Goodwin Insights April 10, 2019

Overcoming Gender Barriers by Being “Brave, Not Perfect”

It’s a story that Reshma Saujani had heard countless times from teachers in the organization she founded, Girls Who Code, a nonprofit group working to bridge the gender gap in the field of computer coding; after leading a classroom of young girls through an introduction to coding, the teacher would check on a girl’s progress only to find a blank screen.

“Has she just been staring at her screen for the entire session without typing a thing?” the teacher wondered to herself. But when the teacher pressed the “undo” button, suddenly lines of coding began to appear. The girl had deleted all of her previous attempts. “So instead of showing her the progress that she made, she would rather show her nothing at all,” Saujani said. “It’s this idea of perfection or bust.”

Saujani shared that story recently, while promoting her new book, “Brave, Not Perfect,” at an event sponsored by Goodwin and hosted at Glossier headquarters in New York. Attendees were primarily female entrepreneurs and female founders of technology companies – an industry that remains primarily dominated by males. The discussion, led by Emily Weiss, founder and CEO of Glossier, explored how women can find their education and careers stalling from the paralyzing fear of not being perfect, of not getting straight A’s or turning down jobs for which they aren’t 100 percent qualified.


The persistent examples of girls deleting their code rather than sharing it provided Saujani with the subject of her 2015 TED Talk, “Teach Girls Bravery, Not Perfection,” which in turn became the inspiration for her book. “I tell this story on the TED stage, 4 million people watch my talk, and I am inundated with messages from women and men everywhere who say, ‘I do that. I feel frozen by perfection. I don’t raise my hand for anything I don’t know how to do perfectly.’”

In 2010, Saujani ran for Congress against a longtime incumbent, raising over $1 million while netting just around a thousand votes. “Don’t do the math. I lost miserably,” she said. Reflecting on her defeat the following day, Saujani was humiliated. “But the first thing I thought was, ‘Oh my God, I’m not broken,’” she said. “I had thought before that moment in my life that if I did something and it didn’t work out it would literally break me. So it was this huge ‘aha’ moment about bravery — that you can actually build this bravery moment. And you can be OK. Better yet, you can be happier.”

“We start getting addicted to perfectionism,” Saujani said. “It really haunts us in the career choices we make, in the relationships we stay in and in the things we don’t pursue because we think if we can’t do it perfectly we won’t do it at all.”

By 2012, Saujani had founded Girls Who Code where she worked to instill that notion of bravery and of not striving for perfection at every turn. “We start getting addicted to perfectionism,” Saujani said. “It really haunts us in the career choices we make, in the relationships we stay in and in the things we don’t pursue because we think if we can’t do it perfectly we won’t do it at all.”

Since its beginning, Girls Who Code has taught coding to 185,000 girls across all 50 states. Yet, notwithstanding the imbalance among men vs. women computer coders is still vast. Technology companies claim they still don’t have large enough pools of women to choose from. Saujani responds: “It’s not a pipeline problem. You’re just not looking. You don’t have the right requirements. You’re simply not hiring them.”

On the question of excellence versus perfection, Saujani said, “I think when you are pursuing excellence, you are pursuing a journey. And when you’re pursuing perfection, you’re thinking about a destination point.” She said a friend of hers was a diver trying out for the Olympics. On her last dive — her last shot to make the team — she hit the water with a splat and her Olympic dream was over in a splash. “The pool starts clearing out, her boyfriend says ‘We have to go,’ and she’s like ‘Give me a minute.’”

Saujani’s friend climbed the ladder one last time and executed the perfect dive.

“That’s excellence,” Saujani said. “She did that for herself. She’s still not going to the Olympics but she wanted to prove to herself that she could do that.”