Who hasn’t heard that girls can have whatever job they want—entrepreneur, chief executive, president of the US?

But girls themselves are often not so confident, according to a recent survey which found that about 60% of teenage girls believe that women rarely can reach a company’s top position and a similar percentage think that it is easier to be a follower than a leader.

Those are perceptions the Girl Scouts of the US, which is celebrating its centennial this year, hopes to change with a broad new initiative, ToGetHerThere. Aimed at girls up to age 17, it is intended to encourage more projects, programmes and services to create conditions that help girls learn what leadership is.

“This is a cause. We want to give girls what they need to become leaders. Right now, the country is wasting so much of the talent that it needs," says Anna Maria Chávez, chief executive officer of Girl Scouts.

The new leadership effort aims at girls at an early age—girls can register at age 5—because studies repeatedly show that once women are in the workforce, in college or even in high school, it is less effective to teach leadership.

Most leadership development efforts are now directed at students of middle-school age and younger, because “girls tend to conceptualize leadership differently. Most don’t like the top-down model, but something that is collaborative," says Rachel Simmons, founder of the independent Girl Leadership Institute, which conducts camps and workshops for girls.

“Leadership doesn’t magically appear on the first day on the job," she says.

Girl Scouts were among 1,200 middle-school boys and girls in Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania and other north-east US states who participated in a spring 2011 study of gender and career choices. Girls from 10 to 15 years old said they perceived less support from their families to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math, collectively known as the STEM fields.

Only 11% thought their parents supported such a career choice, compared with 23% of boys the same age, says one of the authors, Mary Shapiro, a management professor at the Simmons College School of Management in Boston, US.

The preteen and early-teenage girls wanted to attend college and to support themselves but, according to the study, “Girls were far more open than boys in considering lesser-status jobs, and saw themselves as having fewer career options than boys."

The study found “organizations can make a big difference in showing girls that barriers can be overcome," says Shapiro.

“They need to hear women role models talking about how their success was not ‘luck’, but instead due to perseverance and hard, but doable work," says Shapiro.

One strategy pursued by Girl Scouts is trying to lift females out of what some call the pink ghetto, referring to the middle-management or staff jobs inside companies, where women workers tend to be clustered. The term was adapted from pink collar, which has been used for decades in the US to refer to jobs like nursing, teaching and waitressing, which often pay less but offer more flexibility for women with children.

Last spring, a report called “Women Matter 2012" by McKinsey & Co., the global consulting firm, found that relatively few women were in jobs that typically were pathways to top leadership positions at 130 European companies, a condition that is mirrored in the US.

Women need more exposure to science, technology, engineering and math through, for example, science and math camps or robot-making workshops, where girls can become acquainted with less familiar subjects, and learn teamwork and decision making.

©2012/The New York Times

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