3 Things We Need to Teach Our Daughters (and Ourselves) if We Want to Raise Strong Women

Are women up against a ‘bravery deficit’ of our own culture’s making?
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Are women up against a ‘bravery deficit’ of our own culture’s making?

When she was 33, Reshma Saujani ran for Congress in a long-shot race. She walked away annihilated, winning less than a fifth of the vote. In her TED Talk, “Teach Girls Bravery, Not Perfection,” Saujani says campaigning was the first time in her life she did something truly brave without worrying about a perfect outcome. Then she realized a trend: Women often “gravitate toward careers and professions that they know they’re going to be great in” rather than taking on the risk of failure. This pattern begins in childhood when boys and girls are taught different ways to approach life. This discrepancy, Saujani argues, ultimately pushes men forward and holds women back.

“Most girls are taught to avoid risk and failure,” Saujani says. “We’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 head first. And by the time they’re adults, whether they’re negotiating a raise or even asking someone out on a date, they’re habituated to take risk after risk. They’re rewarded for it.”

Whether among young students in classrooms or adults navigating the world, Saujani says there is a clear difference in how females versus males approach risks. She brought up a series of studies in the 1980s when psychologist Carol Dweck gave fifth graders assignments that were too difficult for them and observed their reactions. Girls were more likely to give up—and not because they lacked intelligence. “The higher the IQ, the more likely they were to give up,” Saujani says. “Bright boys, on the other hand, found the difficult material to be a challenge. They found it energizing. They were more likely to redouble their efforts.”

Saujani isn’t the only one concerned about what she refers to as our “bravery deficit” and the way it’s holding women back from reaching their full potential and holding society back from reaping the benefits of more smart women in charge. 

So how can women respond to this way of thinking, for the sake of our little girls and ourselves? We can change the societal message that stresses risk-taking for boys and perfection for girls by encouraging our girls to chase their dreams boldly.

01. Retrain her thinking—and your own.

Tanith Carey is a parenting expert in London whose latest book, Girls Uninterrupted: Steps for Building Stronger Girls in a Challenging World will be released in the U.S. in September. She agrees that perfectionism starts in girlhood.

If your daughter is consumed with looking perfect to the outside world, she cannot tend to her own needs and desires, Carey says. “She feels unable to speak out. By trying to be perfect, ultimately girls doom themselves to failure. By setting the bar so high, a girl is likely to be brutally self-critical, eventually eroding her self-worth.”

Carey advises that parents can help their daughter reframe the way she views experiences. “If your daughter is showing signs of perfectionism, suggest she ask herself questions like: ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ or ‘If the worst happens, will I get through it?’ and ‘Will this be important next week, or next year?’ Remind her that no one’s perfect and she always has the choice to let some things go.”

This advice works beyond a parenting perspective. The next time you’re gearing up for a big project at your job or working up the nerve to ask someone out, ask yourself these same questions. Often, the outcome we envision is worse than reality.

And if the worst-case scenario does happen, recall all the people whose success was spawned by failure. Look at Oprah, who was fired from WJZ in Baltimorewhich propelled her into becoming a billionaire media mogul.

02. Pick progress, not perfection.

The Confidence Code authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman reiterate that girls and boys have different responses to failure: “Research shows that when a boy fails, he takes it in stride, believing it’s due to a lack of effort. When a girl makes a similar mistake, she sees herself as sloppy and comes to believe that it reflects a lack of skill.”

Similarly, Carey advises teaching your daughter to aim for realistic goals, not unattainable ones.

Again, this can be applied as parenting and life advice. If you’re someone who has never run more than a mile and you start training for a marathon, there’s a high likelihood you’ll quit when you’re unable to rise to that challenge. If instead you choose a challenging reach goal, like training for a 5K, you can make slow, steady strides to ensure your place at the finish line. As modern women, it’s easy to look at the big picture and get overwhelmed. Remind yourself that perfection is not real and striving for it can only end in disappointment.

03. Praise individuality, not goodness.

“When our girls are little, we parents work very hard to train youngsters to do as we say,” Carey says. “When they do, we tend to reward them with tons of praise, in particular telling our daughters they are ‘good girls.’ Girls, who are natural people-pleasers, tend to internalize this message more than boys. But as they get older, they need to know they don’t always have to conform.”

Kay and Shipman also note that girls are first rewarded in elementary school “for being good, instead of energetic, rambunctious, or even pushy. It’s in school that girls are expected to keep their heads down, study quietly, and do as they’re told. . . . From our youngest years, we learn that cooperating like this seems to pay off.” By avoiding mistakes and risks, Kay and Shipman argue that girls miss out on “behavior critical for confidence-building.”

This habit carries over into adulthood. Saujani cited a Hewlett Packard report that found “men will apply for a job if they meet only 60 percent of the qualifications.” Women, meanwhile, “will only apply if they meet 100 percent of the qualifications. 100 percent.” Saujani sees this as “evidence that women have been socialized to aspire to perfection, and they’re overly cautious.”

Following someone’s lead and doing what you’re told only pushes you forward if the person has your best interests at heart. More likely, they have their own interests to worry about—so you need to worry about yourself, too. Whether it’s stepping out on your own, taking a chance on love, or going for a job you’re passionate about even if you don’t meet the entire checklist of requirements, many of life’s big moments require bravery. So be brave. Take a chance. See what happens.

Photo Credit: Sara Keisling