U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Perfectionism and the Gender Gap

I was a successful physics major before switching to history. When I started the physics major, the gender divide in the room of 30 was equal. By the time I left, there were 3 women and about the same number of men. I’ve often thought about this small case study in the gender dynamics of STEM degrees. Why did I switch? Why did the others? Most of the others switched after the first semester or two. I hung out for 3 years, and probably got more physics credits for the minor than I did history credits for the major. By the time I finished, I was so sick of it that I couldn’t even contemplate history of science. But every so often, I miss it.

My current hypothesis is that one large factor in so many women self-selecting out appeared today in the New York Times as one of the reasons there are fewer women in politics (and few of them, if any, get caught in sex scandals): Perfectionism.

“Studies show that women are less likely to run for office; it is more difficult to recruit them, even when they have the same professional and educational qualifications as men. Men who run for office tend to look at people already elected “and say, ‘I’m as good as that,’ ” said Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University here. ‘Women hold themselves up to this hypothetical standard no candidate has ever achieved.'” 

I believe I read the same idea about STEM degrees several years ago (which is why I’m not going to link to it). Every semester of physics, I felt like I needed to get 90-100% of the material to be succeeding in it. Even when I got an A at the end of the semester, it was because it was curved and I often had less than 90%. To me, this meant that I wasn’t adequately learning the material. It was not until after I had switched from physics to history (by way of theater, another story) and was tutoring a younger student about a problem I had once found difficult and now found relatively easy that I realized I had in fact mastered concepts in physics.

The other primary reasons for switching included: I felt like the study of people mattered more than the study of abstract theories; the acknowledged “relative” truth of history felt more true to me than the supposedly “objective” truth of science (which was yet, in experiments, about finding a curve that fit the rough, scattered, friction filled data), and I had spent my childhood up trees reading historical fiction, not in the basement disassembling radios. Somehow that last point made me feel more like a humanities person.

Does perfectionism influence your life as a scholar? I noticed in graduate school that perfectionism became a source of procrastination (this observation is strongly backed up by the comic of Piled Higher and Deeper). Now writing articles, I find it difficult to balance the need for speed with my own impossible standards. Sometimes I call the result, “editing with a squint.” I have to sort of block out the perfectionist sound of my own voice and yet still hear the editor’s voice inside. It’s exhausting. But my first article is getting closer (cross my fingers) to publication, so I guess it’s working.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Lauren: Though this observation (i.e. perfectionism) is here rooted in gender, I have found that it crosses gender boundaries. Just as you observed of yourself in relation to Physics, historians can get caught up in the I-must-read-one-more-article/book syndrome. As I am turning the old dissertation into a book, I’ve found myself fighting the same thing—wanting to read what I missed or didn’t read back in the day. At some point, you have to abandon the goal of conducting “perfect research,” just like one has to abandon the idea of writing the perfect article/book. This may be apocryphal, but I try to keep this quote in mind: “Books are never finished; they are merely abandoned,” Oscar Wilde. – TL

  2. Hi,

    This has often been a problem for me, as well. I keep telling myself “perfectionism is the enemy of accomplishment” and that learning is like exercising, we’ve got to use unused muscles (or unused mental pathways) to reach goals.

    To be buoyed up in the maelstrom that is life it is much as Kurtz says in Lord Jim, “Into the destructive element immerse…”

  3. High achieving individuals are plagued by this regardless of gender. The difference is that women are more apt to admit that they feel inadequate or that they have not made the standard. It’s a communication difference, I think. Socially its just not as acceptable for men to express self-doubt.

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