Why We Don't Have More Female CEOs (or Baseball Umpires)
March 6th, 2019
No, it's not because we don't "lean in." Sexism might be too simple of a word to cover it.
Recently, Lisa Damour—a clinical psychologist who specializes in female adolescent development (and has authored two bestselling books, Untangled and Under Pressure, about transitions, stress, and anxiety in teenage girls’ lives)—wrote an op-ed in The New York Times entitled “Why Girls Beat Boys at School and Lose to Them at the Office.” Before I saw it while scrolling through the newspaper’s “Most Popular” list (it sat at the top!), I had received emails and messages from multiple people, ranging from my parents’ friends to my own, telling me that I had to read this supposedly brilliant article.
When I finally got around to clicking the link and reading through the piece, I was shocked. Every fact that Damour laid out I had, on some level, already been aware of, but I had never seen all of them put together in such an intentional way, like puzzle pieces that didn’t know one another existed. Yes, girls do better than boys in school. Yes, I personally believe that the girls in my life tend to be more competent than the boys. And yes, I suppose I acknowledge the fact that men fill a vast, vast majority of top positions in the working world (the example that Damour uses is that they make up 95 percent of CEOs).
But I had never, ever before drawn the earth-shattering conclusion that Damour does: school, and our tendency to excel at school as females, may set us up to prioritize competence over confidence later in life, and therefore to undermine our own abilities to move up in the workplace. One of the statistics I’ve heard often recently, especially as I’ve discussed this article with other girls my age, is that men will apply for a job if they meet 60 percent of the qualifications, while women will only apply if they meet—you guessed it!—100 percent. Essentially, Damour argues that because girls learn in school that the only path to success is overachieving, they don’t have the confidence they need later in adult life to complete a task with only minimal effort, as is required in a CEO-type job—there is never time for everything, and so learning to fake your way through something is perhaps a valuable skill, one that boys learn in school but girls do not. Her solution to the problem? Make sure that girls don’t make 50 flashcards when they are only assigned 20; encourage girls with high-A averages to hold back on doing that extra credit; know that getting an 80 takes half as much time as getting a 100.
Initially, I was wowed by this conclusion, admiring of Damour for having the insight to create it. A few days after I first encountered the article, a feminism club at my school that I’m a part of decided to devote a meeting to discussing the themes of the article more in-depth. The deeper into the conversation we got, the more patterns, which I had previously shelved away as entirely normal, became gendered—as they truly are—in my mind. Boys copy and cheat more than girls do. Girls participate and speak in class more than boys do. When a boy who tends to slack off does offer any small contribution, he is celebrated by the teacher. Girls try to gain boys’ favor by helping them with schoolwork, while the reverse almost never happens. Boys’ successfully slacking off is celebrated in a way that girls doing the same simply is not. If I am making generalizations, please do let me know, but here’s the thing: I really don’t think I am. At the very least, these patterns have persisted at every one of the five schools I have been to thus far.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized how much these gendered classroom stereotypes permeate multiple aspects of my life. I currently play on my high school’s softball team, and I have played local softball for eight years. Last year, though, I graduated out of the local league, which meant no more softball in my neighborhood —there aren’t enough interested girls to create a casual high school-age league in my area. So my friend (a former teammate) and I decided to further our local softball careers in a different way: go to umpire school and, in the springs to come, work as umpires at little kids’ games (for a sizable 40 dollars each!). The sessions are held every Sunday in various middle school cafeterias around Brooklyn. They consist of two parts: a 45-minute lecture, and then an hour-long skills practice.
Of the approximately 20 or so members of the class, my friend and I are the only girls (and I am relatively sure we are the first girls they have ever had in the class). Suppliers don’t make the required umpire pants in girls’ sizes. Every single instructor is male, and I’ve heard both “sorry for this, girls, but [insert expletive]” and “so do you gals even know how baseball pitching works?” from them. I’ve also been warned, countless times, that we, as girls, have to be extra-confident when working as umpires, because coaches will see a female face behind the mask and try to intimidate us—try to get us to twist the rules in their favor. The instructor who leads lectures finds it fully impossible to use gender-neutral pronouns when he describes situations, and remembers about a third of the time to apologize to us for it.
And here’s the other thing that’s kind of crazy, but somehow makes sense: because I am fully aware of my gender during these sessions, I am also fully aware of how differently my female friend and I act from the other boys in the class. We have each taken at least five pages of notes during every session, and I have never—not once—seen any boy so much as take out a piece of paper and a pen. We are always on time; everyone else is consistently late. My friend and I overcompensate, try to make up for our almost unwelcome and out-of-place femaleness, by frantically writing down everything we hear, by never being late to class, and by trying to be perfect “students.”
So there’s where my interpretation of Damour’s article changes from what in initially was. I agree with almost everything she said on a surface level, but I don’t think the larger picture she paints is accurate in a fully cohesive way. My friend and I did try to overcompensate while sitting in umpire school, but the reason for that tendency was that we were in an environment that told us we had to try harder, scribble faster, and listen more carefully to what was being said in order to even begin to succeed. Regular school is nowhere near as difficult for girls as umpire school is, but I think the workplace might be. Damour fails to address the why that undermines every point she makes. Why do we feel like we have to overachieve in school? For girls, learning to prioritize and do only what is necessary might help them survive school a little better, but it does not explain why men hold 95 percent of CEO titles. I think the reason for that is a little more closely related to the reason for why boys feel like they can slide by with less, while girls feel like they can only scrape by with more: biases that we learn from the moment we take our first breaths. We need to stop blaming women for sexism. And to all the NYC students reading this article—the next time you step into a classroom, try to acknowledge the gendered patterns that will inevitably exist; acknowledging them is the first step to changing them.