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Perfection Is the Enemy of Female Success

Topics: Career Advice

Sometimes a semicolon can break a girl’s self-confidence.

As part of the the TED Talks series, Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani shares a routine experience at her nonprofit coding school, now held across the country: a young girl sits in front of a blank computer screen frozen, telling her teacher that she doesn’t know what code to write. The teacher, who knows better than to assume the girl has done nothing, hits “undo” several times, revealing a valiant effort at this endless process of trial and error.

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Image Credit: Adrian Williams/Unsplash

“Instead of showing the progress that she made, she’d rather show nothing at all — perfection or bust,” Saujani tells the crowd.

Women are under-represented in C-suites, Congress, board rooms and elsewhere today because they are taught early on to be perfect, and the resulting fear of being imperfect keeps them from taking risks necessary to advance, she asserts.

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“Most girls are taught to avoid risk and failure. They’re taught to smile pretty, play it safe, get all A’s. Boys on the other hand are taught to play rough, swing high, crawl to the top of the monkey bars and then just jump off headfirst. By the time they are adults, whether they’re negotiating a raise or even asking someone out on a date, they are habituated to take risk after risk. They’re rewarded for it,” Saujani said. “We’re raising our girls to be perfect. We’re raising our boys to be brave.”

As evidence that women have been socialized to aspire to perfection, Saujani cites a noted study by psychologist Carol Dweck in the 1980s. The study, which looked at how bright fifth graders handled assignment too difficult for them, showed that bright girls were more likely to give up, while bright boys approached it as a challenge. Could girls just suffer from low confidence? No, Saujani argues, because in fifth grade, girls routinely outperform boys in every subject, including math and science. So it’s not a question of ability.

The pressure for perfectionism follows women into adulthood, she said, citing a Hewlett-Packard study that found that men apply for a job when they meet only 60 percent of the qualifications but that women apply only if they meet 100 percent of them.

With 600,000 jobs open in computing and technology, this “bravery deficit” hurts everyone, not just women, Saujani said.

“It means our economy is being left behind on all the innovation and problems women would solve if they were socialized to be brave instead of socialized to be perfect,” she said, followed by the audience’s applause.

Saujani founded Girls Who Code in 2012 to close the gender divide in tech. While tech jobs are among the fastest growing nationally, the percentage of female students interested or enrolled in computer science drops between the ages of 13 and 17, according to the organization. Women are on track to fill just 3 percent of the 1.4 million computing-related jobs projected by 2020. Girls Who Code is on track to teach 40,000 girls in all 50 states, Saujani said.

The gap in tech is not only in the number of women filling jobs but also in pay. PayScale’s Inside the Gender Pay Gap report shows that while technology jobs pay more than non-tech industry jobs, the gender pay gap still exists.

Saujani said the solution can be as simple as telling girls that a missed semicolon may break a computer code but that it shouldn’t break their confidence.

“We have to show them that they will be loved and accepted, not for being perfect but for being courageous,” she said in concluding her TED Talks presentation. “So I need each of you to tell every young woman you know — your sister, your niece, your employee, your colleague — to be comfortable with imperfection, because when we teach girls to be imperfect and we help them leverage it, we will build a movement of young women who are brave, and who will build a better world for themselves and for each and every one of us.”

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Do you think girls are socialized to be perfect and boys to be brave? What are your personal experiences? We want to hear from you. Tell us your thoughts in the comments, or join conversation on Twitter.

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