A few years ago, J.C. Penny came under fire for selling a T-shirt for girls that read “I'm too pretty to do my homework so my brother has to do it for me.” Soon after, someone started a Change.org petition to lobby the company to stop selling the T-shirt. An hour after the petition posted, over 1,000 people had signed. As news of the T-shirt's message spread, J.C. Penny could no longer afford to ignore the dissent and issued a full apology, saying: “We agree that the "too pretty' t-shirt does not deliver an appropriate message, and we have immediately discontinued its sale."
While the online campaign to discontinue the sale of the sexist T-shirt was successful, it is only one response to the onslaught of sexism — both overt and subtle — that young girls and adult women alike experience throughout their lives. A recent Verizon Wireless commercial called #InspireHerMind depicts this accumulation of messages toward girls and women. At the end of the commercial, you hear the voice of Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code, say, "Our words can have a huge impact. Isn't it time we told her she's pretty brilliant, too? Encourage her love of science and technology and inspire her to change the world."
Admittedly, I teared up watching the #InspireHerMind video, which is intended to raise awareness about the dearth of women in STEM majors and jobs, as well as highlight the small and often unconscious ways we clip the wings of girls and young women. The fact is that I recognized my younger self in the videos. I personally have heard many of those careless phrases, and I realized that they contributed to who I am but also potentially stopped me from becoming who I could have been.
Now that I work at a technology and engineering company alongside engineers, scientists, and technical experts of every stripe, I am all the more convinced that I should have been an engineer.
All the personality and career tests I've taken suggested that I be an engineer or a strategist. Well, I became a strategist, perhaps in part because I was never encouraged to nor did I believe I could become an engineer. Looking back, I can pinpoint when, like the girl in the #InspireHerMind video, I stopped being confident in my skills in math and science. It wasn’t because I wasn’t good at math – I was. It was because I comparatively was better at other subjects than math and was consistently told that I was just naturally inclined to subjects like political science and writing, or that I just wasn't a "math person."
But that's also the hitch. If I was better at other subjects simply because other subjects were more interesting to me, or because they came more naturally to me, or because the way that they were taught was better aligned with my learning style than how math and science were taught, is it really fair to say that I just wasn't a "math person"? If being "good" at a subject like math or science means that it just comes naturally to someone, then what does that say about teaching the values of perseverance, resilience, and adaptability to students?
I accepted the lie that academic skills were immutable – you were either a “math person” or not. Therefore if I struggled, and potentially even failed at times in a subject area (which for me meant getting an A- rather than an A+ on a test), then I concluded that I was not good at it. And unfortunately, that was reinforced in little ways by those around me.
What I experienced as a girl growing up is indicative of a larger trend among adolescent girls in the United States and around the world.
According to research from Harvard University professor Claudia Goldin, there is a statistically significant difference between female and male college students who drop out of economics majors. Professor Goldin found that the female students were substantially more likely to abandon a major in economics if they received a B or less in their economics courses, whereas the male students had a lower threshold (a C+ was still okay) for being discouraged in their major. Goldin confirms that this difference also exists among female and male engineering students, and is quick to note that it has nothing to do with math abilities and skills (emphasis mine):
"The claim that men are far more likely to pick economics because they are better at math is unfounded. Capability isn’t the issue...The math-ability differences between men and women upon college entry are small and, in many cases, nonexistent or in women’s favor. The alleged difference in math ability has almost no effect on choice of major. What matters most is the way men and women respond to similar levels of math ability."
In their recent article "Why do women fail?", Stanford professor Carol Dweck and author and cofounder of Girls Leadership Institute Rachel Simmons have a theory about why male and female students approach getting a B in an economics course so differently. They argue that people can develop either a "fixed mindset" or a "growth mindset" about intelligence and abilities. Those with a "fixed mindset" believe that their basic intelligence cannot be improved, and therefore when they face a challenge like getting a B in a microeconomic theory course, they doubt themselves and conclude that they simply aren't an "econ person" just as people told me I wasn't a "math person." Apparently, girls with high IQs are particularly susceptible to this perfectionist syndrome and buying into the lie that intelligence just is, rather than is learned. (This is precisely what it was like for me as a perfectionist.) In contrast, those with a "growth mindset" believe that their basic intelligence can be improved, and therefore are better able to persevere through challenges and persist through setbacks.
From a young age, girls begin to adopt a "fixed mindset" rather than a "growth mindset" about their intelligence and capabilities.
Even before girls can read T-shirts printed with "I'm too pretty to do my homework so my brother has to do it for me" or hear "girls just aren't as good at math as boys", girls are given the false message that challenges are representative of their own (lack of) capabilities, rather than opportunities for growth. Apparently even at infancy, parents give boy babies more "process praise," or validation that learning and growth are a process rather than an immutable characteristic. In school, teachers are more likely to encourage boy students to learn from their mistakes and try again to solve the problem. In aggregate, girls get the message and they lose confidence and interest in areas that are perceived to be more challenging for them.
While the law of unintended consequences may be at play here, the systematic chipping away at girls' confidence and trust in their capabilities is simply tragic. We are inhibiting the potential of half of our nation's children, and it all starts with the unfounded assumptions that we as a culture and society have about the capabilities, intelligence, and interests of girls and women.
The effects of systematically inhibiting the potential of girls became more apparently recently when a number of high-profile tech companies released their data on the percentage of women and minorities in their workforce.
The percentage of women and under-represented groups in technology positions at companies like Facebook, LinkedIn, Google, Yahoo!, and Pinterest is abysmal, but also represents the overall distribution of those career paths. These companies are not entirely to blame for their failure to diversify their workforces, despite the decades of research proving that greater diversity leads to greater dividends. But rather, it’s an issue of proportionality. If fewer women (as well as other under-represented groups such as Hispanic/Latinos(as) and African Americans) pursue STEM degrees, then there will be a smaller pool from which these companies can recruit to fulfill in-demand positions such as software engineers and data scientists.
The #InspireHerMind video asks, "Isn't it time we told her she's pretty brilliant, too?" But we should also ask "Why don't you try that again?" Let's encourage our girls to persist through challenges and praise them for learning from their mistakes rather than expecting effortless, unattainable perfection at the expense of their confidence and their careers.