In an academic setting, girls shine from an early age. They learn to read and write more quickly. They get better grades than boys. They have less behavioral problems. In fact, new research has revealed that in school, girls are ahead of boys in every single subject – including the male-dominated fields of maths and science.
So – why do our girls fall behind later in life?
The reasons are complex, of course. Social expectations, corporate culture, and traditional family roles often hold women back. However, the answers aren’t all external. According to a Ted Talk by Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code, there is an important life skill that most women are missing. Unfortunately, it’s a skill that is crucial to success in today’s world – and one that our boys have in spades.
The answer becomes clear when we look at the way we raise our children.
I’m going to use a few major sports as an example, because of their highly competitive and heavily gendered nature. In sports, our children strive to be the best. In the pursuit of greatness, our girls gravitate towards detail oriented activities like dance and gymnastics. These are sports in which knowledge and precision are important. Meanwhile, our boys pursue games like football and rugby. Conceptually they are simple, but they are also physically confrontational – even violent – in nature.
From the time they are young, we encourage our girls to be perfect – and our boys to be brave.
We do this constantly, in a million tiny ways. We tell our boys to toughen up when they fall on the playground. We encourage our girls to have good spelling and handwriting. We are raising incredible young women – but we are not allowing them to be imperfect. We are not teaching them to take risks. We are not encouraging them to make mistakes.
In her Ted Talk, Reshma Saujani gave a powerful example from her own experience. In learning to code, the boys were making progress as expected. Many bright girls, however, would only produce blank screens. This was puzzling to the teachers, who knew these young women to be at the top of their class. At first, the girls would simply say they were “stuck.” They didn’t know what to write, so they wrote nothing.
However, when the teachers pressed undo repeatedly, they found that the girls had actually written quite a lot.
They hadn’t been able to do it perfectly – so they erased it, choosing to show nothing at all.
In the professional world, we often learn through of trial and error. This means making mistakes, talking about them, and learning from them. If our girls cannot make mistakes, they miss out on this vital process. Our boys blaze ahead, making error after error with wild abandon. Eventually, they get it right.
This is how they find success.
Our girls, meanwhile, are left at the starting line. They remain confused and frustrated. They decide this project isn’t for them, and seek out a different scene – one where they are certain they can be successful.
An HP study found that a woman will typically only apply for a job if she meets one hundred percent of the qualifications. A man will apply for the same job if he meets only sixty percent of them. It’s not a question of ability. It’s a question of bravery. Our girls are afraid to fail.
Encourage your girls to climb up to the top of the jungle gym. Cheer for them when they jump off. Don’t express condolences for their failures. Celebrate their bravery instead. Share your own failures. Seek out stories of failure in highly successful people. Help them to become comfortable with this “f-word.”