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Tara Sophia Mohr

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The Dark Side of Girls' Success In School

Posted: 06/05/2012 1:55 pm

You were so good at school. A smartie. You wrote great papers that the teachers marked with A's. You knew how to study for a test. You were a diligent, hard-working, careful, successful student. And you are (quietly) proud of that.

Now you want to thrive at work. You've got castles to build, ideas to realize, contributions you'd like to make.

But you are noticing something odd: the toolkit that kept you winning at school isn't helping you win at work. All the rigor, the care, the work ethic? That was fine for the worker-bee stage of your career. But for the now-I'd-like-make-a-big-impact phase? Not so much.

Now you need something different.

School gave you rules: if you followed the assignment well, you'd get the good grade. Now following the rules isn't enough. Now the rules aren't clear -- or there aren't any.

School put a single authority figure at the helm of the classroom, and it was obvious who you needed to please: the teacher. Now authority is diverse and diffuse. Now doing great work means getting applause from some authority figures and criticism from others.

In school, your diligence made you safe. If you had the time to prepare, to study, to polish, you knew you could do a good job. Now you need to share your work (the product, the idea, the question, the thought) with customers, with team members and with your boss -- when it's in a messy, imperfect, early stage.

I know: that feels excruciating. It feels embarrassing and like losing control, but it is necessary now. In sharing an idea in its earliest stage, are going to earn your reputation as an innovative thinker. In leaping before it's perfect, you are going to get into action. What you are doing now is complex enough that if you try to get it perfect before you share it (propose it, pitch it, launch it, test it) it will never get shared.

Girls now outperform boys in almost every subject at school and at almost every level. They are also earning more college and advanced degrees. The reasons for this are unknown. I wonder if it's partially because succeeding in school requires many of the same abilities and behaviors as being a "good girl": respect for and obedience of authority, careful rule-following, people-pleasing and succeeding in an externally imposed framework.

If that's true, girls' success in school will translate into their success at lower and mid-levels in organizations, but it will not translate to their increased numbers as leaders, change-makers and innovators.

To be sure, that doesn't mean we should wish for a day when girls start lagging behind boys in academic performance, but we do need to look critically at what is driving girls' success in school, what behaviors they are actually learning there and how that impacts their capacity to lead.

To blaze a trail, women and men need to know how to experiment with their ideas when they are messy and imperfect. They need an ability to take considered risks, challenge authority and respond to criticism with a thick skin.

Boys are more likely to acquire these skills from what they learn from family and peers and from the stories of adventurous, authority-challenging boys and men that they see in video games, films, TV and popular culture. Too often, girls are still learning a different story from the media and from school itself -- how to be a good girl. It's time we started rewarding girls' risk-taking as much as their rule-following at school. It's time we celebrated them not just when they gained the teacher's praise, but when they thoughtfully challenged authority.

Those of us already in the midst of our careers need to make a shift. Let's use our "good student" toolkit as a foundation for doing quality work. But let's also start to paint with new colors: greater risk-taking, shrugging off criticism and experimenting with our work when it's imperfect and not yet fully formed.

Are you still using your "good girl," student approach in your career? Have you made the switch? Is it time?

Tara Sophia Mohr is an expert on women's leadership and wellbeing. She is the creator of the global Playing Big women's leadership program. Her work has been featured on The Today Show, CNN.com, Big Think, Ode Magazine and in numerous other publications. Click here to get her free guide, 10 Rules for Brilliant Women.

 

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