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Preparing Girls for Success Beyond School

“Doing great work means getting applause from some authority figures and criticism from others.” Tara Sophia Mohr’s recent article on the Huffington Post titled “The Dark Side of Girls’ Success in School” discusses how the skills needed to succeed in the workplace are often very different from the skills needed to succeed at school.

Mohr suggests the skills that girls master to succeed in school—“respect for and obedience of authority, careful rule following, people-pleasing and succeeding in an externally imposed framework” —are not the skills needed to be a leader, change-maker or innovator. Although girls now outperform boys in almost every subject at school and at almost every level of education in the US, that same level of success isn’t necessarily reflected in many workplaces.

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

The article points out that boys are more likely to acquire these kinds of skills from their family and peers and having these skills is supported by male images in the media and popular culture.

Girls, Mohr states, are “learning a different story from the media and from school itself—how to be a good girl.” She goes on to encourage women to experiment more and embrace the messiness that comes with it. This is a good message and not one limited to just women. For example, Asian-Americans are often seen as superstars in school but have difficulty advancing in corporate America.

In addition to asking individuals to make changes, it’s important to make systemic changes as well:

–  It’s important to reward risk-takers, even if they fail. Companies intent on bold innovation need to understand that failure comes hand-in-hand with risk-taking. Rewards and recognition need to be bestowed upon those individuals that try and fail. Otherwise, you won’t have anyone raising her hand for the next risky project. I love the idea of Failure Parties.

– Having the media depict a broader array of female role models is crucial. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media points out that girls are under-represented in films and TV shows. Even though women make up 50% of the workforce, only 19.5% of the working characters in films are women, and over a 4 year period, “not one female character was depicted in G-rated family films in the field of medical science, as a business leader, in law, or politics.”

The institute has a great tagline: “If she can see it, she can be it” which underlines the importance of visible and diverse role models. And, let’s be clear, putting C-suite women up as role models is not enough; it’s important to have role models at every level in an organization showing different types of success.

How do you think we can better support the skills development needed to succeed with diverse leaders and teams, share early ideas, question norms, and collaborate effectively? Please share your comments.

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  1. Thanks for sharing Olivia, powerful indeed and true in many levels. We live in a world that is hungry for innovation yet our systems do not always reward risk taking. Couple this with stereo-typing and we have many barriers we need to break though and out of! We have our work cut out for all of us, but I am inspired and motivated with the Geena Davis Institute tag line “If she can see it, she can be it”. Thanks for posting such an important piece!

  2. Very interesting article. I like the idea of Failure Parties. It helps neutralize the sting we experience when a project or idea doesn’t come to fruition. At the same time, Failure Parties encourage us to celebrate all our efforts- not just the end result- and even laugh at ourselves if need be. If we can do that, we are less likely to avoid going outside our comfort zone to tackle something big. When failure is destigmatized, a negative outcome just isn’t as scary. That gives us more confidence to push ahead. The true success is that we tried to begin with. It reminds me of the saying, “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?”

  3. Well I agree some female professionals who have a great academic record fail to deliver the results their employers expect them to do so. I have seen many companies conduct regular trainings, seminars and continuing professional development courses in order to improve the expertise and motivate female workforce.