We give up too easily

Recently, an article published in “Psychology Today” caught my attention because it echoes the widely popular book, “Lean In” by Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg but also because it explains one of the main questions behind WikidGRRLs: why do girls give up on technology?

In Sandberg’s now famous book, which can be easily summed up by watching her viral 2010 TED video (see below), we find that the structural inequality between men and women in the workplace is in part due to women’s own mis perceptions of themselves: in other words, they themselves believe the chauvinist underlying messages that they grow up with: that they are not good enough, not able to make it “to the top”, etc. Instead, Sandberg suggests that if women stop doubting themselves so much, and ask for what they genuinely deserve, they would find success is within their reach.

This time, the social psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson points out the results of recent research which has shown that women’s baseless self-doubts commence early on, specifically in grade five. She emphasizes: “We judge our own abilities not only more harshly, but fundamentally differently, than men do.” Halvorson points out a specific experiment which showed that 

bright girls, when given something to learn that was particularly foreign or complex, were quick to give up–and the higher the girls’ IQ, the more likely they were to throw in the towel. In fact, the straight-A girls showed the most helpless responses. Bright boys, on the other hand, saw the difficult material as a challenge, and found it energizing. They were more likely to redouble their efforts, rather than give up.

This is particularly alarming for educators as they should see how much these instinctual differences between girls’ and boys’ perceptions of difficulty and talent impact the performance and self-image of girls later on in life. If educators are aware of this, they can catch it and nip it in the bud by encouraging girls to work hard and explaining as clearly as possible that while they may have “inherited” some talents, they are just as able to develop and hone new skills if they try hard. The findings Halvorson discusses echo yet another point made by Sandberg: that once they are adults and have reached some kind of career success,  

Men attribute success to themselves, and women attribute it to other external factors. 

These two findings brewed together produce a perfect storm: as girls, we tend to think that our talents are innate and too difficult to develop by effort and practice, so we underperform compared to boys, even though we may have been brighter than them to begin with. Then once we enter the workforce, we “grow up to be too hard on ourselves” believing that we “don’t have what it takes” (since we only have what we were miraculously endowed with at birth). If by some miracle we still succeed, we then see it as attributable to external causes (since how could our measly talents have produced this amazing success?) rather than ourselves.

Reference: Grant Halvorson, Heidi. 2011. The Trouble With Bright Girls, in Psychology Today. 

Follow @sherylsandberg and @hghalvorson



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