Girls need grit, too

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I’ve noticed a small but disturbing trend in my AP Macroeconomics classes: Girls are more likely to give up.

Although very few students drop my class — only a handful in the past five years — so far it’s only been girls. When I hear from their parents, I often hear things like:

She’s so frustrated that she is crying inconsolably.

I just can’t see her this upset and think it is good for her.

It’s not that girls are performing worse than boys or finding the material more challenging. In fact, boys with much lower grades are soldiering on.

So what is happening? Why does temporary “failure” seem more likely to crush girls’ self-confidence? Are we not teaching our girls resilience?

I know this is not just my problem. Girls are woefully underrepresented nationally in the fields of economics and finance. One expert, who was doing research on this issue for the Federal Reserve, told me women are less likely to major in econ or finance than even STEM fields.

We females are also less likely to be entrepreneurs than our male counterparts.

I don’t believe this is an innate gender difference.

Here’s what I do believe: I think our girls learn to be really good at school. They outperform boys by most measures in elementary and middle school, and they are more likely to be identified as gifted. They follow rules, do their homework, write neatly, speak politely and generally master the system before they hit high school.

And we encourage this. We praise them for their eager compliance, their willingness to be perfect students, their report cards filled with 1s and As.

I remember — I was one of those girls. I loved getting things right. I loved seeing positive comments on my papers and bringing home good report cards. I loved making my parents proud — something that seemed of no consequence whatsoever to my brilliant but less diligent older brother.

All of this compliance leads too many girls toward perfectionism and what Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset”. Our girls pride themselves on doing everything right, and they become less willing to take risks. They become obsessed with protecting their perfect GPAs. They aren’t as confident in their ability to wing it and figure things out later.

When they do meet a challenge (and it happens to all of us eventually), it doesn’t just frustrate them — it undermines their entire sense of self.

This isn’t just my hunch. Research by Babson University found that the reason we see fewer female entrepreneurs is not because women are less likely to launch businesses. They are equally likely to do so… the first time.

But they’re a lot less likely to try again if their first attempt fails. And guess what? Most first attempts at entrepreneurship fail. So too many women just give up and walk away, while the men (who are no more talented) are trying again and again until they succeed.

If we want our girls to break the glass ceiling and access many of these careers (which, by the way, are very lucrative), we need to think about how we’re communicating expectations around success and failure to them.

Are we focusing on grades — or on learning?

Are we encouraging perfectionism — or risk-taking?

Are we letting them give up — or expecting them to bounce back?

We need to make sure our girls know that it’s OK to struggle, that straight A’s aren’t really what life is about, and that we expect them to persevere, the same way we expect their brothers to. 

We can’t let their energetic focus on being “good at school” block them from learning strategies to be successful for the rest of their lives.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush

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