When it comes to advice about their futures, girls often hear adults tell them: “Do what makes you happy.” Yet that well-intentioned advice can be undermined by the fact that most middle school girls are surrounded by messages in the media and their communities that dissuade them from leadership positions, especially in science, technology, and math.
A new study by Simmons College finds that Girl Scouts are more self-confident and have broader career aspirations — less limited by gender stereotypes — than girls who are not involved in similar organizations. The report, done in conjunction with the Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts, shows that organizations that serve girls boost their confidence and should be part of a larger effort to improve women’s participation in top roles in society.
“Unfortunately the gendered landscape is alive and well,” says Mary Shapiro, lead author and a professor at the Simmons School of Management. “Being a Girl Scout really makes a difference in how confident you are.”
The study was launched in 2011 in hopes of answering the oft-asked question: Why is there still such a wide gender gap in the United States when it comes to leadership? While women make up more than half of all college graduates, they make up only 14 percent of executive officer positions in the United States, the study notes.
Advocates and academics have long fretted over what they call the “leaky pipeline,” where women fail to reach top roles in all areas of society. While researchers have looked at child development factors and business structures that keep women behind, Shapiro says little research has been done on middle schoolers. To carry out the study, researchers this year questioned nearly 1,200 middle school students, including 414 boys, 475 Girl Scouts, and 299 girls not in the scouts.
Researchers found that girls are less likely to be interested in careers involving science, technology, engineering, and math — known as the STEM fields — and perceive less support from their parents to pursue these types of careers. More than one-third of boys surveyed felt they had more career options than girls.
Shapiro says the report bolsters arguments that gender stereotyping starts early in life.
Among influences that keep girls back, children are likely to watch movies and read books in which more men than women have careers outside the home, and to watch television programs in which women do housework in greater numbers then men, the study says.
“Middle schoolers have already started to absorb a lot of the messages,” Shapiro says. “They are absorbing those messages and adjusting their career aspirations.”
But Girl Scouts were less likely to be affected by these messages. For example, Girl Scouts were less likely to agree with the statement “boys have more career opportunity than girls,’’ according the report. They also were more confident in leading teams and generally being in charge.
Ruth Bramson, chief executive of the Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts, says she’s proud of the results that confirm that their yearslong effort to boost confidence is working. The organization serves 41,000 girls and is the largest girl-serving organization in the region, she says. Since 2009, the group has been focusing on increasing girls’ interest in science, technology, engineering, and math.
Despite inroads, Bramson says it’s frustrating that gender gaps still exist. “We have made some great headway over the last 30 years. There are still battles to be fought,” she says.
Hope for the future is kindled by girls like Anna Mullane, a 12-year-old from Chelmsford who has been in the scouts since kindergarten. Anna says she loves math and science and is especially interested in quantum physics. She wants to be a meteorologist when she grows up.
Anna is fully aware of stereotypes that don’t support women in male-dominated industries.
She provided her own example. Last year, a teacher asked students in her classroom to draw a picture of a scientist. Most drew a man in a lab coat with crazy hair.
“The general stereotype is that men are scientists and mathematicians,” she says. “I was the only person that drew a woman scientist.”Jenifer B. McKim is a Globe reporter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @jbmckim.