Reshma Saujani ran for Congress and failed. Instead of giving a TED Talk on the power of failure or “leaning in,” she decided to talk about a powerfully negative behavioral trait common among girls: The absolute imperative to be perfect at the expense of being brave.
“The bravery deficit is why women are underrepresented in STEM,” she notes. Don’t be too quick to judge. Saujani has research to back up her claim. Notably, a study performed among 5th-grade boys and girls that illustrated the brighter the girl, “the higher the IQ,” the more quickly she gave up a problem-solving task in a classroom. If girls didn’t feel they could get it right the first time, they didn’t want to even try. The bright boys, on the other hand, embraced the challenge and persisted confidently into the unknown.
A bright girl’s unwillingness to pursue a challenge doesn’t end when she leaves school. Saujani cites an HP report noting that male applicants will pursue a position even if they only meet 60% of the qualifications listed in the job description. Women, however, will only apply if they meet 100% of the listed requirements. Saujani concludes that “women have been socialized to aspire to perfection and they are overly cautious.”
She cites the messages young girls repeatedly receive to be beautiful and well behaved. She also cites the message plaguing the academically successful: To get it right all the time. I’d add in another factor: The pressure young women feel to do it all, have it all and be all things to all people all the time. There is no time to critically think whether you’re a young woman of 16 considering college options, or a career woman in her 30s contemplating starting a family. You just must do it all and do it right the first time, or else you reach 40 with no real career and no real family and culture dictates you are a complete failure.
Saujani contextualizes her discussion in terms of STEM, specifically computer science. But what about applying her bravery theory to the context of family planning? How much braver would women be to pursue marriage and children in their twenties if they didn’t think their professional aspirations would take a beating in the process? If we want brave children they need brave mothers; brave mothers aren’t the ones scared to death at 39 that they’ll never have a child because they’ve been overcautious in devoting so much time to their career success. Culture fosters and honors brave mothers by including family planning discussions in sex education; by taking advantage of technology to create flex time and work-at-home employment opportunities; by destigmatizing “non-traditional” college students and viewing higher education as a lifelong opportunity instead of a goal to hurry and accomplish before you hit thirty.
In other words, we foster a culture of brave women when we destigmatize fertility issues and talk openly about reproduction as an integral part of women’s health and well-being instead of politicizing it for votes or out of sheer greed. Saujani talks about teaching girls computer programming in much the same way many women struggling with fertility speak about the challenges of trying to get pregnant, and in the same way every mother in this parenting-obsessed age talks about the challenges of raising children. Her solution is simple: a supportive network that cheers women on to be brave in the context of school and career. I think her idea is so brilliant it deserves to be applied to the realm of family and children as well.