Why Teen Girls Don't Know What Success Looks Like

May 29th 2015

Laura Donovan

A new study from Oregon State University found that teenage girls hold complicated views about what type of women they should aspire to be.

Looking at 100 females and 76 males between the ages of 14 and 18, the researchers concluded adolescent girls admire and relate to women in appearance-focused jobs -- such as models and actresses -- but believe military pilots and CEOs are better role models. 

Researcher Elizabeth Daniels says this shows young ladies are exposed to conflicting media messages about what it means to be a successful woman.

“Girls know they should look up to female doctors and scientists, but they also know that women in appearance-focused jobs get rewarded by society,” Daniels said in a statement. “It is, therefore, reasonable to think they would prefer women in those jobs.”

Why women in leadership roles are less likeable to teen girls

The girls also ranked women in appearance-focused professions as more likeable and competent than female CEOs and military pilots. The likability factor fits with the notion that high-powered women frequently face backlash for having certain leadership qualities. Much of the time, men are rewarded for demonstrating assertiveness, confidence, and a firm communication style while women are often viewed in a negative light for doing the same exact thing. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is currently an extremely successful businesswoman, however, she endured criticism for her leadership skills growing up, prompting her to launch the "Ban Bossy" campaign last year to prevent people from putting strong-willed little girls down. 

"From a very young age, I liked to organize—the toys in my room, neighborhood play sessions, clubs at school," Sandberg wrote in a Wall Street Journal piece last year. "When I was in junior high and running for class vice president, one of my teachers pulled my best friend aside to warn her not to follow my example: 'Nobody likes a bossy girl,' the teacher warned. 'You should find a new friend who will be a better influence on you.'"

Many famous figures got behind Sandberg's Ban Bossy movement, including musical sensation Beyonce:

Why the media needs to show more (and well-rounded) females in power

Because the research shows young girls think military pilots and female CEOs are solid role models, the study authors believe young girls would really benefit from and appreciate seeing more of these women in advertising and various forms of media.

“We speculate that teens may be receiving some deeply mixed messages about the importance of appearance for femininity that may be at odds with the messages they are learning about competence in occupations,” Daniels said.

Unfortunately, female CEOs and higher ups are often portrayed as uninviting and prickly in film and television. "The Devil Wears Prada" follows the struggle of a young college graduate named Andy (portrayed by Anne Hathaway) as she serves as a low-paid, overworked assistant for "dragon lady" fashion magazine editor Miranda Priestly (portrayed by Meryl Streep). Though powerful and successful, Priestly is mostly known for her unpleasant demeanor and cold personality in the fashion industry. 

Similarly, TV Land's new hit series "Younger" depicts a New York City publishing editor (portrayed by Miriam Shor) as mostly cruel to her assistant Liza (portrayed by Sutton Foster). When it appears that Liza discovered an amazing book in the "slush pile," where many submissions go to collect dust forever and never be read, the editor does some serious digging to find fault with the story and ultimately humiliates Liza in a meeting by saying the book is a work of plagiarism. 

Portrayals of women as executives are few and far between in film and television (and they're often unsympathetic characters), so it's easy to see why girls might be less excited about females in leadership roles.