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Being Smart and Being Good

I hate running. I don’t get people who love runners’ high (but more power to them). I tried running for a bus once, and I missed it. That’s the kind of attitude I have toward running. It’s been this way pretty much my whole life. I played soccer in middle school, and I dreaded the laps that seemed endless.

And it seemed like everyone got done first. Everyone else got done first in gym class trips around the track too. In short, I was slow. And I hated running.  It was a struggle for me, and I didn’t want to try. I wasn’t used to being less than great as an 11 year old.

Turns out, I might not be alone. A few years ago, Carol Dweck did a study of 5th graders and difficult tasks. “She found that bright girls, when given something to learn that was particularly foreign or complex, were quick to give up–and the higher the girls’ IQ, the more likely they were to throw in the towel.” Why on earth would girls who are so smart give up so easily?

The answer, Dweck theorized, was in how girls view their intelligence. Intelligence wasn’t a continuing challenge, rather, it was a static trait. Capable of self-control earlier than boys, relieved adults often praise girls in terms of “being” verbs – you are smart, are a great student, are clever. All true, but static.

There is no effort behind it – it simply is an aspect of themselves. Boys, however, are often treated with more explanantion – “if you settle down, you can learn this,” “if you think about it, you’ll understand.” In short, we are constantly explaining to boys that putting effort into learning will yield different – more desirable – results. We teach them that they are in the process of becoming.

Fast forward 15 years, and these 5th graders are starting their careers. Far fewer women are entering STEM fields than men. Men rise faster in leadership positions than woman. Why?

Perhaps because these women, bright girls of the 5th grade, are still stuck on wanting to “be smart.” The struggle of something just out of their reach makes them question themselves, rather than the problem.

Women too often bow out, believing that the struggle to learn makes them “not good enough” rather than simply in a learning process. It can lead to frustration, burnout, and underperformance.

Now, this isn’t the only reason that women don’t pursue technically demanding career paths or leadership positions, but it’s something to consider. In a field like librarianship, where more women work than men, this “being smart” syndrome could affect an entire industry, holding people back from potential innovations and learning opportunities.

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