Updated: Jun 14
"We're raising our girls to be perfect, and we're raising our boys to be brave"
“Most girls are taught to avoid risk and failure. 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.”
After first hearing Ms. Saujani discuss this in a TED Talk, I was intrigued. Her comments stuck with me. As a father of 4 young adult children, all at the beginning of their career/adult life, this is of particular interest. Even more so, this interested me for my only daughter. I hoped I taught her to appropriately embrace risk and failure, but it certainly made me wonder. If “perfect” is our cultural standard for raising girls, did I miss something? It seems how we raise our daughters and sons is part of our cultural wiring, like a cultural default. My behavioral economics training suggests straying from the default is difficult.
This article is part of our Personal Finance Journey series. Our series helps you identify high-impact alternatives and make value-enhancing decisions in your personal finance life. We use a decision science and behavioral sciences approach for identifying, planning, and making the most of our life decisions. We provide access to choice architecture-based apps to help you make those decisions,
While not all decisions are financial, almost all significant decisions have a personal finance impact.
About the author: Jeff Hulett is a behavioral economist and a decision scientist. He is an executive with the Definitive Companies. Jeff teaches personal finance and the decision sciences at James Madison University. Jeff is an author and his latest book is Making Choice, Making Money: Your Guide to Making Confident Financial Decisions. His experience includes senior leadership roles in banking and bank risk consulting. Jeff holds advanced degrees in finance, mathematics, and economics. Jeff and his family live in the Washington D.C. area.
In the article, They kept asking about what I wanted to do with my life, but what if I don't know? we demonstrate how "braver" people, those willing to take career risks, are likely to achieve more wealth. In the article, we submit:
People more likely to take career risks, as found in the "Go and Grow" career personality segment, are likely to make more money in their careers. In fact, using lifecycle financial analysis, we modeled the lives of average people in different personality segments to determine that career risk-takers will indeed accumulate substantially more wealth. If you buy into the reasonable assumptions driving the personality differences, this outcome is not particularly surprising.
Ms. Saujani suggests women may be more likely to fear uncertainty because of how they are raised. This suggests there may be fewer women in the higher wealth potential "Go and Grow" segment than men. Regardless of gender, as desired and with some work, we can all adapt our career personalities. The French philosopher Voltaire said: “Perfect is the enemy of good.” In this case, “Perfect is the enemy of making more money!” In our article, we suggest some achievable adaptations to help drive career success and wealth.
I want to believe there is nothing my daughter, or anyone's daughter, cannot accomplish if they put in the work. However, we really did not prove there was not some biological-based difference between men and women. If such a difference existed, it could impact the willingness to take career risks. While I did not want to believe such a biological difference exists, this empirical “loose end” stuck with me. As such, I was excited when I came across empirical support to tie off this loose end. [i]
An interesting study and related empirical tests were completed by the researcher Uri Gneezy and others. They compared one of the few matriarchal societies (societies where women lead and own most of the economic levers) to a few comparable and more typical patriarchal societies. (like the U.S.) The idea of the test was to understand:
When the many cultural (nurture) and biological (nature) differences are experimentally controlled,
- then -
What differences are observed between men and women regarding confidence and willingness to compete in economic games?
Based on the test results, (please see the bar chart) they suggest there are no meaningful nature-based gender differences. The substantive differences are the result of cultural (nurture) differences. That is, how we raise our boys and girls is very significant. [ii] Please note: other cultural differences, including workplace policies, procedures, and habits still make it more challenging for women. Despite workplace challenges, encouraging our daughters and sons to take well-informed risks enable their individual success. [iii]
So, for all our daughters, raising them to be “brave, not perfect” helps them achieve career success. Even if someone was raised more on the "perfect" side of the spectrum, adaptation is possible.
For my only daughter, as of the writing of this article, she is creating early-career momentum. My wife and I did our best to raise her to be brave. It was challenging since we sometimes felt like we were swimming against the cultural current. I am fortunate because my wife is an amazing mom and role model for our daughter. Our "raise our daughter brave" approach included 1) minding our parenting attitude, 2) providing good (non-parent) role models, 3) encouraging her to take risks, and 4) letting her fail. [iv] Next are suggestions for companies and higher education provided by Jennifer Gregory, a freelance writer. [v] This is focused on women in technology, but can certainly be applied to most industries.
Key # 1: Graduate More Women With Computer Science Degrees and Certifications
Key # 2: Ensure Women Earn Promotions at Comparable Rates as Men
Key #3: Revamping the Recruiting & Hiring Process to Attract and Hire Women
A few years ago, my daughter received her college diploma in Finance and Data Science. In the 2020s, finance and data science academic programs are still largely dominated by young men. Today, she works for a large consumer bank, in the data science and risk management domains. (Yes, she is a “Girl Who Codes” and much more!) She is growing and finding professional and personal success.
She regularly attends bank meetings where she is the only woman. I asked if it bothers her. She said:
"Not really, I'm used to it."
Then, with a smile, she said:
"It’s how you and Mom raised me."
It is generally recognized the U.S. has a patriarchal culture and related systemic biases. This creates career challenges for women. Through awareness and active engagement, companies are making workplace changes to improve company culture regarding gender. The change will take time. In a recent study by McKinsey and Company, they suggest there is still a “broken rung” on the corporate ladder where women tend to fall away. Also, not all people are motivated by money or career success. The good news is, regardless of our motivation or gender, we are born with the ability to achieve whatever success is our motivation's desire. While the cultural current may not always flow to our advantage, raising our children to be brave is certainly within reach.
My final thought is, we all have choices to make. As such, we should choose to:
1) Raise our daughters and sons to be brave, to believe that well-informed risk-taking is not only ok, but expected.
2) Raise our daughters and sons NOT to fear math. Provide avenues for "everyday math" success in their elementary and secondary education.
- AND -
3) Keep hammering away at institutions and cultural habits that may obstruct our daughters or sons from earning their motivation’s desire.
[i] Hulett, Changing our mind, 2021
In this article, we explore the “weight of evidence” and the psychology of decision-making.
[ii] List, Gneezy, The Why Axis, 2013
[iii] You may be wondering, how a boy “swinging high” as Ms. Saujani suggests in the introduction, relates to a well-informed risk worth taking? At first blush, this may seem like a dumb risk. Not so! “Swinging high” is certainly a well-informed risk. Allow me to explain. If you consider "swinging high" as a tradeable transaction, then key risk controls include:
Frequency risk management - (reducing the chance of something bad happening):
The swing set is likely anchored in the ground,
The swings are likely sturdy and secure,
The child has likely been taught to hold and sit properly in the swing, and
A parent is likely monitoring.
Severity risk management - (if something bad happens, reducing the impact):
In the event the child falls off the swing, the ground is likely cushioned.
Children’s bodies are incredibly resilient with pliable soft tissue to absorb impact.
Even if they get a bump or bruise, children are super fast and fulsome healers.
As such, the "swinging high" transaction is almost fully hedged, indeed, a well-informed risk. Beyond an almost fully hedged risk position, these high swinging boys are earning an investment return. They are learning, as Theodore Roosevelt encourages, to be “In The Arena.” In other words, they are learning to take well-informed risks to drive success.
This seems like an amazing risk/return trade to me! AND a trade worthy of our daughters.....
[iv] Wint, How to raise your daughter to be brave, "More Time Moms," 2017
[v] Gregory, The Empowering Guide for Women in Tech in 2023, Website Planet, 2023