Girls Are Not Defective

Mabelle Zhang

Girls perform better than boys in school. Across all grade levels, subject areas, and countries, girls consistently work harder and get higher grades. However, girls’ success in academic performance does not often translate into the workforce. There, men are more likely to be promoted, hold higher-level positions, and have a higher salary.  Some point to the idea that schools are failing to teach girls the rights skills to succeed in the workforce. Right now, schools are rewarding compliance over competition and quiet diligence over risk-taking. In order for girls to succeed, we need to teach them to adopt traditionally masculine traits over feminine traits– to be more confident, to be louder, to take risks. In short, we should teach girls to be more like boys. 

But girls are not defective, and femininity is not bad. So often, equality for women means catching up with men. To be successful is to match up to their successes. However, we need to learn to love the qualities of girls and women.

Whether through nurture or nature, men and women are perceived to have different social characteristics. Men are perceived to be aggressive, competitive, and confident. Women are perceived to be nurturing, collaborative, and humble.  However, caring, collaboration and empathy are too often used to make false judgments about the qualifications of women and girls. Women are too caring so they are natural caretakers. Women are too collaborative so they cannot succeed in a competitive work environment. Women are too emotional so they cannot make important decisions. The list goes on and on. These perceived gender differences form the basis for gender stereotypes where patriarchy privileges masculine traits and looks down on feminine traits. In order to succeed, women are taught to downplay their femininity. Success comes to women when they act more like a man.

I used to think that my femininity was a weakness. In order to be taken seriously, I had to raise my voice and exert my presence to fill a room. I had to be decisive and overly confident, even when that didn’t reflect how I felt inside. I took my behavioral cues from the men in the room —  I needed to be better, more confident, smarter, quicker than the men in the room. I could not let my femininity be a weakness.

But I was misguided. I’ve grown in many ways through college, and this is one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned. There is strength in listening, caring, and hearing others first. I am okay, now, to not fight to share my opinion first. Instead, I sit and listen to others speak. I try to engage more with the contributions of others. I want to understand where they come from and why they think what they do. I’m more comfortable admitting that I need help, and I defer to the expertise of others. I have managed to organically grow my confidence and learned to love everything about myself — including my femininity.

Imagine the world transformed where feminine traits and values become the norm. Prison would turn from a system of punishment to a place of rehabilitation and healing. Courts and judges would be more sympathetic to those involved and seek to help and not harm. Work would transform from a competitive environment to a collaborative place that values each person’s contributions. Government would become a more caring and empathetic place. Instead of speaking blindly for the people, representatives would listen more to real concerns. A 2016 study showed that female legislators are more collaborative, more willing to work across party lines, and more willing to compromise than male legislators. Given the political gridlock of the last few years leading to several government shutdowns, we need more collaboration in government. Feminine traits of collaboration, care, hard work, and empathy are not weaknesses, but strengths. We could create a more caring and collaborative place for all.

Don’t get me wrong. Confidence is important to foster in girls, especially when the confidence gap persists. Right now, women only feel confident when they are perfect. They see themselves as less qualified and less competent than their male peers. However, trying to close the gap by telling women to be more like men is not the way to go. 

Additionally, I am not suggesting that transforming culture through valuing feminine traits would get rid of gender bias and discrimination. The reason why masculine traits are valued in the first place is due to deep-rooted misogyny that accepts men as better than women — valuing masculine traits is simply coded for valuing men. To address this, we need a larger and more comprehensive transformation. Within this transformation, valuing feminine traits can be a starting point and a principle that should constantly strive for.

So to those who say schools are not teaching girls the right skills: It’s not that schools do not teach the right skills, but that that workplace does not value the right traits. We should be teaching students to listen first, to value the opinions of their classmates, and to work hard and be proud of that. Teaching collaboration, care, and hard work should be the values that create a better workplace. It is time for the workplace to change.