Raising Girls to Bravery, not Perfection

If you are a TED Talk binge-watcher like myself then you’ve probably already come across Reshma Saujani’s talk on Girls Who Code where she explains how, for the longest time, we have been raising  our girls to perfection instead teaching them bravery.

Let that sink in for a moment: brave, not perfect. Reshma believes that girls suffer from a “bravery deficit”: they are scared to try when they are unsure of whether or not they will succeed. How often have you avoided speaking up because you were unsure of the correct answer? How often have you said to new things because you feared failure?

As a matter of fact, executive coach Doung Sundheim, when reviewing his book “Taking Smart Risks”, noticed that out of the 38 stories in his book, only 7 were about women. The bias, however, was not in his initial sample of interviewees, but rather in the stories he selected based on “smart, successful risk takers”.  This finding suggests that males are more prone to taking risks, and as Nichole R. Lighthall reports in her research, this is even more prominent in stressful situations, causing women to be underrepresented in highly-stressful environments like finance and high profile positions.

On the other hand, some studies suggest that women are perceived to be more risk averse because they put more weight on how decisions will affect people rather than prioritizing successful outcomes. To put it more simply, women measure risks with different parameters than men.  Catalyst and the US Department of Commerce report that in the United States, women were nearly half (46.9%) of the labour force, but only slightly over a third (39.8%) of managers in 2017. The statistics look even worse in the STEM field, where women hold only 24 percent of jobs. Whether this societal bias is perceptual or factual, it is undoubtedly affecting women in their work environment just as much as it is impacting their personal lives.

Certainly, this significant gap is not due to lack of knowledge or expertise, but, as Reshma put it: “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, headfirst. And by the time they’re adults […] they’re rewarded for it. Our economy, our society, we’re just losing out because we’re not raising our girls to be brave. The bravery deficit is why women are underrepresented in STEM, in C-suites, in boardrooms, in Congress, and pretty much everywhere you look.”

Despite these hardships, it is undeniable that an increasing percentage of leading women have stepped up their game in a quest for bravery. Women like Angela Duckworth (you might know her from her book Grit: the Power of Passion and Perseverance) or Sarah Robb O’Hagan (the president of Equinox Fitness) have left their sough-after corporate jobs and seemingly perfect lives to follow their true passions. Michelle Obama, Emma Watson and Malala Yousafzai have used their voices to foster change and direct the world’s attention towards fundamental gender rights that have long been neglected; and these are just a few of the awe-inspiring women who have stopped doing what was expected of them to embrace their true selves, who have dared to be brave.

I cannot imagine a better starting point for the upcoming generations, for a group of women to take this bravery and make it their own. Only when girls will escape this façade of perfection, will their bravery shine through and lead them along paths of endless possibilities, towards better, brighter days.


Enrica De Colle