A Message from Mrs Cohen

18 August 2017

Following on from the success of her 2013 book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, established the Lean In Foundation, which now runs 32,000 Lean In Circles in 151 countries to encourage women to support each other in taking on new challenges and opportunities, such as negotiating a pay rise or seeking a better work life balance. The foundation also runs public awareness campaigns, funds research, and educates women and men on advancing gender equality.

Unfortunately, a lack of confidence starts well before women enter the workforce. Many girls undermine themselves through their words and actions, saying “I’m not sure if this is right but ...”. Girls also use phrases like “kind of” or “sort of” to weaken their statements, or turn a statement about something they know into a question as if they are not sure of their answer. Lean In says that “verbal crutches” like these can “hinder a girl’s ability to share her ideas clearly and confidently - a habit that often carries over into adulthood”.

When women speak confidently, take risks and own their accomplishments, they set a powerful and positive example for girls to follow. Essential to the Lean In philosophy, therefore, is increasing girls’ confidence in their ability to lead. Lean In - along with the Girls Leadership organisation and its co-founder, Rachel Simmons, researcher and author of two best-selling books on teenage girls - have provided a guide for instilling confidence in girls and encouraging them to be the next generation of leaders:

Coach girls to speak confidently

Research shows that in co-educational environments, boys receive more attention from teachers in class. Boys are more likely to call out answers and less likely to be interrupted. Lean In says that we need to “teach girls to counteract this by raising their hands and speaking confidently when they’re called on”. In particular, women should set an example: Speak with confidence so girls hear what it sounds like. Avoid hedging your opinions with disclaimers or apologies. If you observe a girl falling into these same habits, explain how it undermines the point she’s trying to make. Remind her it’s not just what you say that matters, it’s how you say it, too.

Teach girls to navigate conflict

Instead of learning to speak openly and manage conflict, girls are taught to suppress their feelings and keep the peace. As a result, working women avoid giving each other honest critiques and shy away from direct feedback. But while women avoid hurting each other’s feelings, they also miss out on the input needed to advance their careers more quickly. The solution is for women to “model honest, direct communication”. When girls are faced with a difficult situation, they should talk directly to those involved, rather than talking about them to others. Girls should also avoid “social shortcuts” like texting and social media as a means of avoiding direct communication. Role-playing difficult conversations can also be helpful in working out successful approaches. Above all, says Lean In, “explain that conflict is an inevitable part of relationships - it’s the way we handle it that matters”.

Encourage girls to own their own success

Girls who are confident in their abilities are more likely to take the lead. However, girls often underestimate themselves and deflect praise or minimise their accomplishments. As a result, others often underestimate girls, further eroding their confidence. Research by the American Association of University Women found that between primary school and high school, girls’ self-esteem drops 3.5 times more than boys. The same dynamics carry over into adulthood. Women underestimate their abilities and attribute success to “getting lucky” or “help from others”. As a result, women “get less credit for successes and can be blamed more for failures”. The solution, says Lean In, is for women to own their own accomplishments. Women should say “thank you” when receiving a compliment instead of deflecting it, look for opportunities to acknowledge girls’ strengths and celebrate their achievements, and “push back if they fall into the trap of sidestepping praise”.

Inspire girls to go for it

Women who lack confidence and fear making mistakes are held back, neglecting to put their hand up for high-profile projects or seek promotion. Similarly, under-confident girls shy away from risk, failing to speak up in class unless they are 100% sure of an outcome and avoiding new activities and challenges. Girls need to hear women talking about stepping outside their comfort zone: how good it feels to succeed, as well as how much they learnt when things did not go to plan. Girls should be discouraged from saying they are “not ready” or “can’t do it”. Instead, they should be encouraged to break down their goals into achievable steps.

Celebrate female leadership

Research shows that young girls worry they will receive a negative reaction if they take on a leadership role and that, by middle school, girls are already less interested in leading than boys. Women need to talk about their own experiences of leadership and celebrate female

leaders. If girls are criticised for being assertive or described as “bossy”, adults should step in and explain that girls should be “applauded, not chided” for their leadership skills. Finally, says Lean In, girls should be encouraged to participate in extracurricular activities as studies show that the leadership skills they develop stay with them for life. In fact, an American study found that more than 80% of female executives played sports growing up. Similarly, Dr Terry Fitzsimmons of the University of Queensland found that nearly all male CEOs played competitive contact sports at school and all but two held leadership positions in high school. In contrast, few female CEOs played team sports and less than one-third held a leadership position at school, leading Fitzsimmons to conclude that girls should be “given the freedom to engage in riskier forms of play” and “directed towards competitive team sports or other experiences which allow them to acquire leadership capital”.


Fitzsimmons, T.E. (2011). Navigating CEO appointments: Do Australia’s top male and female CEOs differ in how they made it to the top? PhD Thesis, University of Queensland Business School.

Lean In, Simmons, R., and Girls Leadership. (2017). How to be a role model for girls. Retrieved from the Lean In website: Rachel Simmons, Co-Founder. (2017). Retrieved from the Girls Leadership website

Mrs Kim Cohen

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