Work Smarter

Why taking risks shouldn't just be a man's game

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Too many young girls don’t see themselves as brave or adventurous, and they’re carrying that sense into adulthood and the workplace, says Elizabeth Day

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By Elizabeth Day on

How many times in your life have you been told you’re brave? If you’re a woman, I’m guessing you can probably count the instances on the fingers of one hand. I’m pretty sure you’ll be able to remember a specific example precisely because it was so unexpected. 

Chances are, you don’t get called brave every day. You don’t get wolf-whistled at in the street because you’re got a set of courageous curves. You don’t get leered at by some random sexist for “looking really brave today, love”.

How often, on the other hand, have you been told you are lovely? Or nice? Or pretty? Or that favourite catch-all blandishment good? I’m guessing more. A lot more. 

The discrepancy shouldn’t surprise us. For centuries, we have been socially conditioned to praise women for their pliability and appearance, for their quietness and ability to make connections, for the way they lean in rather than out. 

At school, girls are often encouraged to be perfect while boys are taught to take risks. These girls do not want to fail. Their male counterparts, by contrast, see failure as a necessary staging-post on the way to greater success.

A new study from the National Citizen service of 1,000 12-18-year-olds reveals this to be part of a dispiriting trend. A quarter of the girls surveyed did not believe they were “brave”, compared to just 13 per cent of the boys. In total, only four out of every ten girls would consider themselves adventurous. The same proportion were afraid of taking risks, compared to 27 per cent of the boys. 

Six in ten girls were even nervous at the thought of trying something new and were more likely to want to stick to a routine. The boys actively sought out ways to break their habits.

In her influential TED Talk earlier this year, Reshma Saujani, the founder of tech organisation Girls Who Code, put it this way : “Most girls are taught to avoid risk and failure. They’re taught to smile pretty, play it safe, get all As. Boys, on the other hand, are taught to play rough, swing high, crawl to the top of the monkey bars and then just jump off head first… They’re habituated to take risk after risk. They’re rewarded for it.”

Despite my stated feminism, I have never once had the guts to ask for a pay-rise. Because, really, who do I think I am?

For evidence, look at the work done by the American psychologist Carol Dweck who conducted a series of studies in the 1980s examining how 10-year-olds handled new and confusing material.

Dweck found that the brightest girls were the quickest to give up. Yet boys with the highest IQs saw difficult material as a challenge and redoubled their efforts to master it.

Dweck concluded that the girls’ default response was to doubt their ability and lose confidence. They were worried about not being perfect and consequently became less effective learners. The boys were braver: they believed they could develop ability through application and practice. Their sense of self was not eroded by initial failure; it was bolstered.

What does this mean? 

It means that by the time they reach adulthood, these boys are more equipped with an ability to take a leap into the unknown. They are more likely to speak up in a work meeting or to spitball an idea that might either be brilliant or completely rubbish. But that’s OK: they can take that gamble. They can jump headfirst off the monkey bars and see what happens. When they reap the benefits, they are lauded. They become the tech innovators, the politicians, the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and the FTSE 500 chief executives. 

The white, privileged male inherits the earth – and he just keeps on inheriting it.

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But when the “perfect” girl grows up, what happens? She is critically aware of her capacity to fail. She is worried about being “nice”. She is less likely to proffer unsolicited opinions in a boardroom (and that’s if she’s even got access to the boardroom beyond serving the tea and biscuits). She will say yes to overtime and meet her deadlines uncomplainingly and see her male counterparts be promoted above her and she will do all this because quietly she will be hoping that one day someone will reward her for behaving well.

This is not some dystopian vision. It’s happening, right now, in offices around the world. It’s why, despite my stated feminism, I have never once had the guts to ask for a pay-rise. Because, really, who do I think I am? 

It’s why, when I appear on television press previews, I am never entirely sure my own opinion has validity. I will listen to what the other (male) pundit says, and I will marvel at his certainty, at the casual way in which he firmly believes in the absolute rightness of his take on the world. And if he doesn’t really believe it? Well, he does an exceptionally good job of pretending.

I am not alone. In 2011, the Institute of Leadership and Management surveyed British managers about how confident they feel in their professions. Half the female respondents reported self-doubt about their job performance and careers, compared with fewer than a third of male respondents.

Men initiate salary negotiations four times as often as women do. When women do negotiate, they ask for 30 per cent less than their male counterparts.

A study by Hewlett-Packard of their personnel records a few years ago found that their female employees applied for a promotion only when they believed they met 100 per cent of the qualifications listed for the job. Men were happy to apply when they thought they could meet 60 per cent.

Too many times, a woman is only confident in putting herself forward when she believes in her own perfection. She is not brave because she has not been taught the value of it.

This needs to change. The world will never be equal unless we encourage girls to reach for the monkey-bars and jump headfirst into the unknown. So the next time you’re about to compliment a woman on how nice she looks, why don’t you try calling her brave instead?


Photo: Getty Images
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