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Raise Your Daughters to Be Leaders: 6 Tips

What's it take to raise strong, confident women who will build the Apples, Facebooks, and Amazons of the future? One marketing exec (and mom) weighs in.
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It's an exciting time for women. New Hampshire is the first state in the nation to send an entirely female congressional delegation to Washington. And by the way, the governor is a woman, too. Marissa Mayer, though controversial, is making her mark on the corporate world and showing that women can hang with the big boys.

More and more women are excelling in leadership positions--in government and non-profits, in start-ups and public corporations, in sports and entertainment.

Even so, the number of male leaders still dwarfs female leaders. My husband recently sent me a survey via Twitter (yes, this is how we sometimes communicate) asking "Why Aren't There More Women CEOs?" The results of the survey:

  • Institutional barriers (42%)
  • Family is a bigger priority (26%)
  • Lack of workplace flexibility (15%)
  • Less willing to take risks (10%)
  • Lack of female role models (7%)

My answer is all of the above, plus something else. Something much bigger. To be a leader, whether it's in a company, in politics, in the PTA, or on the soccer field, you need "leadership traits." You need to know how to command a presence, to have good judgment, and to make great decisions fast. You need to show strength and confidence and stand by your convictions. Always. You need to have thick skin, and not be swayed by naysayers or tough competition. Most of all, you need to know how to motivate and inspire people to follow you.

Of course many of these traits are inherent, but most can also be cultivated. For boys, this is a way of life since birth. Boys are taught to tough it out, to wipe away the tears, to be the fastest and strongest kid out there. And though times are certainly changing, girls are often still babied more.

I'm not saying we should treat our girls like boys. I love to coddle my daughters and help them with their pink dresses. But I also strive to encourage leadership traits in them to prepare them to thrive in a world where the ceilings have more and more skylights.

Try these six tips to help foster leadership traits in your daughters:

1. Remind her constantly that she is capable of anything.

When I was two, my grandfather announced that I would be president someday. My dad agreed and started reminding me of it from then on. This was in the 70s when a female president was a ridiculous thought. My parents really did believe that I could do that, and much more. And they told me so regularly. I can't even remember thinking that girls couldn't do anything boys could, because I was never told any differently.

2. Encourage her to play with boys.

As a child I idolized my older brother. I had my girlfriends and dolls to play with but I also loved to play football (yes tackle) with my brother and his friends. By interacting with boys the way they play, I learned many traits that have served me well in the largely male upper echelons of the corporate world. Your daughter may not be into tackle football, but go ahead and set up playdates for her with the boys.

3. Foster her independence.

My daughter has been in Montessori school since 18 months and I am still amazed at the things she learns to do on her own. I wish I could take credit for her decision making and self-directed ways. But even as I celebrate her independence, when I watch her struggle to dress herself or brush her own teeth or cut her own food, sometimes I want to step in and do it for her. Resist the urge! Encouraging independence and confidence now will serve your daughters later when the tasks get much more intense.

4. Encourage her to play sports.

This is an obvious one. Everyone knows how much a child can learn from competing on a team to win... and sometimes losing. But many girls just aren't into sports. If that's your daughter, find an activity that fosters teamwork, collaboration, initiative, and leadership, whether it's Girl Scouts, clubs, or something else. More important, find a way to get your daughter into something--anything--competitive. My 9-year-old book-loving, brainy niece likes dance class OK, but hasn't taken to sports. When the family got a foosball table, she was transformed. Soccer and basketball aren't her thing, but she is damn good on that table. Who knew? She can beat her brother at something physical for once, and the once shy, quiet girl is now beating her chest. She even calls my husband from thousands of miles away taunting him that she is the reigning foosball champion of the household, and the "master of all things glorious."

5. Highlight female role models.

Who are the 7 percent of survey responders who think there are a lack of female role models out there? Come on people, they are everywhere! They are in the New Hampshire government, the stores we visit, and down the street on the volunteer committee.  They are in the books we read, the news we watch, and they are even in history. Ever read about Elizabeth I? So highlight them to your girls. And explicitly make the point that there are badass women out there that they can aspire to emulate.

6. Be a role model yourself.

Of course the best way to teach a trait is by example. If you're a mom, then act like a leader. Be strong, be confident, show good judgment, and inspire your children to follow you instead of demanding it. If you're a dad, then show your respect for women.  Treat your wife and daughters, and neighbors and friends as equals. Let the decisions come from all of you and make it clear that there are no ceilings in your household, just as in life.

Last updated: Apr 30, 2013

STACEY EPSTEIN | VP of Marketing, ServiceMax

Stacey is VP of Marketing at ServiceMax, a leading SaaS start-up. Previously she was VP of Global Marketing Communications at SuccessFactors, where she was instrumental in the company's successful IPO.




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