White House Conference on Girls: Research and Plans/Hypersexualiztion Issues


Girls in STEM

Dr. Jo Boaler, Professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, presented best practices for increasing girls’ participation in math, based on extensive research in the field. Best practices included:

  • Inquiry-Based Classrooms. Studies that compare traditional and inquiry-based teaching of mathematics find that girls achieve at higher levels and participate more in inquiry-based classrooms. For boys, participation and achievement is the same in both conditions.
  • No Timed Testing. Neuroscientists across the country suggest that math should never be associated with speed. However, this is often how it is taught, causing students “math anxiety.” Anxiety blocks the working memory in the brain, which is essential for math. Math anxiety is intensified by limiting stereotypes such as “girls can’t do math.” Timed testing combined with stereotype threat is especially damaging for girls.
  • Growth Mindset. Math is the subject with the most fixed mindset thinking in the US. Fixed mindset is exacerbated by stereotypes and negative feedback. For instance, researchers found that when mothers told their daughters, “I was no good at math,” achievement for these daughters immediately decreased.


Girls in Leadership

Judy Schoenberg, Chief Research Executive for Girl Scouts of the USA, and Dr. Catherine Cushinberry, Director of Research for Girls Inc. presented their research on how to encourage more girls to become leaders. Please find highlights from their presentation below:

  • Defining Leadership. While girls define leadership in terms of authority exercised through command and control, their preferred definition and model of leadership implies personal principles, ethical behavior and the ability to effect social change.
  • Racial Differences. African-Americans (75%) and Hispanics (70%) are more likely than Asian Americans (65%) and Caucasians (56%) to see themselves as leaders
  • Self-Assessment. While 92% of girls believe anyone can acquire the skills of leadership, only 21% believe they currently have most of the key qualities required to be a leader.
  • Barriers. One-third of girls who do not want to be leaders attribute their lack of motivation to fear of being laughed at, making people mad at them, coming across as bossy, or not being liked by people.

Girls and Sexuality

Dr. Deborah Tolman presented her research on the effects of society’s rampant hyper-sexualization of girls. Highlights from the presentation included:

  • Self-Sexualization. Sexualization was defined as when (1) a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics; (2) a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy; (3) a person is sexually objectified — that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making; and/or (4) sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person. When a girl self-sexualizes, she is internalizing these messages about sexuality.
  • Media.  Girls who co-watched media with their mothers were far less likely to self-sexualize than girls who watched media alone or were restricted from watching media.
  • Effect on Skills. Self-sexualization has a significant effect on girls’ motor skills, emotional health and intellectual aptitude. For instance, Dr. Tolman cited a study in which girls were asked to take a math test. One group wore jeans and a sweater, the other a bathing suit. They were seated a desk that faced a mirror. The girls who wore bathing suits scored significantly lower on the test than their counterparts in sweaters. This was not true for boys who underwent the same experiment
  • SPARK. Dr. Tolman co-founded SPARK, an online movement for and by girls that includes a take action page and a research blog about girls and sexuality.

Research Needs

Girl Scouts is launching a girls’ research portal with the goal of connecting practitioners to needed and relevant research. For more information please go to http://bit.ly/1ilsEko


Alliance for Girls’ member Rachel Simmons, founder of the Girls Leadership Institute, moderated a panel with Ana Maria Sanchez, CEO of Girl Scouts USA, Catherine Lhamon, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the US Department of Education, Peggy Orenstein, New York Times bestselling author, and Jeff Wilcox, Vice President of Engineering at Lockheed Martin Corporation. The panel discussed current research needs and best practices including:

  • The need for research on girls of color, particularly Asian, Latina and Native American girls
  • The need for research regarding the gender spectrum and how that affects girls
  • The need to “keep girls young longer” and put forth mitigating messages about girls’ sexuality and definitions of worth.

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