By Laura Sessions Stepp
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 27, 2008
A new nationwide survey of girls and boys found that a majority of children and youths in the United States have little or no interest with achieving leadership roles when they become adults, ranking "being a leader" behind other goals such as "fitting in," "making a lot of money" and "helping animals or the environment."
The study commissioned by the Girl Scouts of the USA and released today determined that three-quarters of African American girls and boys and Hispanic girls surveyed already identify themselves as leaders, a much larger group than white youths, about half of whom think of themselves this way.
The youths defined leaders as people who prize collaboration, stand up for their beliefs and values, and try to improve society. Girls in particular endorsed these approaches, although a majority of boys did, as well. Yet when asked in focus groups about leadership styles among adults, what they described was traditional top-down management.
Judy Schoenberg, research director for the Girl Scouts, said the youths in the survey "see a disconnect between what they aspire to and what is."
The survey comes amid a presidential campaign that has expanded the role models for leadership by providing, for the first time, the distinct possibility that a woman or an African American may become the country's leader. Still, that has not seemed to motivate many young people to aspire to leadership roles.
"The millennial generation has ambivalent, even negative, feelings about formal leadership," said Peter Levine, director of a nonpartisan research center at the University of Maryland that studies young people and civic involvement. "They prefer horizontal leadership in which everyone's a leader."
Youth experts said the survey, which included a random sample of more than 4,000 children ages 8 to 17, provides a rare in-depth look at how the next group of voters -- especially female voters -- views leadership of all kinds.
With 2.6 million members, Girl Scouts of the USA is the nation's largest organization for girls. The group's executives were pleased that four-fifths of both sexes said that women and men are equally qualified to lead. This was not the case in the mid-1980s, said chief executive Kathy Cloninger.
What concerned Cloninger and others was not only that girls did not desire to be future leaders but also that many feared they would not be capable enough to assume leadership roles. Twenty-one percent of girls said they had most of the qualities of a leader, such as being outgoing, hardworking and responsible.
They also said they lack the ability to command people and, if they tried to do so, they would be laughed at by their peers or seen as bossy and make people mad.
"Some girls still struggle with the unwritten rules of what it means to be 'feminine,' the Girl Scouts report concluded. They worry about "exhibiting stereotypically 'female' behaviors, like being nice, quiet, polite, agreeable, and liked by all."
Boys cited far fewer personal reasons for not wanting to be a leader, including a lack of experience and simply being uninterested.
African American and Hispanic girls are considerably less likely than white girls to worry about their capabilities. Adults who work with girls suggested several reasons for that. Young minority females tend to have more responsibilities than whites at home and in their communities, experts said.
Many African American girls play major roles at church and in youth-serving organizations. Eighteen years after Boys Clubs became Boys & Girls Clubs, for example, 45 percent of the members are female, President Roxanne Spillett said. The clubs serve mainly minority youth, and many of the top positions are held by young women. "We had to do a lot of training around creating an environment where girls and boys were treated with equal respect and were held to similar expectations," she said.
Katherine Giscombe, vice president of Catalyst, an organization that researches work opportunities for women, said she and others have noted the same extroversion and organizational skills among adult women of color that the Girl Scouts study found.
Youths in the Girl Scouts study rated parents as very influential in helping them aspire to become and to become leaders -- more so than friends, coaches and celebrities, who captured about 10 percent of the vote. Mothers topped the role-model list with 81 percent of girls and 75 percent of boys.
This may help explain youths' reluctance to endorse traditional styles of leadership, Schoenberg said. Mothers, who were also surveyed in the poll, said that they want their daughters and sons to develop their talents. Leadership skills, if they happened, were a byproduct.