I recently met with a coaching client who I had not seen for a year or more. I was surprised to find that she was still struggling with the same question we had last discussed—what she wants to do next in her career. She is in her late thirties and has multiple professional degrees and considerable work experience. When I asked her what actions she had taken to find her next role or position since we last met, she responded that she had found a position on the internet that interested her but had not applied because she did not feel qualified for it. She also reported that some opportunities for research grants had come her way, but she did not feel qualified or prepared to accept them. I looked at her for a moment in silence trying to mentally organize an appropriate response, and she said, “I know. Men wouldn’t worry about these things. They would just assume they were qualified.” I exhaled and agreed with her.
In fact, research shows that women typically feel they are not qualified or ready for positions and promotions that men with less experience don’t hesitate to apply for. While some describe this as a confidence problem for women, I have never felt comfortable with that explanation. For this reason, I was interested in a report by Lisa Damour in the New York Times in which she explores a potential rationale:
From elementary school through college, girls are more disciplined about their schoolwork than boys; they study harder and get better grades. . . . And yet, men nonetheless hold a staggering 95 percent of the top positions in the largest public companies.
What if those same habits that propel girls to the top of their class—their hyperconscientiousness about schoolwork—also hold them back in the work force?
The author, a psychologist who works with teenagers, shares that parents routinely notice that their sons do only the minimum amount of schoolwork necessary to get by while their daughters “don’t stop until they’ve polished each assignment to a high shine and rewritten their notes with color-coded precision.” Damour suggests that perhaps the experience boys have of succeeding in school with minimal effort is crucial to developing confidence that serves them in the workplace. Perhaps the experience girls have of overpreparing and being hyperconscientious in school is getting in their way later in life. Maybe they need to know that they can succeed without overpreparing and being perfect.
What can parents and teachers do to help girls prepare for the future? The author offers several suggestions:
- Help girls learn to do a little bit less and focus on economy of effort.
- Help girls take pride in how much they already know. One way to measure knowledge before studying is to take sample tests to see where their knowledge gaps may be so they know how much work they really need to do—or don’t need to do.
- When a girl with a high A average turns in extra work for extra credit, encourage her to consider that the extra credit isn’t needed.
- Affirm for girls that feeling some anxiety about school is normal and healthy, but too much stress is unsustainable and unhealthy. The difference between earning a 91 and 99 might mean some time to relax and have fun. She will still get an A.
Damour acknowledges that women are being kept out of top jobs for plenty of reasons besides their lack of confidence, such as gender bias, sexual harassment, and double binds. But perhaps we can help girls arrive in the workplace without the additional pressure they put on themselves to be perfect.
Photo by pan xiaozhen on Unsplash.