The Biggest Challenges Facing Girls and Young Women Today: 4 Women Leaders Respond

With increased safety, educational opportunities and recognition that their voices count, girls and young women have more opportunity than ever to be problem solvers and contribute to building a more safe and sustainable world for everybody. But girls and young women still face many challenges related to gender and often have to reconcile their own dreams with expectations of what they "should be."

As blogger Courtney Martin says, this is a generation of girls and young women "who were told we could do anything and instead heard that we had to be everything."

Threaded through these challenges is the rapidly shifting landscape of new media and technology, including reality television and celebrity culture, which continue to reinforce gender stereotypes. New media technology offers greater opportunity for connection and community and at the same time poses interpersonal challenges for girls and young women.

This was the subject of a recent media call held in anticipation of a forthcoming workshop for young women at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, Say What You Mean, Be Who You Are, led by author Rachel Simmons.

We asked our panel of women's leaders, "What do you think are the biggest challenges facing girls and young women today?" Here are four of the most interesting responses:

Rachel Simmons, author of The Curse of the Good Girl and Odd Girl Out, on social media and girls' development:

We see over and over again that there's a disproportionate effect of social media sites on girls. In fact, a survey recently asked 12- and 13-year-old girls, "Have you had a bad experience online that made you nervous about going to school the next day?" More than one in four 12- and 13-year-old girls said yes. That was the highest rate of any other group that was posed that question.

Another survey found that when girls ages 8 to 12 used online media heavily they had fewer good feelings about their friendships. This is what's coming up through the pipeline in terms of who our young women are going to become given the investment of time that is going into their lives online and the reduction of time spent face-to-face.

Sara Nowlin, program director for Girls' Leadership Worldwide at the Eleanor Roosevelt Center at Val-Kill, on community service as a means of empowerment:

[girls] are out making a difference, then they're spending less time focusing on the media and comparing themselves to what's in the media. The more opportunities girls have to really find their own inner strength and balance it with external strength, they can then go out and be advocates for themselves.

Mary Ellen Iatropoulos, director of education at Children's Media Project, on women working in media and technology:

In most of our programs enrollment reflects the social reality of the field of technology and media -- it's dominated by boys and young men. Girls coming into the programs definitely face a subtle expectation to perform like guys. We see a competitive dynamic among the girls, where they question, "Who's that other girl? Is she the one who's just like the guys? I thought I was the one who's just like the guys." The real issue is: how does having a disproportionate number of guys and girls limit what everybody brings to the table?

Carla Goldstein, director of the Omega Women's Leadership Center, on redefining leadership and power:

Historically, power has been held in a dominant/subordinate paradigm, with girls and women in the subordinate posture, which has meant exclusion from education, wealth and policy making, all of which pivot around the questions of how human beings share and wield power together. Leadership is a primary mediator of power, and girls and young women have been left out of leadership roles. There's a lot of data now that supports the strength of collaborative models of leadership, of unlocking human potential much more effectively when we recognize the strength that we have when we [men and women] share, cooperate, and collaborate.

What do you think are the greatest challenges facing girls and young women today? Leave your reactions in the comments.

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The Omega Women's Leadership Center, which launches this September, holds workshops and programs to help women be leaders and change the way we think about power.

About Omega & the Omega Women's Leadership Center:

For more than 35 years, Omega Institute has provided interdisciplinary opportunities for human development across the lifespan - helping people find an integrated approach to personal growth and social change. The Omega Women's Leadership Center (OWLC), an outgrowth of this work, has been gathering information about the current state of young women and girls nationwide, and the challenges faced by the organizations who serve them. Click here for a recent video from the Women Serving Women Summit.