Raising confident and ambitious girls
Dr. Marisa Porges
Head of the Baldwin School, former Naval Flight Officer and senior advisor in the Obama White House, and author of What Girls Need: How to Raise Bold, Courageous, and Resilient Women

How do we prepare our girls for the future and ensure they have the confidence, skills, and courage to face a difficult world? Dr. Marisa Porges is Head of The Baldwin School, an independent pre-K through 12 all-girls’ school outside of Philadelphia, and she’s the author of a new book, What Girls Need: How to Raise Bold, Courageous, and Resilient Women. Dr. Porges has spent her career practicing what she advocates. She’s served as a senior cybersecurity advisor in the Obama White House, a counterterrorism expert in Afghanistan, and on active duty in the U.S. Navy, flying jets as a Naval Flight Officer. Dr. Porges joins us to talk about the skills girls need to succeed in the 21st century, and how parents and educators can help girls find their inner voice, self-advocate, and be fearless in the face of anything – and anyone – that comes their way.


Listen to this episode to learn:

  • How girls’ innate talents – collaborative problem-solving, communicating across boundaries, empathy, and adaptability – are their biggest competitive advantages
  • What you can do to help girls practice “the art of the ask” and become skilled negotiators
  • Advice for raising sons to be female allies and advocates
  • Why a healthy competitive spirit gives girls an edge
  • Stories from Dr. Porges’s time serving in the Obama White House and flying jets in the U.S. Navy


Click here to read the full episode

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Full Transcript

Raising confident and ambitious girls

Intro: Welcome to the Equal Parts Podcast, brought to you by Care@Work.

Emily Paisner: Being a working parent is hard, and raising our girls to be bold, courageous, and resilient women is one of the most difficult, but most rewarding things we can do. Today's guest is Dr. Marisa Porges, and she's here to talk about how we can do just that. Dr. Porges is Head of the Baldwin School, an independent pre-K to 12 all-girls school just outside of Philadelphia. Her career is impressive. She served at the White House, as White House Fellow and senior advisor for cybersecurity and technology policy at the National Economic Council.

She's also served as a counterterrorism policy advisor in the US Departments of the Treasury and Defense, and on active duty in the US Navy, flying jets as a Naval Flight Officer. Her book, out this August 4th, is called What Girls Need: How to Raise Bold, Courageous, and Resilient Women. It's a must-read for parents of daughters. During our conversation, we talked about all of the ways parents can help their girls find their voice, nurture their innate capacity for empathy, persuasiveness, and collaborative problem-solving, and help them prepare for anything that comes their way now and in the future. Have a listen.

Marisa, welcome to Equal Parts. As a mother of a daughter and a son, I am truly, truly honored to be talking with you today. Thank you so much for joining us.

Dr. Marisa Porges: Thank you, Emily. It's a pleasure to be here.

Emily Paisner: Based on your experiences, you have so many great stories. I just loved reading about them in the book. One story that really stuck out to me was an experience you had where you didn't speak up at a White House meeting with President Obama. I thought it would be great for our listeners to hear that story and what you learned from it because I think so many of us can relate to that feeling. Of course, not the Obama part, but definitely the part where we don't speak up in front of our boss when we feel like we should have.

Dr. Marisa Porges: I feel like that's a moment every woman has had at some point. That feeling of losing your voice in a moment that matters, personally or professionally, it just sticks with you. Again, it's part of what I hope we can help our girls now so that they don't have to experience it in the same way, or as often when they're older. The story, for me, was that moment when I had finally gotten the seat at the table, a seat in a small group meeting with the leader of the free world in a Roosevelt room right across from the Oval Office.

We were talking about a range of policy issues, and foreign policy, and national security, including counter-terrorism, which is my area of expertise. I suddenly found myself not speaking. I suddenly looked around the room and saw that other people were answering questions or making points with the president that I should have been saying because it was really something that I'd been working my whole career on.

When I left, I was thinking about what the narrative in my head had been, and it was, "Oh, I let someone else have the moment that really could have been mine." I was fortunate to later get other opportunities to talk one-on-one with President Obama and have those same conversations, but the feeling of losing my voice in such a pivotal time has stuck with me.

I think, first, we need to be honest with ourselves or with our kids that those moments happen and so that they can think how could they maybe do it differently. Then, part of the lessons that I think we should be talking about as well, how do we help our girls practice? How do we help them get used to raising their voice in a way that feels really natural and easy to them so that when they're next, have a seat at the table, when they have that moment, they don't lose their voice or have that same experience?

Emily Paisner: You write about how girls have an innate talent for collaborative problem-solving, communicating across boundaries, empathizing, and adapting. As the head of an all-girls school, I'm sure that you see this up close and personal every single day. You believe that these skills could be some of girls biggest competitive advantage. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Dr. Marisa Porges: Yes, it is something I see every day, the way that our girls work together, the way they communicate with one another, or the way that they adapt to the new reality, even this past spring with remote learning. I think they lean into natural ways of being and ways that they've been socialized to communicate, and treat one another, and think about the world around them.

More and more, the skills that come naturally out of those ways of being are the things that will set them apart in a workplace, the things that employers want to see, the things that the 21st century really will need more and more. One recent study showed that they studied 52 countries around the world and girls and boys at 15 years old, and they tested problem-solving skills in teams or as individuals. Girls scored, on average, 30% higher at this collaborative problem-solving way of thinking and being.

If we think about those skills in this way and think about how our girls are naturally better at it, those will be the things that set them apart, not just in school, and not just in college, but in the world after that. This idea that empathizing is something that leaders really need to lean into, that is a more effective way to run your business, more effective way to work with your colleagues. I think, again, this comes naturally to young girls, and so we need to help them lean into that and really make that their advantage rather than perhaps thinking about ways they could be different than they naturally are.

Emily Paisner: Absolutely. I think sometimes those skills aren't taken as seriously as some other skills that we are typically measured on. Many professions are still dominated by men. Gender bias still exists and women have to navigate it all the time in their everyday lives. I'm sure most of the women listening to this podcast probably have a million stories of their own that they could share about this. From your time as a US Naval Flight Officer and as a counterterrorism policy advisor, can you share a story from when you experienced this bias firsthand?

Dr. Marisa Porges: The stories that come to mind are the moments when no one even realized the bias was happening. Things like when I was flying for the military, and the sheer fact that the equipment really wasn't adapted to my body, and so everything was a little more difficult, and that's fine, I knew that going in and I worked around it. Those are common setbacks that we all face. I think every woman can imagine feeling slightly cold or chilly in your office. It's interesting to realize that most office temperatures, the algorithm that buildings have been set up with for decades is set to the baseline temperature of the average man.

We all have these ways that we naturally have to work around bias gendered ways of thinking that we don't even think about. For me, I think some of the ones that jump out besides just the everyday things like how equipment fit or expectations that were placed on me, because I was a woman. I think that's also one that we overlook the fact that when there was a party to plan or a cake to bake, or an event to celebrate, I was often the one turned to do the unpaid labor that would come with emotionally supporting my peers. It's funny to think about now and I willingly did it, but I do think it's something that women take on more than men.

I think more and more, the systems are changing, so those moments don't happen as much, but we know they still happen. I think we do need to have open conversations with our girls from a young age about what it feels like to be a woman in these places that they don't feel alone in the moment and that we can change both the systems that they're entering and our girls' ways of being in thinking as well, of course, for our sons and boys too. I think it's important that they're conscious of how these environments play out and how everyone feels in them, so we can all do a little better job along the way.

Emily Paisner: I think that as much as we hope that things have changed, women do tend to take on more of the burden of the, as you mentioned, unpaid labor. Something that's been really troubling me since this pandemic has started is that more women than men have taken on in addition to full-time workloads and full-time parenting, also full-time taking care of the home, and more and more women are dropping out of the workplace because of this and it's just a really upsetting trend that we're starting to see. We've made so much progress with women in the workplace and it's really disheartening to see where we're going with that.

Dr. Marisa Porges: I think that it's an interesting facet of life during a pandemic and given that this is going to play out over many more months in the next year ahead, I do think, particularly in the homefront, being ever more conscious of how we're dividing up roles and responsibilities, particularly with kids at home, both in the childcare and the teaching responsibilities that are now playing out with remote school, having those very honest conversations with your partner about who's doing what, when, and how you're sharing the load is ever more important.

Emily Paisner: You spent some time in the book talking about nurturing negotiating skills and helping girls develop the art of the ask. Why is it so important that we raise our girls to be skilled negotiators and how can we help them to practice this persuasion and negotiation at home?

Dr. Marisa Porges: Thank you for raising this particular point because it is something that becomes an afterthought in a lot of conversations, the idea of negotiating, asking. We think our kids ask so much that we don't have to encourage our girls to ask further, but we have to encourage our girls to use their asking moments to be persuasive and to negotiate in particular, because despite changing norms, despite changing systems, women still negotiate less often and less well, less effectively than men by and large.

Men are statistically proven to when they get their first job offer, over 50% ask for more money, women under 15%, and that will end up over many years putting women at a disadvantage. That's just in the instance of negotiating a salary. I think there's so many moments in everyday life when asking for what you need is really an important part of how we thrive, how we succeed, how we do the best for ourselves and our families. What does that look like for a young girl? How can we get them to practice negotiating?

Of course, it means for a teenager, that first summer job, they should ask whether it's about the timing of the work or the salary just to practice. The answer doesn't have to be yes for them to realize and practice their way of negotiating but think earlier on. For a preteen girl, I'm sure we can think of 100 different things that they ask for, ask about on a regular basis. It's having those moments and thinking of them as practice sessions.

One student I spoke with here at my school, she uses those times, it's asking for a sleepover with her friend and she was so cute. She showed me a PowerPoint she did. She actually put together a picture with a slideshow to show what they wanted to do when they had their sleepover because she was really eager to convince her parents to do a sleepover on a Thursday instead of a weekend. I don't know if the parents said, "Yes," but it didn't matter. It was just this idea that they were being encouraged.

She and her friend were being encouraged to pitch, to actually think like an entrepreneur would, think like a negotiator would, and figure out, "Well, how do I convince my parents for the sleepover?" Then they said they wanted to go to the amusement park and that was the next one they were going to try to negotiate for, to ask for. This isn't an every day, every time, moment, but just when there are those times, even if you've already know what the answer will be, pause and say, "Listen, why don't you spend a half-hour, think about why you want what you want and then come back and try to convince me."

Again, you don't have to change your answer, but it gives you a moment to have your daughter practice the act of persuading and ultimately, negotiating. Over time, this becomes more natural to them and they'll develop their muscle memory for the skill.

Emily Paisner: My kids had been begging for a dog over, God only knows, the past several years. During quarantine, I thought it would be a good homework assignment to give them a research project on all of the variety of dogs and then to present it to us around which dog they would recommend that we get. Took up a ton of time, it was great. I got a lot of work done and they presented their case. All I'm going to say is that we have a dog coming in a few weeks.

Dr. Marisa Porges: Perfect.

Emily Paisner: I'll let you know how-- Yes, those negotiating skills really worked wonders for them. [laughs]

Dr. Marisa Porges: That's a perfect example. then to overlay on it, when the dog arrives or when-- You can stop and give your daughter feedback, part of the reason we have our new puppy is because that moment, when you pitched for the dog, I was really impressed by x, was it a way they talk, was it how she withheld her emotion or used her emotion, was it the presentation itself? It's not the feedback necessarily itself that matters, it's the fact that you're valuing her practicing that skill that will stick with her.

Emily Paisner: One of the quotes that you wrote in your book is, "A healthy competitive spirit is the edge girls need to be audacious women." I just love that quote. How can we nurture our girls' competitiveness in a way that is positive and healthy and really productive as opposed to hurting someone else or themselves?

Dr. Marisa Porges: This is a really critical part of the conversation, particularly, because I think competitiveness has gotten a bad rap lately and it's something that we shy away from. Particularly, we shy away from helping nurture in our girls and yet, having a strong competitive spirit, a healthy competitive spirit, not a maladaptive sense of competition, but one where you are eager to do your best, you're eager to show your best, you're eager to go for it, is so critical.

First and foremost, it's about acknowledging that and encouraging that facet of your daughter's personality, cheering her on when she is being competitive in a healthy way. Again, this isn't about putting down others, it's about making sure she herself is excited about doing her best and putting herself forward and in moments being and judged against her peers is a way of thinking about it, but actually, it's what happens when you're on the soccer field or the basketball court or on a stage and going for a part in the play.

I think we can find those moments to encourage by helping our girls lean into their own natural competitiveness. When you hear your daughter talk about wanting to try out for a sports team, that is a fantastic way to nurture a sense of competition. Same thing for maybe she is a writer, and your local library has a literary contest. Sometimes we think there's judgment involved.

Well, competition does involve failure and a healthy sense of competition, a healthy competitive spirit also nurtures resilience, the ability to press yourself up and get up and keep going, equally important for our young girls to learn. The more we help our girls not shy away from this, particularly because social norms would say that especially for middle school girls, they lean out of a lot of these competitive environments. We need to help them lean in and the same way that boys do.

Emily Paisner: That's actually a great transition. What advice do you have for parents who are also trying to raise their sons to be female allies and advocates?

Dr. Marisa Porges: That's an incredibly important part of this puzzle. This idea that it's not just about the girls, but it's about the boys that are with their brothers, your sons and their fathers, their grandfather's uncle's, any male figure in a young girl's life has to be part of the solution here and overtime, part of systemically how we ensure the best for all our girls.

I think, in some ways, it's doing exactly what we've been talking about. It's about putting your daughter as front and center about things like competition and negotiating and the skills that we naturally encourage in our boys, and that your son's seeing you encourage that in your daughter as well will help you reinforce that the norms that have for so long existed aren't okay and not something that your family supports.

When your son goes out for sport, ensuring that your daughter also has that moment as well, is just a signal that they will naturally learn and see, through your role modeling, how they shouldn't be acting as well. Our children suck up everything they hear and see from us in ways we don't even realize. When you and your husband are thinking about how you're dividing up roles and responsibilities at home, or when you're celebrating each other's accomplishments and in careers or work fronts, your son will see that and realize that that is what he is seeing of his parents and the way he should be acting both to his sister but later on when he's an adult, to the women in his life.

Emily Paisner: Marisa, thank you for sharing so much of your insight today. As we start to wrap up, first, on behalf of myself and all of our listeners, I want to thank you so much for your service. I can't let you go without asking one more question and that is, what does it feel like to fly a fighter jet?

Dr. Marisa Porges: Oh, it was my childhood dream. I had the great honor of serving on aircraft carrier and flying an electronic warfare jet, a slightly different type of jet. Nonetheless, it was scary and exhilarating and feels like forever ago now that I'm sitting at my desk and my school takes your breath away. When I also think about the men and women I served with, particularly those who are out there right now, it gives me great pride and pleasure to say that I was part of it one day and that we have those folks out there doing it for us now.

Emily Paisner: Marisa, thank you so much for joining us today.

Dr. Marisa Porges: Thank you for having me.

Outro: Thanks for listening to this episode of Equal Parts. See you next time.

Emily Paisner: Wait, before you go. I just want to tell you a little bit about Care@Work by Care.com. They work with some of the world's largest companies to offer family care benefits to their employees. If you're one of the lucky ones who already has care benefits at work, use them. If you don't, ask for them, it's a real lifesaver. To learn more, visit care.com/careatwork. Again, that's care.com/care-A-T-work.