07/19/2012 08:47 am ET Updated Sep 18, 2012

Are Today's Young Women Afraid To Lead?

A recent Forbes blog written by a 19-year-old college student raised an interesting issue: Women of the millennial generation are afraid to lead. Why? Because instead of hearing the "girl power" message that girls can do anything and be anything, this generation of women got the message that they had to do everything and be everything. And they had to do it perfectly... or not at all.

It's not surprising that so many women are choosing the latter option. Why even try to be a fearless leader if you're afraid of what people will be saying about you behind your back? Instead of empowering this generation of women, we've frightened them into inaction. This does not bode well for our society.

For generations, women like Susan B. Anthony, Margaret Sanger, and Gloria Steinem fought for women to have equal rights and hold positions of power. Yet fewer and fewer women are holding seats in Congress. Women comprise only 2 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, 8 percent of top leadership positions, and 20 percent of college presidencies. If you were hoping the millennial generation was going to change that, think again.

But can you blame them? Look at the media's representation of today's women in power. Take the most recent presidential campaign. It seemed to me that the news media spent more time criticizing Sarah Palin's and Hillary Clinton's wardrobe choices than they did their political viewpoints. Did you hear moment-to-moment coverage of Barack Obama's suit selection? Of course not. But it seems that, for women, that kind of criticism is okay.

So is it any wonder that today's women are so afraid to be in positions of power? Not only do they have to be perfect, they have to look perfect. Men are simply not held to those dual standards. Caroline Heldman and her colleagues have argued that the media's focus on women's appearance may even be hindering women's abilities to obtain positions of power. Specifically addressing Elizabeth Dole's bid for the presidency in 1999, they criticized the media for treating Dole as if "she was a novelty in the race rather than a strong contender with a good chance of winning." Diana B. Carlin and Kelly L. Winfrey from the University of Kansas made a similar argument about the media's treatment of Clinton and Palin in the 2008 campaigns. "The analysis indicates that there was a considerable amount of negative coverage of both candidates and that such coverage has potential to cast doubt on a woman's suitability to be commander-in-chief or in the wings," they wrote.

What are we to do? How can we reassure future generations of women that they can and should hold positions of power, knowing that they will have to fight a media storm of sexism? By setting good examples. By doing things that scare us and letting our daughters watch us succeed. By being positive role models for tomorrow's women (and men). By owning up to our dreams and making them happen.

I encourage you to pick one area of your life that needs improvement -- something you've known needed to change, but that you have been too afraid to do anything about. Maybe you've always wanted to write a book. Or ask for a raise. Or lose 10 pounds. Or learn how to play the cello. It doesn't matter. Dream big and take small steps to make your dreams happen. Start today. Start now. After all, how can you honestly tell your kids that they can do anything or be anything they want to when you yourself have forgotten how to dream?

For more by Mary Pritchard, click here.

For more on becoming fearless, click here.