I was a bright and precocious child—or a nerd, or a teacher’s pet, depending on whom you asked. I loved reading more than TV. I took science classes as an after-school activity for fun. Things at school came easily to me.
Except when they didn’t. When I was confronted with a challenge I couldn’t immediately solve, my whole world crumbled. It didn’t take long. Just a few minutes of grappling with something unfamiliar could leave me sobbing and declaring I would never try it again. That may be why I tried and quickly tossed aside piano lessons, ballet classes and basketball teams in turn.
And I never quite shook that habit. When I arrived at college, a small fish in an enormous pond, I received less than perfect grades for the first time in my life. What many might shrug off as meaningless in the grand scheme of life shook my foundations. Did I deserve to be there? Was I smart? Have I gotten everything wrong? Maybe I should have stayed in a smaller pond that would be easier to dominate, I thought.
This reaction to getting lower grades is, apparently, not unique to my perfectionism and me. Women have overtaken men in college attendance. Yet they end up being just about 30 percent of the people who graduate with economics degrees and 41 percent of those from science and engineering programs.
And a pair of studies diagnose one source of this leaking pipeline: these disciplines grade on a tough curve, and as women’s grades fall in economics or STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) classes, their likelihood of ditching those classes rises. Catherine Rampell, who draws the studies together in The Washington Post, worries this means women are self-selecting out “because they fear delivering imperfection in the ‘hard’ fields” and urges women “to overcome our B-phobia.” She concludes, “Rinse yourselves of the intoxicating waters of Lake Wobegon, ladies, and embrace meaningful mediocrity.”
It is troubling that women might be pulling themselves out of a whole area of study because they fear lower grades—a metric that rarely follows students into their professional lives. Yet while Rampell’s tough talk might work for some, it ignores the fact that women are brought up to rightly fear failing. Women have been taught to be B-phobic.
In a series of studies in the 1980s, psychologist Carol Dweck looked at how bright fifth graders handled challenging materials. She found that girls quickly give up when given something new and complex. Boys, on the other hand, see it as a challenge and are more likely to try again instead of throwing in the towel. In writing about this study, Heidi Grant Halvorson, says, “The only difference was how bright boys and girls interpreted difficulty—what it meant to them when material seemed hard to learn.” Bright girls lost confidence quickly, and researchers found it’s because they think their abilities are something innate and immutable. Boys think that can gain abilities by trying harder.