When you meet Rachel Simmons, you might come up with these words to describe her: hip, smart, and a little sassy. Simmons is founder of Girls Leadership Institute (GLI) and author of Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls. A newly revised edition of the book, which first came out in 2000, was recently released.
I spoke to her shortly after she’d had a busy summer leading a six-week residential program through GLI for students going into sixth grade through high school. Simmons also leads GLI workshops for girls of different ages—some with their parents. With the reissue of Odd Girl Out, she’s also speaking a great deal about the book—and how parents can navigate safe limits around their daughters’ use of social media. We discussed how leadership includes developing a sense of self—and a strong voice.
What does leadership mean to you?
Rachel Simmons: I don’t think about whether you’re captain of the soccer team or president of your student council when I think of leadership so much as I think about what happens when you experience conflict with your friends. Can you speak up? Or what happens when you make a mistake; can you feel sad about it and then keep going? Or do you shut down? Leadership is about recognizing how you feel—and doing something constructive with that feeling.
What do you think happens to girls in this culture?
Rachel Simmons: In this culture, there’s a great deal of ambivalence about girls having power. Girls learn very quickly that they have to worry a lot about what other people think about them, and about how they look.
That’s why it’s so important to recognize and acknowledge your strengths. It’s critical to speak up for yourself. By doing so, you push against pretty crushing expectations. If you can’t assert your self-worth, it’s very hard to advocate for yourself—in classes, and later in the job market. Young women often have a very hard time declaring their right to equal pay.
Women were girls once. You have to start early in order to help girls be strong. You can help them build their self-promotion and advocacy muscles. It starts with trusting your passions, and dealing with simple things like making a mistake and moving on or disagreeing with a friend and saying how you feel and hearing how your friend feels. The idea with these conflict resolution tools is that if you can use them with your family and your friends, then you can bring them into the world.
So how early can you begin to work on these issues?
Rachel Simmons: During the early elementary years and all through elementary school are great times to work with girls. Those middle and high school years compete with their worrying most about how others perceive them. This work can be a harder sell. Then, in college, there’s a reemergence of receptivity to these ideas, and a real desire to learn.
Through your book, many parents come to you seeking advice about how to make sure social media is safe for their children.
Rachel Simmons: I tell parents cyberspace isn’t different, really, from other places. Ask where your child is going. Set limits, just as you do in the physical world. Parenting is about being connected and setting limits and holding those limits. The principles don’t change because there’s a screen involved.
Readers: Is a girl or young woman standing up for herself rare enough that you notice when it happens?