writings and Reflections

What If Girls Could Say What They Were Really Thinking?
Tara Christie Kinsey

“If I were to say what I was feeling and thinking, no-one would want to be with me. My voice would be too loud.” So said Iris, a high school senior, sharing her predicament with author, educator, and scholar Dr. Carol Gilligan. Through Dr. Gilligan’s study, “Strengthening Healthy Resistance and Courage in Girls,” her now landmark ten-year research project on girls’ development in the 1980s, Dr. Gilligan fundamentally reshaped our understanding of how and why so many girls–and indeed, so many women–are faced with the impossible choice of either having a voice or having relationships. This is why we at Hewitt are incredibly honored to partner with Dr. Gilligan on a three-year study to revisit this groundbreaking work on girls and young women and help teachers and parents learn how to disrupt the often unconscious silencing behaviors we all engage in that keep our girls and young women covering their real voice.

Iris’ predicament of choosing to have a voice or have relationships is all too familiar to the many girls and women I speak and work with every day. Indeed, it is not an overstatement to say that staying silent in order to stay in relationship is one of the more unfortunate hallmarks of an adolescent girl’s rite of passage to womanhood in our society. Indeed, there is good reason for this. Dr. Gilligan reminds us that there are powerful incentives for girls and women to stay silent, to be the “good girl” or “good woman.”

For example, we know that from childhood, girls are taught to be nurturing and pleasant, to refrain from speaking up when they disagree, and to please others—often at their own expense. The Girls’ Index, a large-scale national survey designed to develop a deeper understanding of teenage girls throughout the United States, found that 46% of girls reported that they don’t say what they are thinking or disagree with others because they want to be liked. That percentage rises to 62% for girls with a G.P.A. above 4.0, indicating that, using traditional measures of success, the highest achieving girls in the U.S. are the most concerned with the outside approval of others. Pressed to choose between having a voice or having relationships, many girls stay silent, going along to get along with a crowd whose behavior, beliefs, and values may not align with their own. 

Singular in our commitment to closing the research-practice gap for girls, at Hewitt we are asking: What if it didn’t need to be this way? What if girls could say what they were really thinking, without fear of being cut off from their relationships with their parents, peers, and teachers? What if we nurtured a culture committed to uncovering a girl’s real voice, her authentic voice, even when it doesn’t sound like a “good girl” voice?

We are already seeing exciting signs of what happens when teachers learn how to disrupt a girl’s “cover voice.” At Hewitt, our teachers are embracing strategies that increase student engagement through active and collaborative learning in which girls use their authentic voices to move through challenges and deepen knowledge and skills. It is also becoming more common at Hewitt to hear teachers pose the question to students who are experiencing difficult social situations: "Are you willing to sacrifice your voice for the sake of relationships?" Teachers describe this work as empowering–not only for the girls, but also for themselves.

This is the ambitious project we have undertaken at Hewitt in partnership with Dr. Carol Gilligan. In “Strengthening Healthy Resistance and Courage in Girls: Part II,” Dr. Gilligan is working with Hewitt on a three year research study to listen to what girls today really have to say. At Hewitt, we are on a journey to create an environment in which girls learn that they do not need to choose between having a voice and having meaningful, honest relationships with teachers, coaches, family members, and peers. As Dr. Gilligan reminds us, girls don’t lose their voices—we silence them. There is a difference. Our world needs more girls and young women who use their real voices to make lasting positive change in school, in the workforce, and in society. And this is why we are at Hewitt, after all.

Learn more about Hewitt’s partnership with Dr. Carol Gilligan, our Center for Gender and Ethical Leadership in Society, and our differentiated commitment to putting research into practice to improve girls' lives and outcomes.  

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