What Girls Need: How to Raise Bold, Courageous, and Resilient Women

What Girls Need: How to Raise Bold, Courageous, and Resilient Women

by Marisa Porges PhD


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"A powerful book about how we can raise girls to become bold, ambitious women." —Adam Grant

What do girls really need to succeed?

Children today face an uncertain future, and parents and teachers can’t fully predict what’s in store for their daughter and sons. But one thing is clear: Our kids need a new set of skills to succeed. Girls, in particular, must nurture essential traits to fully flourish. Students hit the ground running today, entering a school system that carries high expectations on their way to a college application process that is more demanding than ever. After school, young women enter a competitive job market, still complicated by sexism and the possibility of harassment. But the ways we define leadership are also changing, and the women stepping into those roles are mapping new paths to inhabiting traits like grit, resilience, audacity, and self-confidence. What Girls Need shows how parents and educators can foster these critical twenty-first-century skills in our girls and help them to recognize and nurture their inherent strengths—to not just thrive but also find joy and purpose as they come of age in our ever-evolving world.

As a student at the all-girls Baldwin School outside of Philadelphia, Marisa Porges grew up in a community designed to produce strong, independent women. After graduating from Harvard, she fulfilled her childhood dream of flying jets off aircraft carriers for the U.S. Navy and served as a counterterrorism expert in Afghanistan and a cybersecurity advisor in the Obama White House. Then in 2016, in an unexpected move for someone whose ambitions had taken her so far from home, Porges returned to head the Baldwin School. In doing so, she saw how small moments in her early education gave her the tools she needed to excel in a “man’s world.” Combining compelling research, personal stories, and practical advice on timely questions, Porges delves into hot-button subjects like how to harness girls’ voices and boost girls’ self-esteem, and shows how little things have a big impact when nurturing vital skills like competitiveness, collaboration, empathy, and adaptability. What Girls Need empowers us to support the next generation of women so they can confidently hold their own no matter what the future has in store.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781984879141
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/04/2020
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 116,145
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Marisa Porges, PhD, is the eighth Head of School for The Baldwin School, a 130-year-old allgirls school outside of Philadelphia renowned for academic excellence and for preparing girls to be leaders and change-makers. Dr. Porges served in the Obama White House; was a visiting fellow at Harvard Kennedy School and the Council on Foreign Relations, where her research focused on worldwide counterterrorism efforts; and served in the U.S. Navy as one of eight female aviators in an air wing of two hundred. She lives in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, with her family.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: Help her find her voice

Natalya’s note starts with the formal opening and directness of someone years her senior. 

“Good Evening, Dr. Barnes. I am not sure if you remember me, but my name is Natalya and I am a junior in high school.” The email continues, briefly mentioning her connection to the college that Dr. Barnes oversees before quickly turning to her reason for writing. 

“I would like to report an incident that happened on your campus last night around 8:15pm.” 
Natalya then describes being sexually harassed one summer evening, while walking with her friend, Mia, through a neighborhood college campus. In her letter to the college President, she succinctly depicts the art room entrance where two men were loitering. She details what the men were wearing, describing the employees’ uniforms down to the official school emblem on their collared shirts. And how the men first greeted her and Mia in a friendly tone, as they all exchanged pleasant “hellos” in passing. Then she describes the sexual harassment that quickly followed.

“As we walked away, they began cat-calling us by saying ‘Damn, you girls are pretty. Come back here,' and whistling. They made repulsive comments,” she continues, alluding to the shouts that soon trailed them through campus. Observations about Mia’s body, lewd comments about the casual summer dress Natalya was wearing, and predatory descriptions about what the men wanted to do to them both behind closed doors.

“We feared for our safety,” Natalya says, noting how the two friends sprinted to the protection of her mom’s idling car, hoping they could outrun the shouts that followed them through campus. 

Natalya is sixteen years old. Mia is learning to drive but still needs to practice parallel parking. They both love singing and are tied to their cell phones. Their parents think they spend too much time on social media, though Mia speaks with pride of her summer job as a lifeguard and Natalya is excited to have been chosen as head of the school’s Hispanic students’ association. Now these two confident and curious girls were running for the family car, shaking with fear and adrenaline.  

Despite how much they just wanted to relish the feeling of being safely in the car, with Natalya’s mom there to support and protect them, Natalya and Mia instead drafted a note to the long-standing college President, a middle-aged man whom they knew from a distance and saw at community events, within the hour. They asked that the two men be held accountable for their actions. They wanted to know “what your school’s policy is on sexual harassment by an employee.” The teenagers also wondered “if you have any training in place. . . on sexual harassment,” noting without a hint of irony that “if you do, I think they need a refresher.”
Mia and Natalya still had curfews and couldn’t technically see an R movie by themselves. Their parents were still hesitant to let them date. But they already knew how to self-advocate effectively.

When I first heard this story, in an incident report confidentially shared by administrators at the college where my students had been harassed, I was shocked, appalled, and concerned for the girls’ well-being. A few minutes later, after I skimmed Natalya’s note, which had been forwarded along with a sincere and apologetic cover letter, I was incredibly proud of how these teens responded.
Would I have crafted such a clearly written, maturely argued note of formal protest at their age, especially in the wake of this sort of traumatic and confusing encounter? Doubtful. Would most young women? Not according to the research, which suggests that only twenty percent of female college students take steps to file a report after being sexually assaulted. Would most adult women? That’s unlikely, too. Three out of four people who experience harassment at work never even mention it to a supervisor or manager, and making an official complaint is by far the least common response.
This reality becomes even more troubling when we consider how the inclination for girls to speak out or remain silent – and for women to self-advocate or not – impacts daily life, personally and professionally. It’s not just about sexual harassment or sexual as t, even while those are clear areas of concern. It’s also about how women are taught to comfortably voice their opinions, ideas, and needs at work, at home, or at a bar. And how we can more effectively teach this critical but often overlooked skill, from an early age.  

Having spotted the placard with my name on it at one end of the long, wooden conference table, I settled into a stiff upholstered chair and looked around the Roosevelt Room. After countless weekends giving tours of the West Wing to family and friends, I knew the details behind each piece of historic memorabilia in this White House meeting room, just next to the Oval Office. 

From my spot at the end of the table, I had a clear view of the famous painting of Teddy Roosevelt hanging above the fireplace, depicting the President aloft a horse in his Rough Rider pose. The glint of Roosevelt’s 1906 Nobel Peace Prize was in one corner, across from a wall of flags representing each military service and every battle fought by U.S. soldiers, sailors, and marines. I also knew that the peephole in the door at the room’s corner was actually a reverse looking glass, through which you could watch people coming and going from the Oval Office. 

My eyes settled on the empty seat a few feet away, five spots to my right at the center of the gleaming rectangular conference table. Where there was no placard. Where no placard was needed. There was no chance anyone would mistakenly sit there, and President Obama knew which seat was his. 

A discreet buzz filled the room while we waited for the President to arrive, as colleagues around the table quietly chatted with whoever was seated to their left or right. The fourteen friends and coworkers joining me that day, all White House Fellows, were an accomplished bunch. And one of the most diverse groups I’d seen in my career. Since we’d been selected with both our professional experience and personal backgrounds in mind, the group included battle-hardened soldiers, financial wizards, emergency room doctors, and more – plus there were almost as many women as men, and a third were minorities. I was proud not only to have made the cut but to know that the pool of those considered was talented, diverse, and committed to making the future better for the next generation. We’d all been eagerly awaiting our informal meeting with the leader of the free world.  
A few minutes after the hour, President Obama walked into the room, followed shortly by an assistant carrying a dainty ceramic tea cup emblazoned with the presidential seal. We stood to greet him, and I was struck by the fact that his genuine smile didn’t mask the fatigue in his eyes. That week, there had been a foiled terrorist attack in Texas for which the Islamic State was taking credit, four earthquakes struck the San Francisco area while a flurry of tornadoes ravaged the Midwest, oil prices hit a low point raising concerns for the economy and China, and news would soon come out that Vice President Biden’s son, Beau, had lost his battle to brain cancer. A typical Thursday for the President of the United States, and the bags under his eyes reflected the fact that there was a lot on his mind.
Over the next hour, the group peppered President Obama with questions as he sat sipping hot tea, subtly sucking on a cough drop to ward off an apparent cold. The conversation ranged from how he makes tough decisions and his approach to building teams, to issues like climate change, weapons of mass destruction, and income inequality. He spoke candidly about why regular dinners with his wife and kids were so personally and professionally important, and shared what worried him for the country’s future. 

I had worked for years to earn a seat at the proverbial table – and had made it to one of the most powerful tables in the world, a few feet from the President of the United States. But as colleagues around the table chimed in regularly, sometimes commenting about my areas of national security expertise, I stayed silent.

In the midst of one of the most exciting opportunities of my career thus far, I never said a word.  

 “If you’re not assertive, you don’t get very far”
No doubt, all women can remember a moment when we didn’t speak up. When we didn’t voice our opinion or share our ideas, especially in a group or at work. Or when we weren’t effectively assertive, in a difficult personal or professional situation. The question, of course, is whether that moment was pivotal to your success. Does it really matter? Did it make a difference? Is the ability to gather your thoughts, voice your opinion, and assert yourself a skill that our girls definitively need to thrive later in live?

The answer, of course, is that owning your voice is a personal superpower that every girl needs to succeed. The ability to turn inward confidence into outward action by using her voice to self-advocate is one of the most crucial life skills your daughter will rely on, as a young adult and for years to come. Not just in moments of crisis like the sexual harassment that Natalya and Mia experienced. But when reckoning with the everyday realities of work and life as a woman.

Nurturing your girl’s ability to effectively speak up for herself is critical to encouraging her independence, both intellectually and emotionally. Feeling confident that she can harness her voice helps her calmly and respectfully navigate the ups and downs of school, manage relationships with friends and teachers, and respond to real-world challenges in the moment. As she gets older, self-advocacy will also be critical in any team she joins, in any job she pursues – particularly in a world where working in groups will increasingly become the norm. Decades of sociology and psychology research underscores that a person’s ability to persuasively speak up and capably assert themselves in a group setting is critical to gaining and maintaining influence, and to encouraging support from others. Indeed, some studies suggest that the amount you verbally participate in group discussions may be the largest factor in how much influence you have. 

Consider role models like Colonel Abigail Linnington, a career army officer who rose through the military’s ranks – beginning her career as a helicopter pilot in the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, and ultimately becoming a trusted advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the most senior officer in the U.S. military forces. When I was struggling to navigate a difficult career transition and turned to her for advice, she shared that the key to her success was her willingness to speak up. 

“Being assertive is as important as anything else. Perhaps more important,” she noted, pausing to mentally reflect on her professional path. “Especially the higher up you go. People need to see you speak up, in order to gain confidence in you. That’s when soldiers follow you. When they believe in your leadership.”

“If you weren’t assertive, you didn’t get very far.”

It’s hard for many women, myself included, to effectively and appropriately assert themselves in mixed gender environments, whether at work or at home. Even today, there are countless real-world examples from every sector imaginable of women and girls who don’t have an influential voice in whatever conversation is unfolding around them. We can all vividly picture the situation described by research that shows female college students are less likely than their male peers to ask or answer a question in class, that women receive less credit than men for their contributions to group projects at work, and that girls are judged as less competent and less hirable than boys because of speech patterns common to both genders. In many cases, including these, when women do try to speak up, they are dismissed. Ignored. Even shushed. 

These sorts of enduring inequities, which women are so used to facing, were one reason why a particular lunchtime workshop during the week-long SXSW (South by Southwest) Conference in 2015 had attracted a few thousand spectators. The moderated discussion was about a hot topic – innovation in the digital era – and featured three of the top names in the tech industry: Megan Smith, Chief Technology Officer of the United States, Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google, and renowned biographer Walter Jacobsen, President and CEO of The Aspen Institute and author of Steve Jobs’ biography among other bestsellers. 

As the three speakers settled into plush leather seats on stage at the Austin Conference Center, Megan Smith naturally stood out. Her emerald green blouse was the sole splash of color on the dais. She was also the only woman on the panel, and one of the few women scheduled as a headline tech speaker at that year’s SXSW. Not unusual, of course, for the industry or conferences like these more generally. Men make up approximately seventy percent of all panel speakers at professional conferences, and the number hovers around eighty percent when the subject under discussion is technology. All-male panels, jokingly called “manels” by some, are still so common that scientists, foreign policy experts, journalists and more have started grassroots movements to address the imbalance even as social media sites make light of the situation. 

During this particular hour long-session, the esteemed panel talked about the impact of innovation on business, government and popular culture, artificial intelligence, immigration, broadband access, and more. They also spent a lot of time fielding questions about diversity and inclusion, how to recruit, support, and fund more women and people of color, and how to accelerate these sorts of human capital innovations in tech and other industries. 

But as the discussion unfolded, what was most noticeable was how much the two men on stage interrupted the lone woman on their panel. Even during questions directed to her specifically, like when Smith was talking about family leave and Schmidt interrupted to chime in. At one point, the Google Chairman even directed Megan on what questions she should, or should not, answer – and offered to respond to a query from the audience on her behalf. She took the likely unconscious but nonetheless obvious sexism in stride, even smiling and joking at one point when she was blatantly cut off, but it was clearly awkward for everyone listening. 

Eventually, the audience grew tired of watching the most senior government official overseeing technology policy for the entire country being shushed by her male colleagues. So when the microphone was passed to an audience member for a question, Judith Williams, Google’s Diversity Program Manager, stepped to the front of the conference center hall to ask a question about unconscious bias. And to point out what was obvious to everyone watching.

“Research tells us that women are interrupted a lot more than men,” Williams began as Isaacson grinned sheepishly and Schmidt squirmed a bit in his chair, “and I wonder if you are aware that you have interrupted Megan many more times than you have interrupted each other.”

The crowd cheered and applauded. Neither of the male panelists responded. They’d suddenly lost their voices.

What does the research show?
To understand how to help girls learn the important skills needed to become effective self-advocates, it’s critical to investigate why it remains so difficult for many women to speak up. And why it’s the case that, when they do, it’s often hard for what women say to be received as well – or have as much influence – as they’d hope. What conscious or unconscious biases create barriers for our girls as they try to raise their voice and what social, cultural, or other expectations impact women’s – and men’s – ability to be heard, particularly in mixed gendered environments?

For decades, social scientists have tried to solve this long-standing cultural puzzle by studying how conversations unfold between women and men, at home and at work, and what factors most influence the apparent gender-based inequities that impact a person’s ability to self-advocate. Since the 1970s, linguists, psychologists, and other social scientists particularly focused on how and when we talk, how women and men perceive one another’s speech, and how gender impacts the influence of our words. The aim, in part, was to figure out why there’s been a long-standing public perception that women speak more than men – even when it’s proven false in numerous contexts, and even when men more often hold the power in mixed-gender conversations. How should we explain the fact that we’re raised to believe that girls are (too) talkative when, in fact, at work and in class, in meetings and formal public or semi-public contexts, women speak less, are often silenced or interrupted, and don’t effectively self-advocate as a result?

Fundamental to this work was a socio-linguistic study conducted in 1975 by two sociology professors from University of California who wanted to understand whether women and men speak differently – and, if so, why. Don Zimmerman and Candace West had long been interested in language and gender, so decided to explore the topic further by recording thirty-one conversations in coffee shops, drug stores, and other public places around a college town where people typically gather for routine “chit chat.” By and large, the speakers were white and in their twenties to early thirties – with two-thirds of the groups being same-sex pairings (i.e., two men or two women speaking) while eleven were female-male pairs. Topics of conversation ranged from the monotonies of everyday life to quarrels between lovers and even people exchanging casual pleasantries during their first meeting. Despite the seeming randomness in both the types of pairs and the conversations that were recorded, one thing held steady: Men interrupted much more than women. On the order of forty-six to two. 
While gender is just one factor that influences people’s conversational styles and impacts how and when they speak up, researchers built on the work of Zimmerman and West to see that gender bias as an outsized impact on how women are heard – and seen – by the office watercooler or around the dinner table. Basically, in any setting a woman may find herself. In the words of Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University who spent decades studying interpersonal communication styles, the “different socialization patterns of boys and girls makes meetings a very different environment for men and women.” She found, in short, that boys are conditioned from a young age to grow comfortable speaking up in groups – and are thus given the natural advantage as adults, in meetings and similar professional settings.

Table of Contents

Author's Note: What Girls Need ix

Introduction Challenges and Opportunities Awaiting Our Girls 1

1 Help Her Find Her Voice 23

2 Turn Her Voice into an Influential Ask 51

3 Cultivate Her Competitive Spirit 85

4 Nurture Her Collaborative Problem-Solving Skills 125

5 Make Empathy Her Natural Advantage 155

6 Her Ability to Adapt Will Be Key 181

Conclusion Why It Matters, Take Two 215

Acknowledgments 223

Recommended Reading 227

Notes 231

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