Nerdy Chicks and Losing

Scantron-Bubble-TestI like to joke that I don’t like to play games that I can’t win. It’s a way to show my competitiveness, and also a way for me to brag a little bit about my abilities. But the truth is that I don’t like playing games I can’t win because I really cannot handle losing.

A lot of smart women feel the same way I do. And it turns out that our inability to face losing might be what is holding us back.

The data shows that in elementary school, girls get better grades than boys, with both performing equally well on standardized tests. But by the time they get to high school, boys open up a lead in standardized test scores – an average of 33 points higher than girls on the SAT – even though girls graduate high school with a higher average GPA.

After we move on from high school, things get worse. Girls – or, women, rather – really start to lose ground to men. In the US, women represent almost 60% of college students but later earn roughly 77 cents for every dollar earned by white men. Although 54% of advanced AP/Honors math students are girls, fewer than 25% of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) jobs are held by women. Even without citing hard statistics, we all know that when it comes to leadership, managerial, or executive positions, women lag behind men significantly.

As parents and educators of Nerdy Chicks, there are many issues that lead to these gaps in achievement that we cannot change in a day (or in a single blog post). But there is one thing that we can start to address that could quite possibly make a difference: the way we give our Nerdy Chicks feedback on their academic performance.

good gradesOne theory about why girls do better in younger grades has to do with the ability of girls to perform well at the social side of education. Girls learn self-control earlier, follow instructions better, and generally behave in more acceptable ways than boys. In other words, they are “good.” Probably, these things collectively help them learn better, and often, they get praised for their academic performance in a way that is linked to their “goodness.” When you tell your daughter that she is very smart or a great student, it can start to sound like being smart or being a good student is something innate, something she was born with, something that is as much a part of her as her hair color or her nose.

For the record, I’m guilty of doing just this. I have often told my daughters how smart they are in the same breath that I tell them how beautiful they are. Even though one is changeable and the other is inherent.

The feedback that we give boys is very different. Because boys are often less conscientious, they are encouraged to try harder and put in more effort. The result is that boys learn that trying hard or putting in effort is far more important that what grade you get. Over time, this might be what accounts for the ability of boys to succeed.

Studies have shown that when students face advanced material that doesn’t come easily, boys react to the difficulty by continuing to try hard and put in an effort. Girls, on the other hand, may view the difficulty as a sign of the failure of their brains to handle it. They’d rather not try something and fail at it, because that would just prove that they aren’t “good” or “smart.”

In other words, boys play games they can’t win because they believe that they can figure out how to win with enough effort. Girls stop playing when they can’t win. You know, like I do.

I’ve been this way for so long that, even though I recognize the logic here, I’m not sure I can change. I’m not sure I can find the confidence to try something I might not be good at, to publicly fail, to “set myself up” for potential embarrassment. But I think I’d like to teach my girls a different way. So from now on, I’m not going to praise my kids for being smart – I’m going to praise how hard they tried. I’m going to link their success to their exertion, and I’m going to make their effort, not the grade they get, the goal. Whenever possible, I’m going to make them play a game they can’t win. Because, hopefully, I’ll be able to convince them that not winning today doesn’t mean never winning – that every loss will bring them closer to winning one day.

On that day that they win, I will cheer. I will be proud of them. And, probably, I won’t ever play with them again. Because I really can’t handle losing.winking face




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19 comments on “Nerdy Chicks and Losing

  1. That was a winning post! (But don’t be afraid to try harder next time.)

  2. Cathy Ballou Mealey says:

    I highly recommend the blog A Mighty Girl if you are looking for more resources to empower girls (and boys) to become strong, self-confident learners.

  3. When I was a young teacher, I discovered that the boys behaved better if I called on them more often. So that’s what I did. It took me about a year before I realized the implications of what that meant for the girls!

  4. Tara Lazar says:

    This is why I no longer play Words with Friends with you. I’d start off strong, then slowly succumb to Sudipta’s stellar score. Bummer.

  5. Kelly H-Y says:

    So interesting! Awesome post!

  6. “I’m not sure I can find the confidence to try something I might not be good at, to publicly fail, to “set myself up” for potential embarrassment.”

    Uh, sweetie, you decided to become an AUTHOR. That is ALL ABOUT doing stuff that you won’t be good at FOR YEARS; involves both public weeping and Kermit flails; and includes tons of embarrassment if you’re doing it right (was that scene based on your real life? uh, no? but really yes). By pursuing your dream all the way to publication, you have exemplified all the good things about this article, namely the WORKING HARD, because you SO HAVE.

  7. Papa J Funk says:

    This is a very interesting take on that ny mag article I saw the other day (how not to talk to your kids). I buy it. Ever since I read about the inverse power of praise (yesterday), I’ve made an effort to praise … well, effort – rather than results (or ‘smartness’).

    Wait, are dudes allowed to comment on this site? At least one of my descendents will likely grow to be a nerdy chick if that gets me any points.

  8. kamikinard says:

    We love dudes. Thanks for commenting! And now I’m starting to understand why Sudipta has never asked me to play Scrabble.

  9. Woah. This was a seriously amazing post, Sudipta! Thanks for sharing your thoughts with the world. Your girls are awesome and I love them both so much. I have no doubt that life will hand them a fair share of failure and that that very knowledgable and intelligent mom will know just what to do to make sure that the failure doesn’t feel so polarizing.

    On a side note, I’d love to see this study done to some extent using video games. We know that 2 of every 5 gamers are female, but I wonder how different the game preference is for these different gendered gamers. Are boys playing games that involve a greater degree of failure (Call of Duty, Minecraft, Mario, etc.) versus those that are more about the game experience (Animal Crossing, Sims, Farmville, etc.). Failure plays such a huge role in gaming. Would be cool to find out more.

    • sudiptabq says:

      That is actually a very interesting point. My hypothesis is that you are right, girls are more risk averse compared to boys. Not saying that risk averse is bad, by the way – just that reinforcing a reluctance to fail leads to certain personality development vs allowing for failure and recovery….

  10. […] between boys and girls, just in the ways they are encouraged to pursue certain fields or careers. (We’ve even blogged about this here earlier this year.) So, if you believe in your Nerdy Chick, encourage her to try things, pursue her interests, follow […]

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