Careers

You need to stop aiming for perfection at work – it’s damaging your career

Posted by
Pip Cook
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Woman working on a computer

Our dedication to perfection may be rewarded by good grades in school, but it doesn’t serve us well in the real world…

In the professional world, it’s no secret that women often find themselves at a disadvantage. Not only do we have the gender pay gap to contend with, but studies also show that women’s chances of promotion are much smaller than those of their male colleagues. 

Throw in the fact that we’re far less likely to ask our employers for a raise, and things start to look pretty bleak.

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While there’s no denying that the odds are stacked against us for a whole range of reasons, it is also worth considering the hurdles that exist within ourselves.

Research shows that women are far more likely to underestimate their own intelligence than men, and significantly less likely to see themselves as cleverer than those around them despite there being no evidence to support this. Studies have also found that we also have far lower levels of self-esteem than men, and less faith in our abilities. A report found that men apply for a job or promotion when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, whereas women only apply if they meet 100% of them.

So where does this lack of confidence come from?

A happy woman at work
Could the myth of perfectionism be negatively impacting our careers?

In a TEDTalk that has attracted over 4.5 million views so far, author of Brave, Not Perfect and founder of Girls Who Code Reshma Saujuani argues that the answer lies in how girls are raised and socialised to aspire to perfection, whereas boys are taught to be brave.

“Most girls are taught to avoid risk and failure,” says Saujuani. “We’re taught to smile pretty, play it safe, get all A’s. Boys, on the other hand, are taught to play rough, swing high, crawl to the top of the monkey bars and then just jump off headfirst.”

These gender stereotypes may sound outdated, but sadly they’re still showing up in our playgrounds and classrooms. Studies have found girls to be far more likely to give up on a task that they find difficult, whereas boys’ habituation to risk-taking means they embrace the same tasks as challenges. They’re taught not to fear failure but embrace it as a way to improve, whereas girls would rather avoid something altogether if they’re unsure whether they can do it perfectly.

It’s increasingly common for girls as young as 7 to admit to becoming more self-conscious, giving up on activities such as sport for fear of being judged or a lack of confidence. Girls are also far less likely to take STEM subjects such as physics and maths where answers tend to be definitively right or wrong, meaning there’s a greater chance of embarrassment when you put your hand up in class. 

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This dedication to perfection may be rewarded by good grades in school – girls have consistently outperformed boys in the UK exam system for some time – but it doesn’t seem to serve us well in the real world. Our lower self-esteem could be to blame for our hesitance to step out of our comfort zones and risk trying things we might not excel at. On top of this, we also generally care a lot more about the judgement of those around us. From keeping quiet in board meetings for fear of being called ‘bossy’ to avoiding blowing our own trumpet and coming across arrogant to colleagues, women are more likely to side-step opportunities to prove ourselves for fear of failure, embarrassment or being disliked

So if perfectionism is holding us back at work, how do we go about kicking a lifelong habit?

Saujani argues that we have to start teaching ourselves to be brave, rather than striving to be perfect. “Bravery is a muscle,” she says. “We need to exercise it. We need to practice doing things we’re mediocre in. We need to practice imperfection.”

Whether it’s speaking up when you think a colleague is in the wrong, volunteering to take the lead on a project which is outside your area of expertise or embarking on a total career change, it could be worth considering just going for it rather than worrying it might not be the perfect choice. As the phrase goes, ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained’. Maybe being brave and taking a few risks, however big or small, could lead you somewhere great.

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