In partnership with:

This report by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and Plan International is an in-depth and ambitious look at female leadership. It seeks to fill the gap in our understanding of what it means for girls and young women to be leaders and what encourages and discourages their leadership aspirations. The research cuts across economies, cultures, and societies, and includes the voices of close to 10,000 girls and young women in 19 countries. It is part of an ongoing inquiry into girls’ and young women’s aspirations to lead — at home, in the workplace, in their communities, or on the national or international stages. The research also looks at how girls become leaders — what hinders them and what helps them — with a second phase of the research planned to focus on the specific role of media in shaping girls’ aspirations and either restricting or enabling their success.

The research by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and Plan International includes the voices of close to 10,000 girls and young women in 19 countries across the globe. Data was gathered by survey and by in-depth, focus-group discussions in five countries. In the focus-group discussions participants were asked to reflect on what qualities a young female leader might have and to identify inspirational people in their lives. The survey included 10 questions on aspirations to lead, experience of leading, confidence, encouragement, role models, and discrimination, and asked young women about their leadership aspirations in terms of career, country, community, and family.

Key Findings

  • Girls aspire to lead: Three-fourths (76%) of girls and young women aspire to be a leader in their country, community, or career.
  • Girls and young women have a different definition of leadership: one that is collaborative and brings about positive change, rather than authoritarian and controlling.
  • Girls and young women have confidence in their leadership abilities: Only 5% said they felt no confidence at all, with 62% confident or very confident in their ability to lead.
  • Career aspirations increase with education and social standing, and decrease with marriage.
  • Girls look to their family members as role models and supporters: Family support alone will not be enough, but achieving progress and equal representation without it is likely to be impossible.
  • Gender discrimination, blatant sexism and stereotyping are all named as barriers: tied in with gendered expectations around balancing work and family life.
  • Work harder, endure more: A strong majority of girls and young women (60%) believe that women have to work harder than men to be respected, and that, overall, women leaders receive harsher criticism.
    • Almost all (93%) believe female leaders will have experienced unwanted physical contact.
    • Almost all (94%) believe women aren’t treated as well as men in leadership positions.
    • Young women who have leadership experience often reported even higher expectations of gender discrimination than respondents with less or no experience of leading.


Cultivate Leaders, Starting at Home

  • Policymakers and civil society organizations must work with families, local leaders, and communities to challenge sexism and discrimination and create a strong support network for girls’ leadership aspirations. The promotion of women’s leadership must begin in childhood and increase during adolescence.
  • Mothers, fathers, and brothers can all act as champions within the home and their local communities. Fathers and brothers can share responsibility for housework and childcare in order to undermine stereotypes.
  • Community and government leaders must create safe spaces where girls and young women can discuss issues that matter to them.

Encourage New Visions of Leadership

  • Those in authority must challenge the perception of what it means to be a leader. Governments, the private sector, and the media should send out a clear message, by example and through public campaigns, that girls and women belong in the spaces and places of decision-making and power.
  • Government departments, corporations, and civil society organizations must support mentorship schemes and other ways to connect women who hold leadership positions to younger generations to provide a critical intergenerational exchange.
  • Media organizations, in particular, must recognize their role in perpetuating stereotypes around women leaders. Diversity, positive images, and affirmative language will provide girls and young women with the encouragement they need.
  • Key changes to public policy and legislation must be made to ensure that more women can enter into and stay in leadership and decision-making spaces, becoming the role models that girls need.
  • Employers at all levels need to recognize and address gender bias in formal processes.

Challenge Sexism and Discrimination

  • Governments and workplaces must take concrete steps to prevent and respond to the very real and perceived experiences of sexual harassment and violence, which women leaders of all ages are subjected to, by enforcing existing laws and policies and strengthening reporting mechanisms.
  • Public campaigning against all forms of violence against women must be funded and promoted. Men and boys need to become allies and champions in promoting gender equality and women’s leadership, and need to recognize sexist behavior will not be tolerated.

Set Girls Up to Succeed

  • Governments, international organizations, school governing bodies, and other key stakeholders must increase girls’ access to schools and to wider educational opportunities, including safe spaces and mentor programs, giving them the tools, resources, and support to challenge the status quo.
  • Education ministries must remove any gender bias and discrimination within and across education systems, ensuring that learning materials do not reinforce gender stereotyping around leadership roles and styles.
  • Governments and civil society must support and encourage girls’ and young women’s networks and youth-led civic action, recognizing that youth-driven collective action is one of the main avenues for adolescent girls to act on their aspirations to drive social change.