How Co-Ed Classrooms Are Holding Back Future Female Leaders

February 2, 2016, 9:00 PM UTC
Courtesy of Deutsch

MPW Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for:What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership? is written by Kim Getty, president of Deutsch LA.

I recently attended a presentation at a school in Los Angeles, and was completely blown away by what I heard. I shouldn’t have been, but I was. This presentation explained the benefits of sending your daughter to an all-girls school, and the lasting effects it could have on her development and success. Inspired by Bernice Sandler, senior scholar at the Women’s Research and Education Institute in Washington, D.C., below are some key observations about co-ed classrooms:

  • Girls are interrupted more than boys.
  • Boys tend to be asked “thinking questions” and girls tend to be asked “factual questions.” Example: Why did the revolution happen versus when did the revolution happen?
  • Boys receive more eye contact in a classroom than girls.
  • From a young age, more boys raise their hands in school than girls. (The theory? Girls worry that they might be wrong, and boys have more confidence.)

And then this. We have only had three women in this country serve as Secretary of State: Madeline Albright, Condoleeza Rice, and Hillary Clinton. Each of them attended a women’s school or college.

See also: The Biggest Mistake Women Make When Networking

As a parent of two young girls, it got me thinking about all the indirect messages that come at us from an early age, that ultimately drive our vision and self-perception. For example, my daughters love Legos. So I did an image search for “Lego,” then did the same for “Lego Friends” (the “girls” version ). A distinct difference is immediately obvious. Lego is full of raw materials; the things you use to build and create police stations, construction scenes, and hospitals — the institutions that drive our communities. But if you look at the Lego Friends world, it paints a very narrow scene for girls, showing a world of girl characters at beach houses, hair salons, and shopping malls.

So where am I going with this? I tend to forget that we still live in a world where sexism happens. I forget this reality because I’m very fortunate — only rarely do I feel the impact of sexism in my career or personal life. I’m fortunate to be surrounded by an incredibly smart and thoughtful crew of thinkers.

But I think the risk here is in forgetting. As people who want to constantly move forward, to elevate and progress in our lives, we need to be conscious of the persistent, indirect cues that impact women — the messages we’ve received every day since we were children. It’s the toy aisle at the store, the experiences in our schools, even the way our parents and neighbors behave. All of these things influence us, and the impact can be lasting. So, what can we do to drive a shift in the right direction?

Start with awareness
Know that the system isn’t perfect and that we’re capable of more than it asks of us. Start the conversation with your friends, your kids, your spouse, and your co-workers. Turn the men in your life into advocates. Instill this in your daughters as well as your sons, and teach them that leadership has no gender.

Believe in your own leadership potential
Many women battle with impostor syndrome, a term coined in the 1970s to describe people who, despite their incredible accomplishments, never feel like they measure up. This is an issue that predominantly impacts women. We don’t believe that we deserve what we’ve earned, and we have to change that misperception for ourselves. If you don’t believe
in yourself, it’s less likely others will.

Celebrate brands that drive change
Companies like Target (TGT), who recently removed gender designations from their toy aisles. Or Mattel, who recently released this commercial, “Imagine the Possibilities.” In it, Barbie
portrays a soccer coach, businesswoman, veterinarian and a professor — women in leadership, no matter what form that leadership takes.

Our children are beginning to see leaders in the media and in their lives that look just like them, and my hope is that they know there’s nothing standing in their way. Let’s tell our kids to get out there and change the world, but let’s not forget that we need to keep pushing to change it for them.

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