Be the Change

Why Now? Why Teen Girls?

America in the early 21st century seems in many ways like the best of places and times and places to be coming of age as a young woman.

Most of the basic battles of women’s rights were won by our foremothers: we have the right to own property, to vote, to be educated, to have a powerful career.

But a generation after psychologists Mary Pipher and Carol Gilligan documented teen girls’ struggles to find and retain their distinctive voices in a culture dominated by louder, more confident male voices, coming of age as a young woman in America remains fraught with challenges.

While many of the obvious barriers to women’s equality are gone, the subtle obstacles still remain, with serious cumulative effects on individuals and on our society writ large.

On the surface, young women are being educated to succeed in any field, and most do very well in school—better than the boys!—but still, when girls and young women look out into the adult world, they do not see gender equality in any profession they might aspire to, or on the home front.

Gender Inequality and the Teenage Years

The stubborn persistence of gender inequality in American society can at least in part be attributed to the socialization process that teenagers, both girls and boys, go through during the crucial years before they step out into the world as young adults.

Although we have made some progress in becoming more open to differences in gender expression and sexual orientation, the basic social norms associated with masculinity and femininity have not changed all that much over the past few generations.

Whether it comes to the classroom or the playing field, boys are rewarded for being aggressive and confident, as they always have been, while girls today get a confusing set of mixed messages: they’re encouraged to succeed, yet at the same time mocked and dissed if they are “too smart” or “too aggressive.”

Messages about acceptable sexual expression are equally inconsistent. Young women are bombarded with sexualizing imagery while simultaneously being reminded they ought to “respect themselves” and warned they ought not to “give themselves away.” To make matters worse, attempts by modern “sex-positive” feminists to redefine sex as empowering often end up blurring the boundaries between women’s power and promiscuity, reducing women’s voices to their sexual behavior once again.

Confidence and Risk-taking Are Learned in the Teen Years

In the media, too often girls and women are considered ideal if they are thin, pretty and compliant, while boys and young men are admired for being muscular and aggressive and are given the active, go-getter roles and positions.

This plays out in the education process: researchers have documented that girls and young women routinely under-estimate their own abilities, while boys and young men tend to be overly confident.

In the classroom, girls are reluctant to raise their hand unless they are quite sure they have the right answer, while boys are more willing to take the risk of venturing a response, even if they’re not sure it’s correct.

Over time, this translates into a social landscape where boys are doing most of the talking, and are more accustomed to taking social risks—social realities that undermine women’s success in a career world that plays by rules established long ago, when male-dominated competition was the unchallenged norm.

The Butterfly Leadership Program Cultivates Confidence, Creativity and Community

All of this adds up to the fact that coming of age as an American girl is actually not as easy as it may seem at first glance.

The Butterfly Leadership Program aims to counter this trend by creating safe circles where young women can do the inner work and exploratory communication and community-building necessary to counter the rip tides of contemporary culture and engage in deep and abiding personal transformation—the kind that can strengthen girls to become the creative leaders so needed by our society and our world.