From Girls to Women: Struggling with the Dilemma of Naughty or Nice

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Girls and women are repeatedly told that they have so many opportunities that did not exist decades ago. Girls can now engage in competitive sports and are encouraged to dream big. They can run their own companies, aspire to be CEO of public held companies and run for public office. Educationally, girls thrive and have the edge over men in college and graduate education programs. Women are told that they can have it all -- they can be successful in their personal lives and in their professional careers. Work life balance has become a popular topic for magazines and talk shows. Women are taught that balance is possible and attainable if they work harder to achieve it. Anyone who has used a balance scale knows that it is virtually impossible to get two sides completely equal. When one side tips up the other tips down-and then one eventually gets frustrated and gives up.

The messages women and girls are receiving are perpetuating "the good girl phenomenon."

This message in our culture has not shifted as the opportunities have risen. As a society, we continue to set up no win situations for both girls and women. In some ways, the numerous opportunities are both a "tease" and a way to appease the females of our world. Overtly, it looks as though there is equal opportunity. But scrape the surface and it seems like the 1950's all over again. Don't get me wrong-girls and women have navigated the labyrinths to move forward and succeed. But recently I was told that if gender reformation continues at this pace it will be another 85 years before we see what women have been waiting for since the first feminist movement. Change is a process and does take time-but 85 years? There has to be a better way!

One of the issues is this good girl phenomenon. Our culture stills holds steadfast to a stereotype of women as "nurturing" "caring" "putting self before other." Philosophically, there is nothing wrong with possessing these characteristics. But somehow, the stereotype rears its ugly head when girls and women veer from this image. When men are sensitive and behave non- traditionally they are put on a pedestal. When girls and women veer off this path, they are called "mean" girls and bitches. A double standard? Maybe.

According to a new study commissioned by Girls Inc., a nonprofit that helps young women reach their full potential, girls are facing increasing pressure, at ever younger ages, to please. "Society still sees girls through a gender lens that requires them to be pretty and passive, while increasingly expecting girls to be smart and successful," says Joyce M. Roche, Girls Inc.'s President and CEO.

The study, conducted online by Harris Interactive, surveyed over 2,000 girls and boys in grades 3-12, plus 1,005 adults. It reported that girls have high goals for themselves - 71% want to go to college, but a good deal say they don't know how to make their dreams a reality. The study also found that gender bias is still alive and well, even at the youngest grades. 84% of girls and 87% of boys, for example, believe that girls are "supposed to be kind and caring."

This is not surprising. I see girls and women struggle as they succeed. They do not tout their accomplishments for fear of being alienated or being called egotistical. Self help books say "toot your own horn" or "nice girls don't get the corner office" and are contradicted by others who say "develop the power of nice" or "the feminine DNA is superior." It is similar to the balance scale I was talking about earlier. Contradiction is causing craziness and setting girls and women up for failure.

As a culture are we taking a deeper look at the traditions and stereotypes we have about gender? Are women engaging men in critical conversations and joining to reform together? We are not creating sustainable change-we are adding multiple, contradictory items to a menu and requiring our female population to eat it all. But as a responsible society dedicated to reforming gender, shouldn't we be guiding girls and women to make smart choices for themselves, teaching them how to read the menu and develop various tastes and then choose, experiment with all types of things and embark on continuous development. We need to move away from placing people in "boxes." Boxes are designed to store objects not people or ideas.