Reshma Saujani of Girls Who Code has a new book out, Brave, Not Perfect (Feb. 2019). Inspired by her popular TED Talk, she explains different ways that girls and boys are socialized. She says women are raised from an early age to play it safe: “Well-meaning parents and teachers rewarded us for being quiet and polite, urged us to be careful so we don’t get hurt, and steered us to activities at which we could shine. Meanwhile, boys were expected to speak up, get dirty, play rough, and climb to the top of the monkey bars. In short, boys are taught to be brave, while girls are taught to be perfect.”
Indiaspora asked her a few questions about her new book.
1. You share a personal example, when you decided to run for Congress, fail, and yet learn how important that endeavor was in learning how to take risks. Was there also a risk for you in starting Girls Who Code, which has inspired so many women to pursue careers in STEM?
There was definitely a risk in starting Girls Who Code—I didn’t even know how to code when I started the organization! But I knew that it needed to be done. Imagine walking into a computer science classroom or your workplace, and realizing that nobody looks like you? That’s what happens countless girls and young women around the world! It’s intimidating! They feel like they don’t belong, and may even be told as much.
I saw it firsthand on the campaign trail during my run for Congress—every computer science classroom I walked into was full of boys. The girls were nowhere to be found. I guess you could say there were more than a few aha moments! I knew we had to create gender-specific spaces so that girls could focus on learning to code, not on questioning whether or not they belong.
2. How do you think this fear of taking risks applies to women in our diaspora communities?
I think women everywhere struggle with this idea that we have to be perfect, that if we fail our lives or our careers are over. And it starts when we are young.
From a young age, girls are trained to play it safe, get all A’s, please parents and teachers. Don’t climb too high so we don’t get hurt. Be agreeable, be pretty, be well liked. It’s not like this with boys. From a young age, boys are groomed to be adventurous. So by the time they are young adults asking someone out on a date or negotiating their first raise, they are habituated to take risks and pretty much unfazed by failure.
The real world rewards bravery—not perfection. A 4.0 and an impeccable outfit may get us in the door, but it’s bravery and a willingness to take risks that will get our work recognized and help us advance. I believe the “perfect or bust” mentality is a big part of why women are underrepresented in C-suites, boardrooms, Congress, and pretty much everywhere.
It’s simply not true that if we fail, our careers or our lives are over. I lost two races for Congress, and yet those losses led me to start Girls Who Code. Not only am I incredibly happy, but I’m making maybe more of a difference than I ever could have in Congress.
3. What are some examples of things that we can do in the workplace or in our personal lives to support other women to have this shift in mindset?
I believe that bravery is a muscle; it’s something that we have to work on to get good at. I’m not telling you to quit your job and run for public office – but I am suggesting you perform everyday acts of bravery, and encourage those around you to do the same.
Here are three things you can do to practice everyday bravery: First, practice imperfection by sending an email with a typo in it—yes, you read that right… a typo. I am constantly hearing from women about how they read and re-read their email, over and over just to make sure they are absolutely perfect—free of typos, formatted just the right way, with just the right tone. The world won’t end if you send an email with a typo—and you’ll save yourself a lot of time. Second, do something you aren’t great at. For me, it’s surfing. Too often, we only do things within our comfort zone because we know we will excel. When was the last time you did something you enjoyed, but weren’t necessarily good at?
Third, just start. Sometimes we just have to be brave and take the first leap—whether its buying the URL for the company we want to start; or cleaning that one shelf that we’ve been staring at all week.
4. Since it is Women’s History Month, can you think of a woman role model who has inspired you to live a life of bravery?
I don’t know if I can pick just one! I have so many role models, but I think that the girls in my programs are the ultimate role models. They come in with no coding experience—some don’t even have computers at home. Coding isn’t easy, and it’s amazing watching them learn to embrace failure—to stick with it even when their code doesn’t work, or when it does something it isn’t supposed to. By the time they leave, they haven’t just learned to code, they’ve learned to be brave, to take risks, to fail, to learn. I truly believe that the girls in our programs are going to change the world.
Girls Who Code was named the #1 not-for-profit among Fast Company’s annual list of the World’s Most Innovative Companies for 2019. Since it was founded in 2012, the summer immersion camp has taught 90,000 girls how to code from all backgrounds in all 50 states.
Reshma Saujani is the Founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, the nonprofit organization working to close the gender gap in technology while teaching girls confidence and bravery through coding. A lifelong activist, Saujani was the first Indian American woman to run for U.S. Congress. She is the author of three books, including Brave, Not Perfect, Women Who Don’t Wait In Line and the New York Times Bestseller Girls Who Code: Learn to Code and Change the World. Reshma lives in New York City with her husband, Nihal, their son, Shaan, and their bulldog, Stanley.