Why girls need to stop playing by the rules

6 min read

This piece was originally published on lauraclydesdale.com and is republished with permission.

Rule followers…

“I wrote down in my class notes that when you cite a source, you need to italicize the title instead of putting it in quotes. See. It’s right here in the class notes.”

“Oh, yeah, you’re right! Thanks for catching that. By the way, you are missing the evidence analysis sentence in paragraph three. Ms. Young put in her rubric.”

My 7th-grade daughter and her girlfriend were peer-editing each other’s essays via video chat. When my son was doing this assignment back when he was in 7th grade a few years before, it sounded more like this: “Your format could use a little work, but otherwise it’s pretty good.”

The girls were in the weeds, and the boys were at 30,000 feet. The girls ticked every box. The boys looked at the general requirements and then stopped.

My daughter got an A. My son got a B.

Girls are rule police, and this pays huge dividends in school. So what is the problem?

Most of us have heard the statistic:

Men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them.

It is usually cited to demonstrate that women need more confidence. However, Tara Mohr, an expert on women’s leadership and the author of Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message, wasn’t sure confidence was to blame (she must have remembered her own peer-editing exercises in school). She set out to test whether her hunch was right.

She surveyed over a thousand men and women, and asked them a follow-up question, “If you decided not to apply for a job because you didn’t meet all the qualifications, WHY didn’t you apply?”

The answer, she found, was not a lack of confidence. Instead, it was clinical rule-following.

“It is alright that we fail, as long as we fail forward. In the face of adversity, shortcomings, and rejection, we should keep believing in ourselves and refuse to see ourselves as failures. Our response to failure holds the key to our future.” -Kathy Gong

Both women (41%) and men (46%) stated their top answer as, “I didn’t think they would hire me since I didn’t meet the qualifications, and I didn’t want to waste my time and energy.” And the clearest indicator of paralyzing rule-following was that 15% of women vs. 8% of men simply stated, “I was following the guidelines about who should apply.”

The least common answer (10% women and 12% of men) was “I didn’t think I could do the job well.”

Tara Mohr says, “What held them back from applying was not a mistaken perception about themselves, but a mistaken perception about the hiring process…women don’t need to try and find that elusive quality, “confidence,” they just need better information about how hiring processes really work.”

Another indicator of the downside of rule-following was the second most popular answer (22% of women vs. 13% of men): “I didn’t think they would hire me since I didn’t meet the qualifications and I didn’t want to put myself out there if I was likely to fail.”

My daughter has come a long way from where I once caught her, in the middle of the night, doing homework, sobbing because she didn’t think she had “done a good enough job.” But she still feels compelled to tick and tie, as evidenced by her and her friend’s almost OCD compulsion to be awarded A.

Schools don’t help us practice taking risks.  They only reward perfection, and we gals love being perfect, don’t we?  And so we hide behind our straight A’s.  It’s safe there. Unfortunately, the more we are concerned with failing, the less we can achieve. As they say – nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Kathy Gong, founder and CEO of ai.law, says in her article, Dare to Fail: What I Learned as a Woman Entrepreneur in China, “It is alright that we fail, as long as we fail forward. In the face of adversity, shortcomings, and rejection, we should keep believing in ourselves and refuse to see ourselves as failures. Our response to failure holds the key to our future.”

“All three of these barriers, which together account for 78% of women’s reasons for not applying, have to do with believing that the job qualifications are real requirements, and seeing the hiring process as more by-the-book and true to the on paper guidelines than it really is,” says Mohr. “They didn’t see the hiring process as one where advocacy, relationships, or a creative approach to framing one’s expertise could overcome not having the skills and experiences outlined in the job qualifications.”

My daughter (and her friend) need to realize that they will need to play this entirely different game once they enter the workforce.

A career path is far less scripted, and often full of surprises – which, by the way, is the new normal.

Here are Mohr and co-author, Whitney Johnson’s  different playbook excerpted from their article, Women Need to Realize Work Isn’t School:

1. Figure out how to challenge and influence authority. In school, in order to get the grade, you learned to provide the authority figure — the teacher — what he or she wanted. To be successful in the workforce, you need to learn how to challenge and influence authority. According to recent research on entrepreneurs, the single most important trait is the ability to persuade.

2. Prepare, but also learn to improvise. In school, you prepared as much as possible for the test.  In the workplace, instead of over-preparing, spend that time learning to improvise.

Improvising takes practice. So practice when the stakes are lower. Sitting in a meeting and haven’t contributed yet? Come up with something to say. Running out of time to perfect that presentation? Don’t push back the meeting — plow ahead with what you’ve got. If there’s a cool project you don’t quite have all the skills for, volunteer anyway.

3. Find effective forms of self-promotion. In school, you learned that if you worked hard and performed well, you got an ‘A’ on your report card. Now, you need to work hard, perform well, and make sure people know about your hard work and excellent performance.

Until our culture evolves, as a woman, you’ll have to do this within the context of the double-bind. So find the forms of self-promotion that work — for a woman — within your workplace. They will likely be subtler than those that typically work for men.

4. Welcome a less prescribed, full of surprise, career path. In school, most students follow a prescribed and universal trajectory: Algebra 1, Algebra 2, Pre-Calculus, Calculus and so forth. A career path is far less scripted, and often full of surprises – which, by the way, is the new normal. If you are a baby boomer, you are going to hold 11 jobs on average. If you are a millennial, you are projected to have worked at 14 jobs by the time you are 40.

5. Go for being respected, not just liked. In school, many of us did what was necessary to survive socially. In our careers, we need to aim for being respected by those we work with – rather than striving to be liked by everyone.

While there are times and places for following every rule to get an A, school isn’t only about rule-following. I’ll be looking for opportunities for my daughter to practice some improvisation and influencing so she can flex these skills.

Before that diploma is handed over, she needs to be comfortable applying for a job where she doesn’t meet all of the qualifications. For that to happen, first, she needs to stop crossing every “t” and drawing hearts over every “i.”

Laura Clydesdale headshotLaura Clydesdale had an epiphany one day when she noticed her then 10-year-old daughter exhibiting some of the same career-derailing traits as many of her female clients. Did it really start this early, she wondered? Laura decided to leverage her 15 years of experience as a leadership development consultant and launched her popular girls leadership blog.

She is a regular contributor to the Washington Post, has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Toronto Star, Parent.co and has also been featured on several radio shows and podcasts. Laura lives in Berkeley, CA with her husband and two children.

For more posts by Laura Clydesdale visit her blog here, or sign up for her newsletter.

You can follow her on Twitter at @l_clydesdale and can be contacted at laura@lauraclydesdale.com.

Read More from Girls Leadership on:

Parenting Confidence by Laura Clydesdale

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