The Supergirl Dilemma

The Supergirl Dilemma: Girls Grapple with the Mounting Pressure of Expectations, is a research report from Girls Inc., reveals that girls today experience intense pressure, at ever younger ages, to be everything to everyone all of the time. Girls are particularly frustrated with the growing expectations that girls should please everyone, be very thin, and dress “right.” And while stereotypes about girls’ leadership capabilities and math and science abilities have diminished, persistent gender stereotypes and escalating stress levels limit girls’ potential and undermine their quality of life.

“There are so many pressures of being a teenage girl,” writes a 9th grader who participated in the study. “You never feel like you’re thin enough, pretty enough, or just good enough.”

The survey was commissioned by Girls Incorporated and conducted online by Harris Interactive between March 14 and 30, 2006. The survey of 2,065 students (including 1,059 girls and 1,006 boys) in grades 3–12 and 1,005 adults ages 18 and over focused on the ways gender stereotypes and expectations shape the lives of girls and boys. The study generated complex, compelling data that give voice to girls’ opinions, aspirations, and fears.
Key findings and conclusions:
  • Persistent gender expectations are being compounded by a growing emphasis on perfection, resulting in mounting pressure on girls to be supergirls. Three-quarters of girls (74%) in the study agree that girls are under a lot of pressure to please everyone, and 84% of these girls say that they dislike that this is true.
  • Girls say they are under a great deal of stress today. Threequarters (74%) of girls in grades 9–12, over half of girls (56%) in grades 6–8, and just under half of girls (46%) in grades 3–5 say they often feel stressed (describes them “somewhat” or “a lot”).
  • Girls want to seize the opportunities available to them, with 71% of participants reporting that they aspire to go to college full time after graduating from high school. However, stress and concerns such as the cost of college undermine girls’ quality of life, particularly as they get older.
  • Support systems bolster girls’ ability to believe they can achieve their dreams and endure stress, and yet one in ten girls (12%) and one in five high school girls (20%) say they do not know three adults to whom to turn if they have a problem.
  • Girls and boys face different stereotypes and concerns—girls are expected to be the nurturers and caretakers; 84% of girls and 87% of boys believe girls are “supposed to be kind and caring.” Boys, on the other hand, are expected to be protectors; 88% of girls and 94% of boys believe that boys are “supposed to be able to protect themselves and others.”
  • Women are especially frustrated by the limiting expectations facing girls, because these challenges echo their professional and social struggles. Eight in ten women (84%) believe that girls are under a lot of  pressure to please everyone; 91% of these women dislike that this is true.
The study makes it clear that girls are internalizing our culture’s conflicting and unrealistic expectations of girls and women. Particularly troubling is the overemphasis on physical perfection, even at very young ages. Half of girls in grades 3–5 (54%) and three-quarters of girls in grades 6–8 (74%) and grades 9–12 (76%) report that they worry about their appearance. “Even today,” sums up one 9th grade girl, “society values beauty in girls over intelligence and talent.”
The Supergirl Dilemma examines the implications of the findings and offers recommendations for addressing the issues raised by the data. Here, too, girls themselves offer cogent directions. “It is hard to live up to what everyone wants for us,” says a 3rd grade girl. “We need to do things at our own pace and in our own time. And just believe in us; support us as we grow up.” The study was made possible with support from IBM Corporation and additional generous support from Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.
To obtain the full report of The Supergirl Dilemma in PDF format, contact Taiia Smart Young at TSYoung [at]