Media Centre - Media release - 6 June 2019

Girls want to lead but fear harassment and discrimination


The vast majority of girls around the world want to become leaders, but 9 out of 10 fear they will suffer discrimination and sexual harassment if they reach the top, new research released by girls’ rights charity Plan International reveals.

Close to 10,000 girls and young women between 15 and 24 years were surveyed in 19 countries as part of the research being released at Women Deliver 2019 – the world’s largest conference on gender equality, currently taking place in Vancouver.

The survey was replicated in Australia with 314 young people aged 15 to 24. The vast majority (81%) of Australian girls and young women believe female leaders were treated unfairly because of their gender. Only 3% said female leaders were ‘never’ treated poorly because of their gender.

Globally, 9 in 10 (94%) of girls surveyed said they believed being a leader involved being treated unfairly.

Worryingly, most Australian girls and women surveyed (87%) believe female leaders experience unwanted physical contact while at work. Just 1 per cent of girls disagreed. Globally, the figures were even more alarming, with 93 per cent agreeing that female leaders experience unwanted contact.

In Australia, almost half (43%) of girls and young women surveyed felt that their gender was a barrier to becoming a leader. This is significantly higher than the 5 per cent of boys and young men surveyed.

Speaking from the Women Deliver conference in Canada, Plan International Australia’s CEO Susanne Legena described the situation as ‘pitiful’.

“Why are we still here in 2019? We ought to be doing better by now. Like girls everywhere, Australian girls are confident and they want to succeed in their careers, but they are wary of all that entails. Why would you want to be a leader if that meant you will be harassed, belittled and face an uphill battle at every turn,” Ms Legena said.

“Unfortunately, all around the world – and this is the case in Australia – girls grow up seeing strong, smart, capable female leaders battle against misogyny and a system that does not afford them respect or equality.

“In Australia, women hold 35% of seats in the Parliament. Countless businesses still have just one or two ‘token’ women on their boards. The women that are represented, from politics to the boardroom, are paid less, talked over and scrutinised for everything from what they wear to whether or not they have children.

“Around the world, girls are too often held back from power. Some are denied the chance to go to high school, others are forced to marry as teenagers, and many are told that only boys are allowed to become CEOs or Prime Ministers.

“But girls are also the ones breaking down these barriers, smashing gender stereotypes in their homes and communities, fuelling the global movement towards gender equality and proving that they can do anything. When we listen to these girls, we change the world.

“So what can we do? This research is wake-up call to all those in power – those in media, in business and in politics – to stand with girls and help create the change they want to see. When we do, we’ll unlock the extraordinary potential of the world’s young women, and everyone will benefit.”

Key findings – Australian young people aged 15-25*: 

  • Three-quarters (71%) of Australian girls surveyed had confidence that they could be leaders (a little, somewhat or very confident). Only one in 10 said they were not at all confident in their ability to lead. This compares well to the global figures, where 76% of girls said they wanted to be a leader.
  • Three-quarters (73%) of female respondents want to be a leader in their career. This desire grew as girls got older. One in three (31%) want to be a leader in their community and 32% want to lead their family. However, twice as many boys/men said they wanted to lead their country than girls/women (16% versus just 9% of girls/women).
  • Almost half (43%) of girls and young women surveyed say their gender could get in the way of them becoming a leader. This is significantly higher than the 5% of boys and young men who believe this is the case. Slightly more women said there were not enough opportunities for them to lead (56% versus 47% of men/boys).
  • One in three females believed starting a family would get in the way of becoming a leader (32%) and half say there are not enough opportunities to lead (56%).
  • The majority (81%) of girls and young women surveyed thought women in leadership were treated unfairly because of their gender, 10% said this was always the case. Overall, 9% of girls/women said women in leadership were never or rarely treated poorly, compared to 26% of boys/men.
  • The vast majority of girls and women surveyed (87%) say female leaders sometimes, often or always experience unwanted contact,  with 7 per cent believing they ‘always’ do. Only 1 per cent of girls said women leaders never experienced unwanted contact.

* anonymous online survey of 314 Australian young people aged 15 to 25-years-old conducted by Plan International Australia and Ipsos in May 2019, replicating parts of the ‘Taking the Lead’ global survey.

Key findings of the Plan International’s ‘Taking the Lead’ global survey of girls:

  • The longer girls stay in education the more confident they are in their abilities
  • Overall girls perceive a lack of respect for, and harsher criticism of, female leaders
  • 59.3% of girls and young women want to be a leader in the workplace
  •  Young women from low income countries are more likely to want to be leaders of their country, community or family than those from higher income countries
  • Only 5% say they have no confidence at all in their ability to lead

The report: Taking the Lead: Girls and Young Women on Changing the Face of Leadership was jointly produced with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.

About Plan International

Plan International is a leading girls’ rights agency. We champion girls’ rights because we know that there is nowhere in the world where girls are treated as equals. We work alongside children, young people, supporters and partners to tackle the root causes of injustices facing girls and the most marginalised children. Plan International works in more than 75 countries to help create a just world that advances children’s rights and equality for girls. Our local office, Plan International Australia funds programs to support children in more than 25 countries, as well as sponsorship programs across the federation.

Media contacts

Claire Knox

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