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Rachel Simmons

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My First Rant: Why Can't Women Keep Up with Men? Try the Curse of the Good Girl

Posted: 04/27/10 11:47 PM ET

Women, and our struggle for workplace equality, seem to be having a moment. Seems like everywhere you look lately, there's a story about how we don't seek or win enough money for tech start-ups; how we still face sexism in the workplace; how there are not enough of us speaking as experts in national media; how we're too nice to ask for lots of money; and how there are not enough of us willing to "behave like arrogant, self-aggrandizing jerks."

Hand-wringing ensues. It's sexism. It's change that's slow to come. It's racism. It's socialization. And yet one thing is very clear: with the exception of Salon's Rebecca Traister, almost no one is making more than a passing connection to girls.

I'm feeling pretty crabby about this (welcome to my first ever rant!). I'm all for these articles, and I'm grateful that some of the writers quoted me.

Yet despite a growing mountain of evidence that women are still slipping in our high heels, the party line on girls is that they're doing just fine in their soccer cleats. It's boys - riddled with attention problems, new body image woes and learning crises -- who need rescuing.

Let's be clear. I'm not into to suffering contests, or zero sum games. Boys need help, too. But I can't stand the argument that girls are flying high, powered by Title IX, mothers who boycotted Barbie and Girl Scout cookie sales. Because it's just not true.

To be fair, girls do look great on paper. They graduate from high school in higher numbers, get better grades, and hold more leadership positions than boys. Look more closely at what the data doesn't measure, and the picture gets complicated: too many girls lack an inner resume: the skills and permission to assert their opinions, promote their own talents and take healthy risks that might result in failure.

Many girls aspire to a version of selfhood that puts a psychological glass ceiling on their potential to succeed. They suffer from what I call the Curse of the Good Girl: the pressure to be liked by everyone, generous to a fault and flawless at everything you do. Good Girls are taught to be modest and teeth gnashingly friendly. They are not so good at self-advocacy, saying no, putting themselves out there and dealing with constructive criticism.

Why aren't we looking at girlhood? Could it be that people see American girls as people whose primary preoccupations - when they're not pulling their straight A's -- are Facebook, the latest sale, and the newest episode of Glee? The Curse of the Good Girl is putting down roots in girls' souls from the earliest ages. It's putting a cap on their career potential long before they have their first job interviews.

Too many girls begin speaking in class with the ritualized phrase, "I'm not sure if this is right, but...." They make their sentences sound like questions to sand the edges off their convictions. Ask a teenage girl to name her strengths in front of her peers, and you're likely to get silence, nervous laughter or a barely audible response. Then there's mistakes and failure. Girls aspiring to be Good don't do so well when they screw up. They personalize criticism, believing it means people don't like them anymore.

These are the girls who graduate from college and don't negotiate raises, flag down the same venture capital, own their strengths in job interviews and take the risks that result in business success. To be sure, the Curse of the Good Girl isn't the only reason why women are slipping. There's institutional sexism, racism and homophobia. Oh, and that small detail about women in heterosexual partnerships doing most of the housework and childcare, not to mention the villainy women suffer when they put work on par with family (explored brilliantly here by Kate Harding).

Around middle school, girls are known to lose gobs of self-esteem. It's a reverse butterfly process where the fearlessness of girlhood is consumed wholesale by the ruthless self-consciousness of adolescence. This metamorphosis was made famous by Mary Pipher's Reviving Ophelia, and Carol Gilligan and Lyn Mikel Brown's Meeting at the Crossroads. To look at the phenomenon of women struggling at work would be to think some second epic change strikes young women down between the blinding success of high school and their first jobs.

No such luck. What's happening here has been in the works for years. And until we spend time working with girls on developing the real world muscles they need to succeed on par with men, we'll be writing a whole lot of articles.

 

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