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Topics In Brief

All Topics In Brief

Girls' Development

This edition of Topic in Brief includes the following:

Introduction to Girls' Development

Girls' development is a specific kind of youth development. Girls' and youth development share the same goals to support and empower each girl or youth to:

  • develop as a whole person,

  • develop a variety of assets or protective factors enabling her to deal with life's challenges, and

  • become involved in planning and implementing programs for herself and other youth.

Girls' and youth development approaches set high expectations for youth, as well provide youth with attention from caring adults. For a deeper understanding of Youth Development, refer to Youth Development in ReCAPP's Theories and Approaches section.

Some common strategies from the girls' development literature which have been shown to be particularly helpful in developing girls are:

  • involving girls in sports,

  • creating girl support groups,

  • mentoring girls,

  • getting girls involved in youth organizations,

  • recruiting girls in leadership roles,

  • providing some single sex learning opportunities,

  • involving girls in self-advocacy activities, and

  • leading sex role stereotype reversing activities.

To learn more about developing girls' development strategies, see the Educator Skill: Designing Asset Building Strategies for Girls .

For a global perspective on girls' development, see International Girls Development in the Theories and Approaches section.



Sex: Sex describes whether we are male or female. Our sex is determined by a combination of chromosomal, hormonal and genital factors. For example, a baby's sex is determined by checking whether he or she has a penis or vagina.

Gender Role: Our gender role describes how we act out our maleness (masculinity) or femaleness (femininity). For example, a traditional gender role for men is to be competitive, athletic and aggressive. A traditional gender role for women is to want to have and take care of children. Gender roles have expanded in recent years, and many men and women are taking on non-traditional gender roles.

Gender Identity: Gender identity is the gender you feel yourself to be. Most children grow up with a gender identity that is the same as their sex. The few who feel their gender is opposite of their sex are called "transgendered."

Sex Role Stereotypes: Sex role stereotyping is the assumption or expectation that a person will or should act a certain way because of their sex — usually consistent with the traditional gender roles. For example, a girl says she wants to work to support the school's football team. The only option she is given is to try out for the cheerleading squad. This girl has been sex role stereotyped. Other options which could have been offered are selling tickets, raising money, working as an assistant coach, or even joining the team.


An Overview of the Issues

The Difference Between Girls and Boys

Both biological and social factors contribute to the differences between girls and boys. Biologically, girls and boys have different reproductive organs (i.e. penis, vagina) and secondary sex characteristics (i.e. hairy chest, breasts). Most girls begin the onset of puberty one to three years before boys do. Additionally, levels of sex hormones contribute to biological and behavioral differences in boys and girls. For example, research has found that males produce 7-10 times more testosterone than females.

Many researchers now believe that testosterone levels help account for the rough-and-tumble, even competitive, behavior in boys. Girls, on the other hand, are inclined from a very young age to socialize in small groups and to play less competitive and more theatrical kinds of games. While there is a wide range for "normal" behavior, high testosterone levels in early fetal development are often associated with more aggressive behavior, and high estrogen levels are associated with more developed language and communication skills.1

Where the line is drawn between biological and social influences on behavior is not clear. Children, as well as adults, receive many subtle and not-so-subtle messages about how they should act. Parents of toddlers have been shown to encourage their boys to take more physical risks and solve problems they encounter while playing (like trying to reach a toy or construct something), while they were more likely to "rescue" their girls by solving their problems for them.

Many young boys receive gender role messages like "big boys don’t cry," and "you can do it," while girls receive messages like "be nice," and "be careful." Gender role messages also come from sources other than the family. Girls and boys get messages from their ethnic/racial culture, their religion, their friends, school, community, and of course, the media.

Why Girls’ Development is Important

Girls, as well as boys, face many challenges growing up in today's world. The challenges faced by girls specifically have lead to some concerning trends. In Beyond Appearances: A New Look at Adolescent Girls (1999), the authors summed up some of the problems that today's girls are having:

"Compared with boys of the same age, adolescent girls are more anxious and stressed, experience diminished academic achievement, suffer from increased depression and lower self-esteem, experience more body dissatisfaction and distress over their looks, suffer from greater numbers of eating disorders, and attempt more suicide."2

This sobering statement does not include the fact that smoking among adolescent girls has increased to match that of boys3 as has their likelihood to use alcohol and illicit drugs.4

These general statements paint a picture of the overall importance of girls' development. They do not, however, reflect the different experiences of girls of various ethnicities and races. For instance, African American girls consistently show higher self-esteem and self confidence than white and Latina girls. Researchers believe that messages from African American families and culture about what girls can and should do contribute to their more positive "senses of self."

Girls' senses of self are complex, fluid and shaped by the various contexts in which they live. Girls develop their senses of self not only through their experience of their gender, but also through their experiences of their race, culture, social class, sexual orientation, and disability status. A girl may feel she has more in common with a boy from her own culture than with girls of different cultures. Therefore, when one is working with girls, it is imperative to consider the contexts in which they live and experience their world.

On the Bright Side

The outlook for girls is not all bad. In school, girls continue to do well in reading and language, and their math achievement has risen to almost match that of boys. The teen birth rate has declined steadily in the last decade, and more teens appear to be using contraception than ever before.5


What Educators Can Do

1. Be a Positive Role Model

If you are a woman, you are a role model for girls. During adolescence, girls — as well as boys — look to adults other than their parents for guidance and modeling. Be confident, learn from your mistakes, don't apologize for your looks or talents, accept your body (or change it in a healthy way), rebound from failure, and share what your challenges have been as a girl and woman. Be strong, bold and smart.

In addition to being a role model for boys, if you are a man, you also have an important influence on girls. Listen to girls and women and take their input seriously. When complimenting girls, focus on their skills and successes. Always use respectful language when talking about girls and women. Encourage girls and boys to expand their ideas of gender roles.

2. Use Inclusive Language

Use language that sends messages to girls that they can do anything they want. For example, instead of using terms like "mailman," "policeman" or "chairman," use inclusive terms like "mail carrier," "police officer," "chair" or "chairperson." Instead of saying "manning the event," say "staffing the event," instead of "snowman" say "snowperson," and instead of "two-man tent" say "two-person tent." The list could go on and on. Challenge your youth to catch you using exclusive language. This will help you fine tune your inclusive speech (vocabulary) while raising their awareness too.

3. Give Girls Equal Time in Mixed Groups

Studies have shown that teachers typically wait nine-tenths of a second for students to answer questions. This short time period favors boys since boys are more likely to jump into classroom conversations first. Try using a three- to five-second wait time. A longer wait time will give girls more of a chance to participate. Also, be aware of how often you call on boys versus girls — give girls equal time. Once girls are talking in the classroom, listen just as intently to what they have to say as you would listen to boys.

4. Involve Girls in Program Planning

Real and meaningful participation is an important value in girls’ development. Involve girls in the design, implementation and evaluation of programs for girls and youth. Being involved will allow their voices to be heard and their needs to be met. The participation experience will assist them in building their capacity to make informed decisions about their own lives. Their involvement will also probably result in more relevant and interesting programs that speak to contexts in which girls live.

5. Get Girls Involved in Athletics

Whether its basketball, yoga, dance or in-line skating, encourage girls to get moving. Research shows that girls involved in athletics have more confidence in their bodies as well as more confidence in the classroom. They are less likely to drop out of school, get pregnant, be depressed, or start smoking. Athletics plays an important role in getting girls to focus on what they can do instead of the sometimes consuming focus on how they look. If few athletic options are available, start a "walk and talk" group before, during or after your educational sessions.

6. Encourage Girls to Express Themselves

In response to society's mixed messages and unrealistic expectations related to girls, many girls feel overwhelmed, confused and silenced. As educators, we can empathize with girls and encourage them to express their frustration and confusion instead of turning these feelings inward on themselves. Expressing themselves can be as simple as telling their frustrations to a friend, family member, mentor, or counselor. They can also express their feelings through keeping a journal, writing poetry, painting, creating collages or chatting on a girls' web site. Start or encourage girls to start support groups or story circles where they can feel comfortable talking about their experiences as girls.


Recommended Resources

Recommended Resource Organizations
  • The American Association of University Women Educational Foundation offers direct support to women for scholarly research, advanced graduate study, and community action projects. Find their web site at

  • Girls Count is a national, nonprofit dedicated to expanding girls' education and career opportunities. Their web site,, provides articles, an on-line store, and their newsletter.

  • Girls Incorporated is a national youth service, research and advocacy organization that inspires all girls to be strong, smart and bold. Learn about their many projects at

  • Girl Power! Is a national public education campaign sponsored by the Department of Health and Human Services to help encourage and empower nine- to 14-year-old girls to make the most of their lives. The campaign provides a series of free materials (like posters, diaries, buttons, and more) and low cost materials (like baseball caps, T-shirts, water bottles, and more) to spread positive messages about girls. Learn about the campaign and order materials at

  • The National Council for Research on Women is a working alliance of centers and individuals actively involved in innovative programming for women and girls, among many other things. Learn about their publications and programs at

  • The Wellesley Centers for Women and The Center for Research on Women conduct and publish research to educate, inform, and expand the ways we think about women in the world. Research programs and publications information is shared on their web site at

Recommended Books for Educators
  • Beyond Appearance: A New Look at Adolescent Girls, edited by Norine G. Johnson, Michael C. Roberts, Judith Worell, American Psychological Association, Washington, DC, 1999.

  • Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School, Barie Thorne, Rutgers University Press, New Jersey, 1999.

  • Girls Count: Educator Inservice on Gender Equity — Leader’s Manual, edited by Judy Gordon, Girls Count, 1995.

  • Girls Seen and Heard: 52 Life Lessons for Our Daughters, Sondra Forsyth, Putnam Publishing Group, 1998.

  • Identity and Inner-City Youth: Beyond Ethnicity and Gender, edited by Shirley Brice Health and Milbrey W. McLaughlin, Teachers College Press, New York, 1993.

  • In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (reissued edition), Carol Gilligan, Harvard University Press, Connecticut, 1993.

  • Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, Mary Bray Pipher, Ballentine Books, 1995.

  • School Girls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap, Peggy Orenstein. Doubleday, New York, 1984.

  • The Girls Report: What We Know and Need to Know About Growing Up Female, Lynn Phillips, The National Council for Research on Women, New York, 1998.

  • The Search for Autonomous Intimacy: Sexual Abuse and Young Women’s Identity Development, M. Sue Crowley, Peter Lang Publishing, New York, 2000.

  • Urban Girls: Resisting Stereotypes, Creating Identities, edited by Bonnie J. Ross Leadbeater and Niobe Way, New York University Press, New York, 1996.

Recommended Books for Girls
  • Choices: A Teen Woman's Journal for self-awareness and Personal Planning, Mindy Bingham, Judy Edmondson, and Sandy Stryker, Advocacy Press, California, 1985.

  • Free Your Mind: The Book for Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Youth and their Allies, Ellen Bass and Kate Kaufman, Harper Collins, 1996.

  • Ophelia Speaks: Adolescent Girls Write About Their Search for Self, Sara Shandler, Harper Perennial Library, 1999.

  • The Girls' Book of Wisdom: Empowering, Inspirational Quotes From Over 400 Fabulous Females, Catherine Dee, Little Brown & Company, 1999.

  • The Girls' Guide to Life: How to Take Charge of the Issues That Affect You, Catherine Dee, Little Brown and Company, 1997.

  • The Girl Pages: A Handbook of the Best Resources for Strong, Confident, Creative Girls, Charlotte Milholland, Hyperion, 1999.

Recommended Magazines for Girls
  • New Moon (New Moon Publishing, Minnesota) is a beautiful bi-monthly magazine for girls and their dreams. For information, call 800-381-4743 or link to

  • Teen Voices (Freedom House Incorporated, Massachusetts) is a magazine for girls with timely information on self-esteem issues, politics, health and religion. Teen Voices believes girls are more than just pretty faces. For information, call 888-882-TEEN or try Back issues available.

Web Sites for Girls
  • A Girls World is an on-line club for sharing experiences, ideas, and opportunities at

  • About-Face combats negative and distorted images about women. It has merchandise, resources and related links at

  • American Girl Magazine has articles and forums for teenage girls to share ideas, information and volunteer experiences at

  • Club Girl Tech contains writings and reviews from girls and a search engine for more girl sites at

  • is a great web site on girls' physical and mental health and natural health. The physician reviewed and medical board certified web site provides practical information and graphics as well as chat rooms.

  • Fat!So? Is an uplifing web site for women who don't apologize for their size at

  • Femina has an excellent annotated and searchable database of web sites of interest to girls at

  • Girls Incorporated web site has a fun and informative section for girls at

  • Girl Power! Campaign Headquarters U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

  • New Moon is a wonderful resource for girls and links to many other girls web sites at

  • Teen Voices On-Line is an online magazine which encourages girls to submit writings and music reviews at



1 What's the Difference Between Boys and Girls? Deborah Blum, Life Magazine, July 1999.
2 Beyond Appearance: A New Look at Adolescent Girls, edited by Norine G. Johnson, Michael C. Roberts and Judity Worell, American Psychological Association, 1999.
3 Commonwealth Fund. 1997. The Commonwealth Fund Survey of the Health of Adolescent Girls, conducted by Lois Harris and Associates.
4 National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. 1996. Substance Abuse and the American Woman. New York, NY.
5 The Girls Report: What We Know and Need to Know About Growing Up Female, written by Lynn Phillips, published by The National Council for Research on Women, 1998.