An empowering guide to cultivating confident, passionate, and powerful young leaders during the most formative stage of life: the middle school years.
After years of research as a psychologist and consultant for women struggling in the professional world, Stacey Radin made a groundbreaking realization: it all begins in middle school. Women who become successful leaders learn how to do so in the middle grades—the most formative stage in a girl’s development and self-identification. Drawing on her own experience with Unleashed, an after-school program dedicated to empowering girls through puppy rescue, Radin has written Brave Girls—the ultimate guidebook for parents and educators who want to learn how to help their girls become confident, passionate, and powerful leaders.
At a pivotal time in their lives, girls learn to advocate for others, think critically, and, most importantly, gain confidence in their ability to create change. Perfect for “anyone concerned with girls and women’s lives” (New York Times bestselling author Michael Gurian), Brave Girls shows how contributing to one cause can shape a leader for life while reducing the hazards of middle school—bullying, excessive competition, fear of speaking out—and identifying the patterns that truly make a difference. If we take initiative early enough, we can inspire today's girls to become the next generation of strong, enthusiastic, and fulfilled leaders in all areas of society.
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About the Author
Stacey Radin is a psychologist, researcher, and consultant who has dedicated her career to the development of girls and women. She is the founder and president of Corporate Equilibrium, specializing in the psychology of organizational effectiveness, and a member of the United Nation’s Working Group on Girls.
Read an Excerpt
Our society as a whole is lacking in opportunities designed to help preadolescent girls feel confident, secure, and emotionally safe. Middle school isn’t all sleepovers and smiles: It is the purgatory of childhood, wedged between the nurturing elementary years and the maturity attributed to a high school teen. The majority of middle school girls are riding the proverbial emotional roller coaster without a safety net or a seat belt. Defying the values of and severing ties with family, asserting autonomy and independence and defiance, are all normal aspects of this second stage of separation-individuation (the first having taken place during toddlerhood). However, it essentially causes a state of crisis, leaving a young girl feeling alienated, anxious, and powerless. Just mention “middle school,” and each and every woman I have encountered seems visibly shaken, running off a litany of bad memories and social mishaps. It is a time when self-esteem plummets, bullying is pervasive, and the decibel level of a girl’s voice dramatically lowers to the point of being practically inaudible.
Compounding matters, the structures that were once in place to support middle school girls are now nonexistent: Cultural institutions (i.e., family, school, and community) are weakening, empathy at a societal level is declining, pressure to achieve and weighty expectations permeate every aspect of a young girl’s life. The DNA of girls makes them much more sensitive to pressure than boys, and girls succumb to the indirect and direct messages of their environment. They morph behaviors and beliefs based on cues from media, peer, and family influences, much like a chameleon’s color adjusts to varying temperatures and backgrounds. Grown women reflect on this time in their childhood and report feeling frustrated and disappointed in how simply being a girl filled them with a sense of restriction, and that adults—sometimes total strangers—often treated them in a way that reinforced the “nice little girl” gender norm.1
At school, one building houses popular girls and academics, jocks and outcasts, queen bees and wannabes. More likely than not, the groups stick to themselves (at best) or tear each other down (at worst). Rampant use of Facebook, IMing, and texting has made it possible for girls to be bullied from the usual safety of their own bedrooms—all during a time when young women need the comfort and support of sisterhood more than ever.
For all of these reasons and more, adolescence is the ideal time for girls to develop the critical tools needed to be a brave, powerful female. Not only are they at the crux of identity development, challenging the status quo, redefining the norms for themselves and others, but they are flooded with biological, physiological, cognitive, social, and emotional change. Planting the seeds during this formative stage, as they experiment and define who they are and whom they want to be, establishing templates for leadership, civic engagement, communication, self-awareness, and positive interpersonal relationships, will ultimately affect their futures.
In 2010, I founded Unleashed, a middle-school-based social-justice program empowering girls to take a stand against an injustice they are passionate about by offering them the opportunity to become experts in animal rights and welfare. They design educational awareness campaigns, spread their message by speaking to the community, host events that engage others in their mission, lead school assemblies, and tap into social media, gaining hands-on experience as social activists. Integrated into the program is the opportunity for girls to engage in community service with our rescue organization, selecting puppies from lists provided by overcrowded shelters across the country, conducting behavioral assessments on animals being transported to New York, and recruiting temporary and permanent homes for them.
Over twelve weeks, they are provided with critical tools they can use to solve complex social issues throughout their lives. They develop a deep understanding of animal rights and welfare; the nationwide inhumane treatment of dogs and other pets; the synergy that exists between the animal and the human rights movements; and how the issues faced by animals are reflective of society’s larger problems. Girls learn to diagnose a social problem, digging deep beneath the surface to address the root cause of the issues they have identified, to create change, and to engage others in their cause. As a result, they graduate from Unleashed feeling unbelievably powerful, realizing that because of their newly developed tools, they have the ability to positively impact their community and can make a difference in the world. Nola, eleven, who participated in sixth grade, explains, “Unleashed taught me how to speak my mind and express my opinion about certain things. I didn’t always used to do that before. I learned that I had a lot more to say than I thought.”
Unleashed was developed based on the overarching need to revolutionize gender in today’s society. Despite progress stemming from women’s suffrage, the second wave of the feminist movement in the 1970s, legislative amendments, and increased opportunities, American society continues to force women to struggle to find their voices and seek out opportunities. At first glance, it may appear that women and girls no longer have to fight for equal rights—opportunities to gain an education, play sports, earn a living in nontraditional careers, and enjoy freedom of choice all exist. Yet, look slightly beneath the surface and the picture morphs dramatically: there is pay disparity and a scarcity of C-level positions in corporate America; few women inhabit political leadership roles; and both men and women adhere to unspoken gender stereotypes, consciously or not. Our society is still wedded to beliefs reflecting a male-dominated culture.
Serious consequences exist if our culture retains embedded archaic beliefs predicated on unchallenged gender norms. If so, neither women nor men will ever be able to fully achieve freedom of choice and exercise their inalienable human rights. It is 2015, and we are still debating whether women have the right to make decisions about their own bodies, cutting budgets and limiting access to proper health care and benefits, failing to incorporate women’s history into educational curriculums and textbooks, judging other mothers’ child-care decisions, not deterring violent crimes against women, and violating women’s basic human rights around the globe.
Legislation and external changes have advanced the gender revolution only so far. Much of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique still applies in 2015. Throughout my decade-long career in developing powerful women in business, and the past three years of Unleashed, I have witnessed women and girls, regardless of ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or race, become frustrated and disappointed about being judged based on outdated norms, struggling with society’s proverbial shoulds and shouldn’ts. We need to unhinge the stereotypes that predate the US Constitution and create dialogues between men and women, examining what lies at the heart of the issues, if we want to move the needle further along. Recognizing that gender is a social problem for all of humanity, not solely a women’s issue, is a path leading to true change.
Unleashed is my version of a modern feminist movement, connecting generations of women with a common platform to collaborate and redefine the relationship between women and power. Feminism, sadly, remains vastly misunderstood. Without a visible, well-defined mission, women of all ages shun the notion of being a feminist. They see some women shattering the glass ceiling and hold on to a false sense of security that things are getting better, denying the reality of statistics set before them. When I speak publicly about Unleashed, numerous young female audience members approach me and tentatively ask, “Are you a feminist?” When I proudly claim that I am, my response is met with “I am so glad! Finally, a woman who is not afraid to say the word.” The truth is, a movement working toward equality is still needed. Silent oppression prevails and repeatedly rears its ugly head whether women choose to believe it or not.
The Unleashed mission, then, is simply to unleash the power of girls, investing in the next generation of female change-makers.
The truth is, an impressionable twelve-year-old girl and a self-doubting thirty-six-year-old woman are two sides of the same coin; how we empower our younger generation dictates whether that coin will gleam or grow dull. For better or for worse, most leadership programs focus on either girls or women, neglecting to see the continuum between the two. Unleashed was created in an effort to leverage that link. When I launched my consulting firm, Corporate EQ, in 2003, I began helping behemoths such as Pfizer, Bear Stearns, and the NBA achieve their leadership goals. After a decade of working with hundreds of powerful women, I had reached a point where I could predict what female executives in top-level positions would say en route to strengthening their leadership abilities and increasing their power. Common sentiments included “I feel like a fraud—I am just waiting for everyone to figure out that I shouldn’t be VP” or “I’m afraid of being called a bitch for speaking my mind.” Remember, these are women with MBAs and corner offices . . . yet they were struggling mightily with identifying with the notion of being a powerful leader.
An unmistakable connection between gender, power, and the leadership equation was blatant. What I wanted desperately to figure out was the rationale underlying this phenomenon. Why were so many women afraid to speak their minds, defy the status quo, or effectively utilize their power, even when they were being paid to do so? What if I identified a diverse group of influential women across the country who were impacting their respective industries—VIPs such as ABC News anchor Deborah Roberts, Burberry Americas president Eugenia Ulasewicz, and New York magazine COO Kit Taylor—and interviewed them to explore: “What does a powerful woman look like?” “Where did she fail and how did she respond to setbacks?” “What are her challenges and how does she manage them?” “What influences have played a role in her career?” Every woman, no matter how senior her position or how tight her schedule, was dying to have this conversation. Hundreds of interviews were conducted over the next two years, filled with frustration, tears, laughter, and insights, giving candid recounts of how women navigated a system designed and operated by men. Each woman shared a deep yearning for change. Two highly significant findings were that childhood experiences and relationships shape a woman’s perception of her power and how she leverages it; and women are more likely to utilize their power when passionate about a cause and given an opportunity to create impact. When women are emotionally connected and attached to a purpose, they will take necessary risks and refuse to conform to outdated norms when seeking desired outcomes. Passion motivates women to push limits and defy the status quo.
One day, during a morning run, I found myself thinking, “If this is true for women, could these same hypotheses be applicable to girls?” Maybe if passion was tapped into at a younger age and seeds of leadership were planted and cultivated during preadolescence—a critical time of identity development—then girls would evolve into women who could embrace their power as they matured. What if I created a proactive approach, providing young women with critical tools to influence their lives so that by the time they reached their thirties, forties, fifties, and sixties they would be fully aware of who they are and unafraid of disclosing their authentic identities? This is how Unleashed was born. It is a culmination of my years as a clinician working with females across a broad age spectrum; my dissertation examining adolescent feminine identity; consulting with executive women and designing leadership initiatives; and the original research I conducted studying powerful women. It is a model created to change our society’s beliefs about gender and advance progress by focusing on the next generation of powerful women—our girls.
Over three months, Unleashed girls move through a definitive process not unlike therapy, but disguised as a combination of social justice, leadership development, community service, and fun. They learn about the societal issues surrounding animal welfare and rescue; become familiar with ways to reframe these problems to better understand precedents and consequences; align with one another to form a strong community; become adept at articulating strong messages; and take on the responsibility and ownership of project management, similar to how an adult would. The building blocks of strong, ethical leadership are formed as girls execute their plans to take action against injustices. Feeling capable and confident in this, many of these girls experience a sense of power for the first time in their lives. Our society needs more effective leaders who follow their moral compass, using power appropriately; Unleashed is laying the groundwork for the future.
During the program, a heated group discussion might be sparked when girls are asked, “Who are some powerful women you look up to?” Names such as Michelle Obama, Rosa Parks, Amelia Earhart, and Harriet Beecher Stowe fly out of their mouths; when these are listed on a flip-board, the group realizes how much they admire women who speak their minds, are true to themselves, and are not or were not afraid to overcome adversity. Each session slowly pushes them toward developing a true sense of who they are as young women—their identities and values begin to crystallize. They learn how to cultivate the Michelle Obama and the Amelia Earhart who live within them.
In her book Lean In, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg posits that women must take risks and learn to advocate and negotiate, adding that self-generated internal barriers that interfere with a woman’s success (professional and personal) deserve much more attention than they currently receive.2 Unleashed was designed to create a movement not unlike Sandberg’s. In the pages that follow, you will witness the evolution of numerous girls as they complete Unleashed, gaining insight into how to ignite power and purpose in the lives of the young girls in your own life. Through the lens of Unleashed, you will deepen your understanding of the middle school girl, her inner social and emotional life, which is often hidden beneath a multilayered facade. For the past four years, not unlike an anthropologist studying another culture, I have been privy to their thoughts, their unique spoken and unspoken language, how they experience the world, and the misperceptions they encounter along the way. My hope is that by imparting my own discoveries and newfound knowledge to other adults, the myths of the middle school girl will be dispelled; our culture will provide the scaffolding and support needed at this critical age of development; and open and honest dialogues will ensue, influencing our relationships with the next generation of young women. Cracking their code has been life altering for me as a woman, inspiring me to reevaluate my own sense of power and purpose. As you read each chapter, embark on this journey through the eyes of a young girl, envisioning yourself as she does every day. No doubt, your perceptions of yourself and the girls and the women in your life will never again be the same.
In the 2012 computer-animated Pixar film Brave, a young Scottish princess named Merida dares to challenge an age-old custom of being married off by her king and queen parents. For the first time in the animation studio’s seventeen-year history, a female was taking the lead—a strong, confident young girl who had better things to do than maintain the royal status quo. Merida knew her strengths—she was skilled at archery and horseback riding—and she was unafraid to show them. She spoke her mind, even when her opinion was unpopular. At a young age, she grasped the concept of a young woman’s power and refused to let anyone put a cap on her potential. She was, as the title states, brave.
Today’s middle school girls are capable of becoming a generation of Meridas: powerful, determined, comfortable in their own skins, willing to take risks (and, yes, to be wrong sometimes), undeterred by archaic societal norms, and resolved to get women and men standing on equal ground. Brave Girls will provide a lens to look at various aspects of a girl’s experience, her constitution from both physiological and social-emotional perspectives, the challenges she faces, the contexts she functions within, and how she navigates the world to break through barriers, leveraging her strengths and self-insight. This can be used as a foundation from which to dig deeper, reexamine our educational, political, business, and family systems, and begin unhinging stereotypes where we have impact. Parents, teachers and administrators, business and organizational leaders, researchers—we all have the capacity to make a difference in the lives of women and girls.
This book looks at the continuum of female development from girl to woman and vice versa. Not surprisingly, many parallels exist between the various stages of a female’s development. Chapter after chapter will explore various aspects of power and will relate real-girl and real-woman vignettes that highlight the concepts presented. The experiences and insights of the Unleashed girls can be applied to women and girls of all ages, serving as an inspiration to all. Any woman eager to unleash her power will read this book and be inspired to experiment, leverage her strengths, and find her passion. And any adult, female or male, who is concerned about the state of women today, who wants to empower them to become change-makers, will know that it is possible to foster a brave new generation of strong girls who will continue to influence and shape our world for decades to come.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 "Who Am I?": The Girl Problem 11
Chapter 2 Strengths and Resilience 29
Chapter 3 Social-Emotional Intelligence 55
Chapter 4 Power 81
Chapter 5 Leveraging Gender Differences 109
Chapter 6 Fearless Communication 133
Chapter 7 Sisterhood 159
Chapter 8 Change-Makers 199
Chapter 9 Building Her Entourage 223
Suggested Readings 273