Q&A with Simone Marean, Girls Leadership Institute

In May 2014, I attended a presentation titled Raising Resilient Girls. The speaker was Simone Marean, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Girls Leadership Institute (GLI), and I have not stopped thinking about all her great advice and information since then. She was funny and engaging and I could not wait to talk to her more about GLI.

Where did the idea of GLI come from?

The idea came out of an experience of the co-founder, Rachel Simmons. In 2001, she was teaching girls traditional leadership skills (how to have interviews, shake hands, make eye contact, and the typical stuff.) When she debriefed it with these girls afterwards was very telling and the real genesis of the work at GLI. It wasn’t a lack of external skills girls needed to learn, it was more the internal conversation that was holding girls back. It was their thoughts and fears around what people think of them, specifically their friends. Girls need to practice leadership. This doesn’t mean traditional leadership but leadership as a way of life. There is an invisible curriculum Rachael calls the “Internal Resume,” which includes how do you think, feel, process those thoughts and feelings, and approach your relationships. That was the foundation of leadership that girls need. GLI focuses their leadership curriculum on girls relationships as the primary classroom to build this internal resume.

What are the biggest issues you see elementary and middle school girls grappling with?

While girls have more opportunities they also have more pressures. These pressures are growing in terms of what they look like, clothing, body type, hair, skin. There is an expectation around appearances, friendships, pressure to succeed, achieve and now technology has the potential to amplify those pressures. For example, a middle school girl who’s trying to not only achieve perfection in her real life but also craft a version of herself online that is likable to get lots of Instagram likes. It can be draining to constantly curate two version of yourself.

Have you seen any new issues arise since you started GLI? 

Rachael and I started as a team in 2003 and one thing I see is an increase in anxiety. I don’t know whether it’s because there is actually more anxiety, or more diagnosing of it. There seems to be a lot of worry about social and performance anxiety that is connected to the pressure that girls are feeling. When that pressure gets internalize and girls don’t know how to process it, it manifests itself in one of any number of forms of anxiety. I see girls wrestling with that a lot more then we used to. 

As more parents become aware of the importance of raising "strong girls", what other issue might arise?

The main thing I see parents struggle with is we’re trying to do something for our girls that we don’t necessarily know how to do for ourselves. For example, we’re trying to help girls love their bodies but how many of us love our bodies? We’re trying to help them be emotionally intelligent, respect all of their feelings and communicate them, but we don’t know how to do that. We want them to take risks and not hid their mistakes but most of us are not comfortable with our own mistakes. In our programs, we ask the parents and girls to participate together. It’s not just the majority of girls going through this but the majority of parents too. Most parents want to free their daughters from this perfectionistic trap that limits their daughters and keeps them from being authentic, but we, as parents, are caught up in the same perfect parent trap. Helping a parent realize they can’t provide answers but can be on the journey with daughter is one of the key pieces behind GLI workshops. Typically parents sign up for their daughters, not themselves. Then in the 2nd week in program they realize, “Oh, I need this.” Its not a girl challenge we are tackling, it’s a societal and cultural challenge we need to confront.

How do parents know when to step in and when to let kids solve problems on their own?

Unless your child’s safety is at risk we encourage parents to the use the tools in our program to let their daughters resolve their issues themselves. Role play is the best way to empower girls to handle situations themselves. Let her try to approach this herself first because when she does that she that learns she can do it, she has choices, she is capable. I think when parents step in sometimes we unintentionally send the message that, "you need us, you can’t do this on your own, you need an adult to take care of this for you." A lot of girls tell us parents make it worse when they get involved. In order to keep the parents connected to their kids long term, we teach them that they can be resilient and make mistakes and come back from mistakes. We encourage parents to facilitate their daughters working on their challenges themselves rather than taking over. 

What role do boys and the parents of boys have to play in the development of girl leaders?

Especially in light of what is happening on college campuses right now, the boy piece of conversation is coming to the surface. I think it’s an important piece. The Always ad “Like A Girl” was a great example of taking one phrase and bringing that to light. Many of those parents who think it is cool to give their daughter a fire engine or excavator might still be more uncomfortable if their boy wants to play a doll. We, as a culture are still teaching boys that any of their feminine attributes are weaker, slower and less valued. There is still a lot of cultural complexity around the value of masculinity. In some ways, we’ve come further with girls then we have for boys and we are seeing how this hurts our boys. 

There are issues unique to boys as they grow too. Are there any plans to have a boys version of GLI?

That is a very common question and I am a mom to boys. GLI has always felt that there should be, and we want this, but it’s not the strength we bring to the table. We don’t have years of experience working with boys.  Five years ago, a lot of research came out on boys, and more recently, Roslyn Wiseman’s book “Masterminds & Wingmen.” I thought, the research is here on boys so the organizations will follow just like there was a wave of organizations that started up after all the girl research came out. After five years, I can’t say that any more. I’ve talked to people all over the United States and every where parents are asking for help with their boys. There are some good camps but in terms of skill building, family education and social and emotional health, I don’t know of a lot out there. There is, without a doubt, a real need.

Can you tell me what a workshop or camp is like?

They’re really fun. All of our programs are grounded in play. We begin our work helping families and girls let go of fear (what if I do the wrong thing and what will people think of me.) That fear holds many of us back from taking risks and following our instincts. Before we get into teaching skills we build community and help girls and parents practice letting go of that paralyzing fear that so many of us embody over time. 

WORKSHOP: Once that is established, we begin or workshops by engaging people in stories and sharing some aspect or skill that we want to explore using educational theater. Our curriculum is physical, trying things out and practicing. There is discussion and sharing. After we talk about a new skill we want girls to practice, we reflect on that new skill and tie it into personal leadership. Then everyone has a week to try this new skill with friends and family. With a family member they might try role play, identifying emotions and then we come back and share our experiences. It’s not going to go 100% smoothly. Especially with younger girls who will try a new skill and speak to their friends saying, “I don’t like it when you do this.” Sometimes a friend will say, “I’m sorry” and change their behavior and sometime a friend will say, “Who cares, it’s what I want.” What we teach girls as they take these new risks in the world is that they are always learning and gathering information even if it doesn’t go their way. One of the important things that we are very honest about in all of our programs is that its not always going to work out and not everyone is going to want to be your friend. That’s not a message that girls get often. So often they are taught from an early age the importance of pleasing others. At GLI we talk about how connections matter and speaking up for what you need.

CAMP: The camp is an overnight camp at a dorm on a beautiful Mount Holyoke College campus in Western Massachusetts. Twenty percent of our campers come from California. Campers play games in morning, build new skills in educational theater workshops, then a communal lunch and free time. The afternoon is are activities interwoven with the mission of GLI. So campers might pick a sport for the day or art project but as part of that is trying something new, taking a risk, doing something they haven’t done before. For example, art would involve self expression and how do they put themselves in there. The evening is traditional camp activities such as scavenger hunts and talent shows. Parents say this is so incredible that our girl has this chance to go to this environment where she is loved, be her authentic self, where she is practicing these skills that serve her year round. It’s a very deep personal transformative experiences and when you do that year after year it makes and impact and difference. 

In the workshop the instructor talked about how the workshops for the young kids help to “develop the muscles” that will be needed when difficult conversations or situation come up as they get older. Can you expand on this?

We use the phrase “develop the muscles” a lot. Some of the things that we teach, people usually think of as temperament, you have it or your don’t. We give girls basic skills by teaching them what it means to be assertive. Many girls are so busy pleasing other people and have been taught to value that so much that they equate being assertive with being aggressive.  That whole body of communication is based on skills and the more girls practice them the better they get. But when they avoid conflict and they don’t practice then they might become passive (give the silent treatment, hold a grudge) or become aggressive. We really try to teach them that conflict is how you make change and it is a great opportunity if you can become skilled at navigating conflict, you can make changes in your relationships and that is what we mean by “personal leadership.” 

Is the degree and frequency of aggressive behavior getting worse as the decades progress? 

I haven’t seen any studies that shows that. We’re talking about it more and the word “bully” is used more frequently but I have not seen any evidence that girls getting “meaner.”  With the internet that is a whole new terrain for them that they’ve never had before and many don’t have the skills to navigate that. I know that is the feeling that is out there but I haven’t seen anything to back it up.

How much are parents role models for “mean girl” behavior and what can we do to nix it?

A lot comes from parents unintentionally.  Studies show that parents are the primary influence for girls. I think the number one thing I would do to nix it is to get the label “mean girl” out of our vocabulary. It’s a label that we wouldn’t teach our kids to call somebody.  We have a video series coming out soon on relational aggression and how when girls act mean, it doesn’t mean they are pure evil. They are girls who are struggling to articulate what ever it is they are going through. They don’t have the skills they need and they’re making mistakes. It’s good kids displaying mean behavior and not “mean girls”. So as parents, if we don’t label kids in that way then we give our kids the best chance of navigating through these moments where they make mistakes, learn from those mistakes and not be ostracized or labeled by them. 

I’m curious about the title Girls Leadership Institute. What is a ‘leader’? 

We don’t see leadership as a hierarchical model. We see leadership as a way of life that we want everyone to have access to everyday and the countless choices they make. How do you walk down the hall? Do you raise your hand or not? Do you speak up or stay quiet? Do you include somebody at lunch? All of these are leadership opportunities that we all have. We see a leader as a girl who knows what she thinks and feels, respects those feelings and is able to communicate them so she can make change in her world. Part of what we hope to do is to redefine leadership as something that people connect with and identify as and that it’s not this other thing out there that they cannot do unless they do it a certain way. 

What’s next for GLI?

We are changing our name from GLI to Girls Leadership as part of a greater movement to put our ideas out there so people will have access to it. Rather then being an “institute” where people will come to us, we want to put our skills and concepts out there so everyone has the skills and knowledge to say, “Yes, I’m a leader and I can create change.” We are relaunching a new website soon we are looking at the broader landscape of girls empowerment. We want real social and cultural change. Right now we are working with 10,000 people each year and currently there is 25 million K-12 girls in the United States so we have a lot of opportunity. When we put ourselves together with all the girl service organizations (Girls Scouts, Girls Inc. Girls on the Run, Girls for Change) we only reach twelve percent of the girls in the United States. These programs we run are transformative and incredible but increasing the number of these programs will not help us with the change that is needed for girls not to loose their confidence and find their voice to reach their potential. GLI will continue to do the in personal work that creates deep transformative. We are also initiating a research department and online content that will create broader change by putting out videos, images and information that will reach more people so they can take what works for them  and adapt to their lives, daily culture and family practices.We are working to have a reach that is far greater then the current twelve percent of girls engaged in a girl-serving organization.