Women’s leadership: What’s missing from the conversation?

Throughout my professional career I’ve immersed myself in the literature, research and activities focused on women’s leadership development. From month-long residential courses to conferences, webinars, workshops and motivational books, the world is fraught with intense conversations and “how-to” seminars focused on getting more women in leadership, on corporate boards, in the C-suite, at the table and in other seemingly near-unattainable places.
Fortunately, those who care about representation in the highest levels of business, government, education and other sectors have worked tirelessly to change the conversation, access and experience for female leaders. We’ve begun to see some movement, but there’s still tremendous opportunity for improvement.
On my own journey, I experienced advice and messaging that encouraged me to “own my power,” “speak my mind” and “actualize my vision.” But these are only taglines on an elusive empowerment journey if there is a lack of experience, substance, competence or confidence.
Gaining experience, developing substance and enhancing competence are arguably straight-forward. We learn, study, hustle, try and fail multiple times on our respective paths. Each step hones our abilities, enhances our discernment and improves our end-product. Yet, we can possess each of these — experience, substance and competence — and still find ourselves paralyzed.
A lack of confidence
In my recent research with nearly 11,000 girls across the country*, I learned that girls’ confidence drops markedly between fifth and ninth grades and that it doesn’t return to pre-middle school levels for the remainder of high school — if at all.
I also learned that 46 percent of girls don’t think they’re smart enough for their dream career and one in two don’t say what they’re thinking or disagree with others because they want to be liked. A full one in three say that they’re afraid to be leaders because they don’t want others to think they’re bossy.
My work and research with girls and women began more than 15 years ago and I’ve learned that the experiences girls have during their growing up years truly shape who they become as adults.
Girls who struggle with self-concept often become women who continue to lack confidence. Girls who dislike their bodies grow into women who remain self-conscious about their looks. Girls who question whether their thoughts or opinions are valuable can evolve into women who have difficulty with assertiveness.
The next generation
The well-documented confidence gap for women doesn’t begin at our first board meeting or in a high-stakes job interview, it begins when we are 10 or 11 years old.
I believe that what is missing from the conversation on women’s leadership is what we’re doing to purposefully and adequately prepare girls for the realities of leadership. We cannot simply wake up and decide that today is the day we shall be confident. Rather, confidence develops over time and through education, experience and reinforcement.

Confidence, like leadership, isn’t something we’re born with, but must be attended to, practiced and cultivated. While we focus on our leadership development, we also must work to increase women’s access to key leadership positions while simultaneously attending to the individual and collective development of the next generation of leaders.

*Learn more about “The Girls’ Index: New Insights into the Complex World of Today’s Girls
Lisa Hinkelman, Ph.D., LPC, is the Founder and executive director of Ruling Our eXperiences Inc. (ROX), a nonprofit focused on the health, safety, education and empowerment of girls. ROX delivers a 20-week evidence-based program that seeks to equip girls with the knowledge and skills needed to live healthy, independent, productive and violence-free lives. Lisa is also the author of the 2017 study, “The Girls’ Index: New Insights into the Complex World of Today’s Girls” and the book, “Girls Without Limits: Helping Girls Achieve Healthy Relationships, Academic Success, and Interpersonal Strength.”