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Teen girls face leadership bias

While teenage girls are just as strong of leaders as teenage boys, not everyone is convinced of this reality. And among the doubters are many teenage girls and their moms.

A new study from researchers at the Harvard School of Education uncovered this discouraging gender bias. The research suggests that bias against girls is going to be tougher to eradicate than previously thought.

The researchers surveyed almost 20,000 students from a diverse range of middle schools and high schools and also conducted focus groups and interviews. Here are some of the key findings of the study, Leaning Out: Teen Girls and Leadership Biases:

Many boys and girls expressed bias against women as leaders in powerful positions. Almost a quarter of teenage girls (23 percent) favored male over female political leaders while only eight percent favored female political leaders. In contrast, 40 percent of boys preferred males over female political leaders and only four percent favored females.

Thirty-six percent of boys preferred male business leaders while six percent preferred women. There was no significant difference between girls' preference for male versus female business leaders.

The researchers included questions designed to tease out unconscious bias by asking questions about who teenagers and parents would tend to favor giving more support to on a student council based on gender, race and ethnicity of its leaders. Students were also asked who would be better leaders in specific professions including health care, business, politics and childcare.

On average, mothers expressed stronger support for students councils led by boys. The sample size was too small to detect any biases among fathers.

Students were least likely to support giving more power to a student council if it was run by white girls and were most likely to support giving power to student government run by white males. The support gap between white boys and girls appeared to be largely explained by white girls' preferences.

"These biases," the report noted, "could be powerful barriers to leadership for a generation of teen girls with historically high levels of education who are key to closing our nation's gender gap in leadership."

Tips for parents

The report provides suggestions for parents to prevent and reduce gender bias including the following:

1. Check your own biases. Think about your own biases and the conclusions you may jump to about what boys and girls should dress like, act like, think about and feel.

2. Talk to your children about how responsibilities get divided up in your family. Discuss what is fair and balanced rather than make assumptions about who does what based on gender.

3. Explain to your children why bias is harmful in ways they can understand and give them strategies for responding to biases and stereotypes.

4. Take time to consider how to intervene when boys are demeaning to girls and step in immediately when you witness this.

5. Talk to girls about their fears about being leaders. Too often girls avoid leadership positions because they don't feel confident or they fear appearing bossy.