Perfectionism Could be the Barrier Stopping Women From Pursuing Engineering

Founder of Girls Who Code says girls are conditioned to avoid risk and failure

28 April 2016

I have heard the gamut of reasons as to why girls aren’t interested in pursuing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers, but none have struck a chord with me as much as in this Ted Talk. Presented by Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, she argues girls are raised to believe they have to be perfect, whereas boys are encouraged to be brave. And perfection, she suggests, has everything to do with which career they pursue.

“So many women I talk to say they gravitate toward professions they know they’re going to be great in,” Saujani says. “Most girls are taught to avoid risk and failure; to play it safe and get all As. Boys, on the other hand, are taught to climb to the top of the monkey bars and jump off.”

Part of her mission with Girls Who Code, which teaches preuniversity girls programming skills, is to quash the perception they have to get everything right the first time. “In coding, sometimes forgetting a semicolon can mean the difference between success and failure,” she says. And that’s okay. Coding requires perseverance as well as imperfection.

One startling example Saujani points to is when the program’s instructors report students staring at blank screens. But if the teachers clicked undo a few times, they’d see the girls did write code and then deleted it. “The students tried, they came close, but they didn’t get it exactly right,” Saujani says. “Instead of showing the progress they’ve made, the students showed nothing at all. Perfection or bust.”

In the talk, Saujani points to an experiment conducted in the 1980s that looked at how advanced fifth graders handled an assignment too difficult for them. They found the girls were quick to give up. In fact, the higher their IQs, the more likely they were to fold. The boys found the difficult material to be a welcome challenge, she says. They were energized by it and were more likely to double their efforts to figure it out.

And this hesitation doesn’t end in the fifth grade. She cited a report from Hewlett-Packard that found men will apply for a job if they meet 60 percent of the qualifications whereas most women will apply only if they meet 100 percent of the requirements.

The question here is not about ability, Saujani argues. It’s about how girls and boys are taught how to handle a challenge. “Turns out girls are really good at coding,” she says, “but it’s not enough to just teach them to code.”

Girls Who Code was founded in 2012 with just 20 students and now reaches 40,000 participants across the United States. Saujani’s goal is to teach more girls how to be brave.

“To truly innovate, we cannot leave behind half our population,” she says. “We have to socialize our girls to become comfortable with imperfection, and we have to do it now. We have to show them they will be loved and accepted, not for being perfect, but for being courageous.”

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