“If life were one long grade school, women would rule the world.”
I remember when I was forced to withdraw from my first year at college. It had been my first time on my own, away from my family, and in another country, albeit a familiar one. I went home early that summer feeling like a complete idiot. I’d had so many hopes and ideas of what my life would be like, of who I’d become, once I left for a life outside the town I grew up in. Instead, I never felt younger, unprepared, and more stupid than when I had to pack up my car with all the stuff to go back home.
Yet, a few months later I returned to the States and eventually I did graduate, mind you I got a lackluster GPA I’ve never been able to live down. I remember someone I dated telling me that they thought I’d be smarter than my 2.9 average. That comment hurt me so much. It was as if I hadn’t done enough. It felt as if all I thought I’d accomplished doing two or three internships a semester my last two years was worthless. But as I’ve continued on my journey, I’ve realized that I shouldn’t have taken it that way. After all, why would someone judge my character based on my grades?
Reshma Saujani, CEO of Girls Who Code, recently gave a commencement speech at Harvard. Usually, theses talks are blanket statements about changing the world and personal success stories, but Saujani spoke about her own experience with failure. A year ago, she also gave a Ted Talk about the importance of teaching young women to leave their comfort zone and explore new possibilities. The problem seems to lie more in the social construct than on actual capabilities: young women are taught to be appropriate, careful, and academically smart. Yet young men are allowed more leeway in terms of grades in favor or experimentation. “In other words, we're raising our girls to be perfect, and we're raising our boys to be brave.”
As women, we’re taught to stay within our spaces and frameworks. Yet, when we leave the academic realm, we soon find out that nobody plays by those rules outside of there. So we freeze up or play it too safe. We stay on the sidelines when we know we can do better, because we’re afraid that we won’t be able to pull it off. We refuse to take leaps of faith. And that ends up hurting all of us.
At first glance you might think Saujani is only referring to Silicon Valley. But if you think about it, how many female CEO’s are there compared to men? Of 2016’s Fortune 500 companies, only 4.2% were helmed by women. That means we’re not even 10% represented in the business sector. This comes with several implications on a global level. We cannot ask for gender equality when the people running businesses and influencing the world’s panorama are, not only a majority, but a landslide majority of men. We need to change the paradigms that keep young women afraid of asking questions, of not getting it right the first time, of speaking up. If not, we are headed for another hundred years of hoping for a new mindset while still tripping over the same rock.
It’s okay to get it wrong. We all stumble or hit dead-ends during our lifetime. The difference is how we learn from them and understand how they can become assets rather than blemishes on our story. I finished college with not the best grades. But instead of feeling like I deserved less than other people, I kept trying for new possibilities and chances. I’m far from being Reshma Saujani, but I can still see where she’s coming from. The moment we let go of our idea of being everything to everyone, when we realize that our limitations don’t control us, then we begin to actually excel and achieve what we want.
Images by Jethro Alaba