In 1976, The Philadelphia Eagles football team underwent an unbearable losing streak. As a last resort, Dick Vermeil, then Head Coach, decided to offer an ‘open tryout’ for the city of Philadelphia. Droves of brawny men showed up to Veteran’s Stadium in hopes of fulfilling childhood dreams of becoming an Eagle. But only one man ended up making the team: Vince Papale, a 30-year-old bartender from Philadelphia who ran track in high school and college, but had never played competitive ball. After eventually making the team as one of the oldest rookies in the history of the NFL, Papale went on to play wide receiver and special teams for the Eagles for three seasons.
From a young age, I was taught to be a rule follower – and I listened. I never spoke out of turn in school, read all the books my teachers told me to, played nice in gym class, and always sought out the universal ‘gold star’ for good behavior. I was a perfectionist, and was constantly praised in parent-teacher conferences for being such a ‘perfect little girl’. Like so many of my female friends, I was rewarded for being a rule follower, for being ‘perfect’.
I’d be willing to bet that Vince Papale had a different attitude – one more aligned with the boys of my childhood memories. Boys talked out of turn, interrupted the teacher, chose to stray from the ‘approved’ reading list, and launched dodgeballs at each other’s faces during gym class. While they may have been scolded for these actions, they were largely forgiven – “all boys misbehave,” “boys need to run around and explore,” “boys need to play rough,” “that’s just how boys are!”
Reshma Saujani, founder of the organization Girls Who Code, says it perfectly:
“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. And by the time they’re adults, whether they’re negotiating a raise or even asking someone on a date, they’re habituated to take risk after risk… in other words, we’re raising our girls to be perfect, and we’re raising our boys to be brave.”Reshma Saujani, founder of the organization Girls Who Code
While boys are conditioned as children to grow up and take risks like Vince Papale, women are taught to avoid risk from a young age, and shoot for the ‘safe’ options in life – and this mindset guides us through everything we do. In fact, a Hewlett Packard internal report found that men will apply for a job if they meet only 60% of the qualifications, while women will apply only if they meet 100% of the qualifications. I don’t think this has to do with a lack of confidence in our own abilities – I think it stems all the way back to the days when we were praised for being ‘perfect little girls’.
I certainly found this true for myself. As I grew up, I excelled in the things that came naturally to me, but when it came to math – something that I was less than perfect at, I looked at problems and immediately gave up, threw my pencil by the wayside and said, “I can’t”. If I did attempt a problem and came to a standstill, instead of showing my ‘imperfect’ scratch work, I would erase it all – more satisfied with showing nothing than trying, and failing.
Now that I’ve moved into the workforce as a Reebok employee, I’ve been challenged to acknowledge my imperfections in so many ways. As an athlete my entire life, I thought I would come into Reebok’s fitness and CrossFit culture as a pro – but I was wrong. I struggled to even pick up kettlebells that others were throwing over their heads as if they were fake plastic children’s toys; I fell on my face handstand walking, and skinned my shins box jumping.
But for once, even though it didn’t come naturally, I didn’t give up. I kept working, and accepted that being less than perfect was much more rewarding than not even trying in the first place.
While I still have far to come, taking on this experience has taught me that it’s ok to pursue the scary things – to try a new sport, to propose an unconventional idea to a room of superiors, or to just ask out that cute guy instead of waiting around passively.
We can’t blame men for the lack of female participation in certain career paths, sports, or CEO positions – passively waiting for others to give us what we deserve. We need to be willing to be comfortable with the uncomfortable, to show our ‘scratch’ work, even if it leads to a wrong answer – and mostly, we need to take it upon ourselves to say “screw being perfect” and have the courage to take risks and do the things that scare us. We can still be girly, pretty and nice – but let’s also have the strength and the gusto to swing from those proverbial monkey bars right alongside the boys.