraged or put down, usually by their peers, when they’ve tried to lead.
“Although this may be seen as normal behavior during youth, the impact should not be underestimated,” the study urges. The emotional toll depresses the girls’ enthusiasm for achievement and distinction both personally and academically, according to the study.
Girls tend to be self-critical when asked to judge their own abilities, says Mary Vitek, CEO of the Girl Scouts of San Jacinto Council, which encompasses Harris and 25 other counties in Southeast Texas. When the girls and boys in the study were given a list of the typical characteristics that describe good leaders, the girls rated themselves lower.
“When you see that in the girls before they even get to the workforce, they’re opting out before they’re even giving it a try,” Vitek says.
‘No. 1 factor’
My 18-year-old daughter, Charlotte Campbell, has taken on increasingly complicated leadership responsibilities at school and in the community. She credits her decade as a Girl Scout as the “No. 1 factor” that gave her the skills to set goals, plan and delegate so projects get done. She says she very much can see herself as a CEO someday.
Years of planning troop meetings as well as helping younger scouts put together large conferences taught her how to stay focused, work in teams and bring out the best in others. I only wish I had those skills, and vision, as I was heading off to college.
Part of the challenge is to help girls get more leadership opportunities and learn to transfer those skills to other parts of their lives, Vitek says. It’s also important to give young women more access to female role models to help them change their leadership aspirations.
“They need to see their own potential so they can see themselves in those jobs,” she says.
But women also need to believe opportunities are available, and that they’ll be as welcomed in the executive suite.
Keeping the talent
Vitek recalls her own career trajectory in public accounting. When she joined one of the Big Eight firms in 1986 as a newly minted graduate, half of her new colleagues were women.
Women were just as prevalent in the “start class” at other firms, and the industry couldn’t afford to lose all that talent, especially since the big accounting firms invested so much in professional development, she says.
“The partners never gave me a hint that my options were limited,” she recalls. Instead, they focused on retaining the talent they had and moving those employees up the ladder.