The Perfectionist Problem: Why Talented Women Get Shut Out Of Tech

At this point in my life, I consider myself a confident person. I don’t say that lightly — it took a lot of self-discovery to get here, and I would be remiss in saying that journey is over. Still, these days, I’m pretty much content with myself, flaws and all. I don’t really ever succumb to bouts of self-doubt (because really, who has the time?).

But just a few months ago, I did have a brief — but revelatory — slip-up.

It was just a few weeks out from my first real “corporate” summer internship. A quick call from the company briefing me on my role — innocuous enough on surface — left me with the worst case of cold feet I’ve had in years.

I’d known about the job and role for months, but suddenly I was terrified by the prospect of actually working.  

Why? I was worried that I’d fail.

I had interviewed for the job here at Stevens, against graduate students in the same field. But suddenly, I was convinced that this was a field I was not skilled enough to work in, that I’d somehow duped the person who’d interviewed me for the position (and who would become my boss), and that I was, on whole, making a huge mistake.

I confessed to close friends that as great of an opportunity as the internship was about to be, I wasn’t deserving of it. Despite their reassurances that I’d be able to learn on the job even if I didn’t meet 100% of the requirements, I couldn’t shake a sense of real, crippling fear. In short, I was positive that my first truly “technical” work outing was about to be nothing short of a disaster.  

The job started, the summer passed, and my initial reservations ended up being patently false. The experience was amazing, and I far exceeded any expectations, including my own. In hindsight, I wanted to chide myself for not being brave enough to consider that I was capable of much more than I gave myself credit for.

I share this story because this narrative of self-doubt, of a lack of of bravery, is one that is disproportionate among women. Why? Let me explain.

In the 1980s, psychologist Carol Dweck ran an experiment that looked at how bright fifth graders handled an assignment that was too difficult for them. She found that bright girls were quick to give up — in fact, the higher the IQ, the more likely they were to give up. Bright boys, on the other hand, found the difficult material to be an energizing challenge. They were more likely to redouble their efforts and eventually, succeed in their attempts.

What’s going on? Well, at the fifth grade level, girls outperform boys in every subject, including math and science, so ability is not the issue. The difference lies in how boys and girls approach a challenge. Because girls have been conditioned into being perfectionists since birth (unlike most boys), they choose to give up on challenges rather than attempt them in fear that they may not produce an outcome that is 100% correct.  

And this self-crippling behavior doesn’t just end in fifth grade. When a professional endeavor goes wrong, women are more likely to blame themselves.  When something goes right, however, they credit circumstance – or other people – for their success. (Men do the opposite.)

A famous HP report found that men will apply for a job even if they meet only 60 percent of the qualifications, but women will apply only if they meet 100 percent of the qualifications.

100 percent. When you run the statistical tests… the devastating professional implications are obvious.

These kinds of studies are usually invoked as evidence that, well, women need a little more confidence. But, as Reshma Saujini (the founder of Girls Who Code) so beautifully articulates in her TED Talk on the topic, these sorts of studies are merely evidence that women have been socialized to aspire to perfection, and they’re overly cautious when they should be brave instead.

And that’s a serious problem. Because even whilst women are climbing the corporate ranks, dominating the workforce and graduating in higher numbers than men, that socialization of perfection is causing women to take less risks in their careers. It’s the reason why the 600,000+ jobs that are open right now in computing and tech are leaving women behind. Because how can women jump the ranks of the professional world if we don’t even believe we’re supposed to be there?

Our economy is being left behind despite all the problems women could solve, all the innovations they could make. It’s high time women are raised not to be perfect, but to be brave. To be both confident and competent. To not doubt their own abilities, and take risks.

But perhaps the most useful takeaway of all of this talk about confidence and bravery and risks is recognizing that it’s a problem at all. Knowing that it’s there, that’s it’s normal to be nervous, that it’s not just you, and then, in the moment, trying to overcome it. That, in my opinion, may just darn well be the bravest thing a girl can do.

About the Author

Namankita Rana

Passionate about technology, women’s issues, art, fashion, and global politics. Though maybe not in that exact order.