Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Why Don't Smart Girls Succeed in the Work World?

A friend of mine was labelled as a child, quite rightly, as gifted.  Like a number of women I met at Queen's University, where I made my lucky escape from a small-town gulag, she was the first one in class to put her hand up and ask questions.  She and her counterparts had attended elite all-girls schools in Toronto. They never apologized for asking questions, and never assumed the boys had better ideas.  They made the best grades and the professors loved them. I was a B student on my best days and was too busy thinking about the boys in other ways to care much about Canadian Federalism. When we graduated, I fumbled around, as I had expected to.  My friend landed her dream job and spent the next two years in a pit of misery: it was nothing like school, and she felt like a failure. She dropped out for a long time, and only took steps back in years later. Now in hindsight, she has spent some time thinking about why girls who excel in school very often don't make great careers, and is incorporating her ideas into her consulting business.

I would prefer to set myself on fire in the lobby of the law firm where I work than let any of my brilliant colleagues see my university transcript.  And yet. living by my wits, I have found really interesting work that lets me contribute and grow and support my children and myself.  But, like my friend, so many of the smart girls I knew have dropped out of the workplace or have played around the edges of several careers but have never really made headway.  

So maybe I'm a little scrappy and a survivor, not to mention a single parent without a choice but to find a way to make the best living I can.  Still, what have I done that these exceptional women haven't?  A few thoughts:

I'd no illusion of being particularly special.  I have never been described as brilliant or exceptional.  Instead, I'm told I play well in the sandbox and am fun to be around, and every once in a while someone tells me, usually with a bit of surprise, that I'm actually quite bright. They also say I get crap done. This used to bother me a lot as I thought it meant people thought me frivolous. But since my work doesn't involve saving babies, I've decided making work fun is a pretty valuable attribute. Also, it's meant I can work for people who wouldn't hesitate to tell me how dumb I am while paying me quite well.  It's meant I can mine the opportunities for learning in most places--these opportunities are almost always there if you can get over yourself and look for them--so that I could eventually leave the jerks for something better. Which I most certainly did.

Rebellion is fun.  The problem with being one of those smart girls (as opposed to smart guys, if you think about it) is that you always play by the rules.  Understanding quite young how to make the grownups like me, I worked that so I could go off and color outside the lines. I realized early that most institutions have a few lifers who are invested in making sure things are predictable.  The problem is, those people don't move organizations forward.  In fact, they don't get things done because they spend all of their time worrying about what the people in charge think of them.  The Eddie Haskell in me knows I must be deferential for the most part, but that asking uncomfortable question in the right circumstances and taking the odd risk shakes things up. It also mitigates the tedium of the workplace.  Everyone needs more of that.   

Get to know failure.  My freshman roommate at Queen's cried when she got her first B. I laughed at her, because I'd been told from an early age that I wasn't cut out for academic success, yet here I was sitting in the same dorm room with her. I remember the startled look in her eyes when I told her this. Suddenly she realized she could have had a lot more fun in high school and still wound up in the same place. She never really liked me after that. The people who hand down grades, I knew by then, are human.  They have good days and bad.  Some of them are jerks and some of them are really ethical people.  Kind of like bosses.  Taking all of your self-worth from authority is a one-way ticket on the Unfulfilled Potential Express at best; at worst, you end up informing on your neighbor when the Stasi show up. I've had some notable failures--at few jobs I've been terrible at and a marriage that crashed and burned--and yet have managed to eventually land on my feet.  No fun, but the only injury was to my pride. No big deal.

My daughter is a smart girl, but I tell her over and over again that I am proud of her whether she makes an A or not.  Her brother does well, too, but doesn't fret over it at all. My expectation for both of them is post-secondary education, but I'm not hung up on where the they go--beyond whether they feel like it's a worthwhile experience--or whether they make the Dean's List.  In the end, I don't believe it matters all that much. 

So I tell them all of the following: Show up.  Think for yourself.  Treat the people who work with you (and the lady who cleans out your trashcan when you work late) with as much respect as those in authority.  Take a chance and if you fail, get up.  People will admire you for taking the chance. 


  1. brilliant post, wish someone told me this back in high school.