Cultivating Mindset: The Trouble with Bright Girls and the Women They Become

In this recent Huffington Post article, “The Trouble with Bright Girls,”Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson describes how professional women and men typically see their talents and their opportunities differently. Professional women, while often achieving lower levels of authority and power in their organizations than men, often view their skills and professional worth in fundamentally different ways than men. Women seem to have more of a closed mindset, meaning that they see abilities as innate and fixed, rather than subject to change and expansion (see Mindset by Carol Dweck). By contrast, professional men seem to view their skills as open to adaptation and development, and they do a much better job of selling their skills to their employers and overcoming challenges they face on the job.

Dr. Carol Dweck’s observations of grade-school children in the 1980s showed that the gender divide is visible from an early age: Over-achieving girls tended to give up more easily than their male counterparts when faced with new challenges. Despite experiences of academic success, bright girls seemed much less willing to take risks, make mistakes, and grow their skills and abilities. These girls have now grown up, entered the workforce, and are still underselling themselves.

As a professional, I can definitely see this dynamic. I’ve been around long enough to see professional women who went to some of the best graduate schools in the US disparage and doubt their abilities while men who don’t meet the same standards, but seem to have a confidence about them, soar ahead. I’ve also seen women cast disdain on other women who seem to transcend these stereotypes and rise up the ranks of a corporation. When I asked one of these disdainful women why she was so disparaging toward women who rose up quickly in a company, she said it was because these women needed to put in their due time to earn the right to a promotion (although she didn’t hold the same requirement for men). That is another sign of a closed mindset: adhering closely to rules, structure, and time as markers of success rather than creativity, ambition, and talent development. When many women have a closed mindset or a belief that our abilities are stagnant and fixed, it means that we’re collectively selling ourselves short.

Why do women tend to view their abilities as fixed and innate, while men are often more able to believe in their capacity to grow, expand, adapt, and meet new challenges? According to Halverson, a lot of it has to do with how we deliver praise differently to male and female children. As a society, we often praise girls for qualities that are more innate: how good, how smart, how well-behaved. Boys, it turns out, are more often praised for their efforts, for the work that they do. This encourages boys to take risks, challenge themselves, and even receive and recover from criticism better.

I believe this has implications for how we praise men and women in Mormonism. When we separate LDS men and women to sort out their differences, women are constantly praised for being “angel mothers,” for their self-sacrificing nature, for their gentleness, for their femininity, for their kindheartedness, for their natural nurturing tendencies; in other words, not for their efforts, but for their innate and fixed qualities. Mormons talk about women as inherently more spiritual, and therefore, our goodness is inherent. But men are shown to be those who have to work and struggle, who have to go out and fight their natural selves and evil and are praised when they, through their efforts, overcome their adversaries.

Is it any wonder that Mormon women struggle so much with their self-worth? That so many women come away from church each Mother’s Day feeling like failures? Perhaps this is one root cause: We are training Mormon girls and women to see their value as purely innate. We send them messages that as daughters of God, they don’t need to do anything to be of infinite worth. But at Priesthood sessions, we ask our men to shape up, to work hard, to raise the bar. Praise for innate qualities eventually falls flat. Sure, it’s nice and important to have unconditional love from God or those close to us, but that’s not the same thing as receiving encouragement and praise for the efforts we work very hard to make.

As women, we want to grow, we want to meet real challenges, and, above all, we want to be praised for the hard work we do and the challenges we have met to become the women that we are. No woman is born into perfection. Let’s help mold women who will be willing and anxious to meet new challenges, and let’s credit the women who struggle every day to learn and acquire new skills and lessons in their homes and communities, at their workplaces and schools, and most importantly, within themselves.

Alisa

Alisa is a professional adult educator and corporate manager who enjoys spending time with her husband and son.

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20 Responses

  1. Stella says:

    Alisa,

    I LOVE that you posted about this. I read the same article and printed it out for my 11th and 12th grade students to read and respond to. The responses were TRAGIC in my mind. The girls ALL agreed that they give up too easily and that they need to try harder. They TOOK all the blame. Their minds wouldn’t even let them explore another option.

    The male students said, “Yeah, see, it’s not all OUR fault. Girls just give up and we don’t.”

    Comments and responses got as bad as boys saying that girls aren’t EVEN CAPABLE of being as smart as men. One boy wrote that the more intelligent a girl seemed, the less feminine she became. Another boy wrote that he would ask ANY male for help on his homework before he would ask his own girlfriend and if she seemed smarter than he was, he would break up with her.

    These were not fabricated. These were straight out of Utah county high schoolers mouths.

    Slap hand against forehead now!

    • Laura says:

      Stella,

      I confess I’m not terribly surprised by your students’ responses, though I’m definitely saddened by this. I went to high school in Utah County. Junior year, I had quite the crush on the boy who sat next to me in AP Calculus. We did homework together, which I rather enjoyed, and it was all well and good until the time I aced a quiz that he had failed. He didn’t speak to me for days. My 16-year-old self was rather devastated by that. It rather reinforced what my mother was always telling me: “Boys don’t like it if you’re smarter than them.” Sigh.

      Not an easy experience, but fortunately, not fatal for me. I earned a master’s degree in a branch of applied physics, and have a job I really enjoy. 🙂

      I do so wish I could help change things for the next generation of girls. If I only knew what to do…

  2. Amy says:

    Thanks for that! SO thought provoking! And I see that in myself and my own daughter. I need to do some thinking to see what I can do to make a change there!

  3. jks says:

    I do see this problem. I have been trying to only compliment my children on effort but I think my older daughter is falling prey to this type of thinking (she is very intelligent). I disagree that it is ONLY socialized though.
    It is a trait that I think I can be counteracted by the environment. Nurtureshock had an article about it (not based on gender though) which I really took to heart.
    How to get children/teens/girls to be willing to take on challenges?
    I recently bought a book called “Do Hard Things” for teens. I plan to leave that lying around for my daughter to read.
    My 13 year old did scare me at how she wanted to pull out of a church lip sync activity because she couldn’t learn the dances. I had to “force” her to participate. I hope she learned that it wasn’t so bad and that she can do hard things. I’m sure I’ll have to do it again and again.
    I’m glad she is in a gifted program so that she has some hard things to do at school (although math is still easy for her–algebra in 7th grade). I am quite sure that when math gets super hard (past calculus) she won’t want to do it anymore.

  4. Ardis says:

    This makes sense as I look back over my own life. Remember that youth where you wrote your name at the top of a page and passed it to the person on your right; everybody wrote something complimentary about the person whose name was at the top, folded the page so their comment couldn’t be seen, then passed the paper to the next in line. Eventually you got your own paper back with something nice written by everybody in the room.

    It was supposed to make you feel great about yourself because of all the nice things everybody said. It just frustrated me, though — whenever we did that, 100% of the “compliments” were exactly the same: “she’s smart.” That was nice, but that’s all anybody ever noticed. And I hadn’t done anything to “be smart” — it was an innate quality, as you’ve put it here. Nobody ever noticed what I had worked so hard to improve and develop.

    Ever since then I’ve tried to compliment people for things they *did*, rather than for things they *were* — thanks for such-and-such a helpful comment in class, thanks for waiting for me to walk across the ice before driving too close to me, instead of “you’re nice” or “you’re courteous” or “you’re smart.”

    • Ziff says:

      Ever since then I’ve tried to compliment people for things they *did*, rather than for things they *were*

      I really like this approach, Ardis. I think I’m going to have to try using it.

  5. Ardis says:

    *youth activity (sigh)

  6. Starfoxy says:

    One thing that I think may be an influence is the aspect of ‘looks.’ Most people will agree that in our society a woman’s looks/appearance/personae/image are among her most important qualities. There is no way that little girls don’t pick up on this very very early on. And while it may be tempting to write off women who refuse to try something new because ‘I’ll break a nail!’ as vain and shallow- those same women are simply putting their priorities exactly where their culture says they should.
    With that in mind a major aspect of trying something new, or working at something is the possibility of looking like an idiot. I think that there is higher cost for girls trying something new, because when they fail or look silly while they’re learning their image (most important asset!) will suffer. I think this is especially true of physical performance based activities (dance, sports, etc) but it is also true of other activities that girls find intimidating (car repair, plumbing etc.).
    I think for many girls, “I can’t do that” often means “I can’t do that and still look good.”

    • Ziff says:

      Good point, Starfoxy! So thinking about Alisa’s post, what would you (or anyone else reading) say you learned growing up about looks being something you were or something you did? I mean, it seems like there are clear elements of both, but I’m wondering whether one or the other predominates.

  7. Whoa-man says:

    This is phenomenal. I’ve been thinking and talking about all of these ideas but never put them together so eloquently. Well done Alisa.

  8. Caroline says:

    Alisa, this is brilliant. I can see this dynamic playing out in my own life. At one point when I was in between jobs, I thought it would be great for me to work on writing a young adult novel. I knew exactly what I liked in these novels and figured I was creative enough to come up with something interesting. But ultimately, I was paralyzed by fear of my own failure. After reading a lot of books on creative writing and rereading tons of YA books I admired, I wrote not a single word.

    Contrast that with my husband who decides one Christmas break that he’s going to write a novel for his 10 year old niece. And he just does it! And then a few months ago he decided to write a Mormon short story. And he just does it! He’s an economist – not even in the humanities, so unlike me, he’s had no training in literature. And there’s so little fear of failure, such confidence that he can work on it, learn from it, and be glad he did it in the end.

    I’m going to take this advice here to heart about praising my daughter for what she does, not what she is. Maybe she can escape this cycle of self-doubt and fear that I know I’ve fallen into, at least at certain points in my life.

  9. Angie says:

    For some reason, I have never experienced the things in the op. I think it’s because of how my parents raised me. I remember telling my parents I wanted to be a senator’s wife (the parties and ball gowns and mingling with world leaders sounded cool). My dad said, “Don’t be a senator’s wife! Be a senator!!”

    So my inner confidence has always been strong, but I sure do struggle at church! At least I don’t think the problem is with me – I never feel the urge to change my fundamentally intellectual, extrovert personality, but I do get sad and hurt when I don’t connect to more typical LDS women.

  10. Heidi says:

    Fascinating research and fantastic analysis. I absolutely see this in myself. I was telling a friend earlier today that I’ve enjoyed being in my thirties because I am much more comfortable in my own skin and less of a perfectionist. When I think of my teens and 20s, I think of held breath, being paralyzed by the fear of not doing things well enough and never trying unless I was absolutely sure I could do it “right.” I was a praise junkie who spent a lot of time worrying about how that praise would dry up if I wasn’t pretty, smart or good enough.

  11. Ziff says:

    Excellent, excellent post, Alisa! Great connection of this research to how women and men are talked to in the Church. I’ve always focused on how the rhetoric directed to women has been manifested as praise but has the clear subtext saying that women therefore don’t need anything like general leadership roles or serious administrative power. So the point you made has never occurred to me in any form. But it totally makes sense. Thanks for writing about this!

  12. Stephanie2 says:

    Interesting. I think more like a man. I guess I was raised that way, which is interesting because I always perceived that I had been raised by “traditional” parents because my mom stayed home and had dropped out of school when she got pregnant with me (but it turns out she really dropped out because my dad transferred schools while she was pregnant with me). Anyways, the older I get and the more I get to know my parents as adults, the more I realize how much they have feminist ideas, and I am grateful they instilled in me the concept that I get what I earn. I am hoping this will help me when I re-enter the workforce. I also find that I am helpful to my husband. He is more timid, but I am the one pushing him to be competitive, to ask for the raise.

    “Fascinating Womanhood” suggests that women not compete with men because the men don’t like feeling inferior. I have a friend who did not take a certification test she could have passed because her husband was taking the same test, and she didn’t want him to feel inferior. I also lost a potential boyfriend over this. We studied together nearly every day. I got a B, he got a D. I know he liked me, but I don’t think he could ever bridge that gap of me being smarter than him. I love that my husband doesn’t feel threatened by me. (But I also love that he is a very smart man).

    I’ve also been interested in my interactions with men at church through my callings. The majority of men perceive me as capable and talented and treat me like a colleague. A few men seem threatened by me and do subtle things to try to exert their dominance. I find that sad for them. It must be hard to live when you feel threatened by other people just for their competence.

    My daughter is only 1 (with four older brothers), but so far I don’t see myself as parenting them any different. My daughter actually seems like much more of a go-getter. She knows what she wants, she goes for it and doesn’t let things stand in her way. Sometimes people see her and call her a “prima donna” but she’s not bratty – she’s just secure. I hope she retains that her whole life.

  13. aerin says:

    I thought I sent a comment, but it must have disappeared into the ether. Thanks for this article and post. Very interesting.

  14. Barbaricyawps says:

    I always seem to have a knack for posting on blog entries after the comments have started to go stale. But as I was talking about this blog post on a different forum, I had a little insight that I just had to share.

    If I were to boil down the problem with women being praised for their innate qualities vs. men being praised for their efforts (especially as it relates to Mormonism), I would say it sends the underlying message that women *are* good and men *do* good. Notice that one is clearly passive while the other is clearly active. Innate qualities are beyond one’s control while one’s actions are fully controllable. And so yet again, we see that familiar pattern of women as objects and men as subjects.

    • Caroline says:

      barbaricyapws,
      “the underlying message that women *are* good and men *do* good. Notice that one is clearly passive while the other is clearly active.”

      I love that insight. I think you are right on.

      Of course, I can think of instructions from GA’s to women that involve doing good. But as you point out, a lot of such language is premised with the idea that women naturally *are* nurturers, charity-doers, etc.

  15. spunky says:

    This is interesting, as are the comments. It is a complcated issue, so I am not sure where I sit in regard to agreeing or disagreeing. My personal experience is different: My mother was ill when I was a baby, and probably as a result, I was ill for quite a while when I was little. I can recall her standing over my bed and telling me that she wished I would just die rather than go through life sickly and have a slow death. (I am still quite suspect of my mother’s mental health) Long story short- for some reason, she always told me that I was going to die very young, so I needed to do everything NOW if I wanted to do it.

    As a result, I decided that if I wanted to do something, I would work for it and do it now. And opportunity only knocks once, right? I grabbed every opportunity out there, because if I didn’t I would have no other chance to do so. Compare this to my sisters, who were told, “you can do that AFTER you have a family.” (which is bizarre to think as we were all YW age). But… I think that the “future mother” thing is important to consider for Mormon women… if “family is first” and “women have motherhood and men have priesthood” (bah!)- then we are telling women that after they have their family, then they can do what they choose to do. But until then- they must do what is natural in them– and that is to be a mother. Hence, why bright girls become impatient (I think) when facing obstacles– because who cares what this pysics answer is if you won’t have to really deal with it till you have raised a family? I avoided this marketing because I was told that I would be dead long before motherhood … (I am well past YSA age, BTW- an ongoing diappointment to my mother). So, it is stands to argue that mindset is an important factor… reminding women that they can have a family and further themselves academically now (just as men do), and that they don’t “have” to wait until they have a family is important in cultivating the same “opportunity only knocks once” mindset.

    • Alisa says:

      Thank you everyone for your comments and experiences. It’s good to hear from women who are just now being freed from this, to women who are determined to make a difference for the daughters they raise, to women who haven’t had to struggle with this midset.

      These types are certainly generalities, and life is more nuanced than that. In my experience, I was praised for being smart (an innate quality), but in reality I think I was identifying with and competing against two older (and very successful) brothers. So in a sense, I’ve been praised for the innate while learning to jump through hoops to maintain the appearance of those innate qualities. And, because I admired and mimicked my brothers, in many ways I was somewhat male-identified through a lot of life. I don’t think things really took their toll on me until I was in my 20s, and there I was without a ton of maternal instinct, and instead I had a ton of career ambition. It made it harder for me to find women to connect to. I’ve had a more diffucult time feeling justified for the decisions and choices I’ve made because they aren’t typical LDS female choices. A lot of the praise for innate qualities just doesn’t apply to me. I am a deeply flawed, but very hard working, woman/professional/mother/wife. And I confess that acknowledgment for that at Church this Mother’s Day would be the best surprise ever. Not acknowledgment for cleaning (which is often so behind) or cooking (which my husband does) or my even-tempered nature (ha!), but for juggling my real desire to be a good parent and a good breadwinner at the same time.

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