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.