From Confident Girls to Successful Women: A Look at Girls’ Education with Dr. Marisa Porges

July 25, 2022
  • Private Banking
Dr. Marisa Porges, head of school at the Baldwin School, discusses how we can teach girls the skills they need to thrive in today’s workplace.

We recently spoke with Dr. Marisa Porges, head of school at the Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, about her recent book, “What Girls Need,” and how we can teach girls the skills they need to thrive in today’s workplace.

What inspired you to write “What Girls Need,” and why does it matter now?

I was inspired to write the book by the girls at the Baldwin School. I teach a leadership seminar for our seniors. I realized the conversations I was having with them were so future-focused. We always think we are preparing them for college or work, but two-thirds of the jobs our children will have aren’t even invented, so we are trying to prepare them for a world we can’t even define for them. There’s that uncertainty aspect, combined with the fact that they’re growing up in an era where gender barriers still exist.

Research shows there are skills that we have and have not taught our girls effectively, and this results in ways of being that our girls aren’t ready to embrace as adults, such as how to negotiate and persuade or how to compete and take risks. That way of thinking can be taught by building muscle memory starting at a young age. We started practicing and working through scenarios in the seminar, and I realized it was a conversation I wanted to share more broadly. It resulted in a passion project!

You say in the book that being persuasive is essential for success. How do we teach self-advocacy to girls?

This is one of the skills that is essential for us to think about for girls. If we are going to find an area of challenge for women and girls, it’s how we speak up, particularly in mixed-gender settings. It starts at a young age. Research has shown that on a playground where you have boys and girls together, boys are three times more likely to speak up and have their voice heard. You take those same girls and put them just with girls, and they will speak up more often; they feel socialized and more comfortable. This is the reality for adult women as well, no matter their industry.

We have to help today’s girls build the muscle memory that it takes to effectively have their voice heard. Make sure your daughter understands that her voice is valuable and help her find age-appropriate ways to speak up and argue her point. This could be at a restaurant, around the dining room table or even in the car ride home from school. In middle school, if there’s a problem in class, have your daughter speak up for what she needs, whether it’s with a teacher, coach or school counselor.

There are little tricks or rules we can implement as parents that help us pause before jumping in to fix everything for our kids. One is the “Rule of Three.” Think of the three issues that come up most often for your daughter and commit to waiting for a third time an issue comes up before jumping in. This builds the space so that your daughter can practice. Talk to her about this approach and help her practice these difficult conversations with you. Another rule is the “Rule of 48,” where you wait 48 hours before jumping in. Most things die down within 48 hours for pre-teen and teenage girls, and that period gives them time to think through how they will deal with something – with your help and support. These are the safe moments in adolescence and the teenage years where we can help them advocate before they get out in the real world.

You also talk about competition. Not all competition is great, but there is healthy competition. How do we model that and teach it to our girls?

Competition is something parents often back away from. Maladaptive competition, the idea that you must win and are willing to do anything to get there, is not what we want for our kids. But when we define competition as the ability and willingness to opt into a moment when you are going to perform your best, be judged against your peers and be comfortable winning or losing, that’s life. That’s everything from going up to the math board at school, to going to college, to going for that first job. You need to compete for anything you want in life.

Unfortunately, girls often get dissuaded from competition. Middle school girls are twice as likely to opt out of competitive sports, for example. Yet interestingly, research dating back to the 19th century shows that girls respond to competition better than boys do. It brings out the best in them.

It’s important that we recognize the importance of competing and find little moments to foster competitiveness in our girls. This can look like something as simple as game night at home. The athletic field is a great place to practice, but it can also be done in a technology or art setting through local contests that allow girls to display their skills. It’s those moments where you can help your daughter be comfortable opting in, doing her best and being fine with winning or losing.

How and when do you start teaching these lessons?

It is never too early to start in age-appropriate ways. We’ve all heard the research – by age 6 girls start opting out of certain activities because they have already heard that they are less smart than the boys in their class. Little things make a big difference, and it’s about finding ways to have the girls in our lives practice some of the key skills that will help them be bold and courageous. Let them place the order for pizza on a Friday night or be the one to ask for directions. And make sure to share personal stories of failure along the way. Even as we get to adulthood, we still stumble! Being our boldest selves requires practice throughout life.

What are the natural advantages girls have, and how do we help cultivate them so that they don’t lose them along the way?

This is my favorite part of the research I did. We spend a lot of time thinking about gaps we need to fill in for young women. But in the modern workplace, social science shows that skills that come naturally to girls are the things that make them better leaders, better at driving profit margins and better from a recruiting standpoint. One example is collaborative problem solving. Another is the idea of empathetic thinking – being able to take the perspective of another person and apply it in your actions. This is something companies are trying to cultivate because it is better for customer retention and has been shown to drive profit margins. Research shows that girls are more empathetic than their male peers as early as 5 to 6 years old. That can be taught as a skill over time, and we need to help our girls leverage this strength as something that will make them better leaders, competitors and teammates as well as more appealing in the marketplace.

With all of these skills, we want to reframe our thinking and nurture them to look at these strengths as superpowers that will help them as they navigate life.

Dr. Porges, thank you so much for the informative conversation.

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