The Quest for Perfection Is Stunting Women’s Academic Potential

(John Giustina / Getty Images)

In the latest study on gender and perfectionism by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the majority of women in the surveyed group were perfectionists. What does this mean for female students in educational settings?

Harvard economics professor Claudia Goldin conducted a study between 2010 and 2014 and found that women responded more negatively to imperfect grades than men. Specifically, the studies showed:

  • Women who got below an A in economics courses dropped out of the economics major more than their male counterparts. 
  • Men who got C’s in their first economics courses were about four times more likely to pursue an economics major than women who got C’s in their first economics courses. 
  • Men who received B’s were just as likely as male A students to choose an economics major, while female A students were twice as likely as male B students to pursue the major.
  • In general, only 29 percent of bachelor’s degrees in economics in the U.S. are awarded to women. 

Women on average earn higher grades than men at each stage of schooling, so lack of intelligence seems out of the question. This hints that a different pressure weakens their confidence to proceed: the fear of failure. 

“It seems like the strongest social pressure affecting college-educated, professional women today isn’t that they’re afraid to succeed; it’s that they’re afraid not to,” wrote Amanda Hess, critic and regular contributor to The New York Times. 

Internalizing Sexist Social Norms

Stereotypes may also influence women’s participation in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subject area. Authors Carmen Astorne-Figari and Jamin D. Speer said that when a woman receives a less-than-perfect grade on her assignment, it reinforces the sexist social norm: “I’m not an economics person.”

“Sensitivity plays an important role within major switches,” said Jennifer Jackson, reflecting the research of Astorne-Figari and Speer. “The lower the grades, the larger the switch.” 

In this situation, perfectionism poses a problem unique to women: They may be more sensitive to lower grades than men. 

The late Sheila Tobias, former associate provost of Wesleyan University and co-director of the Math Clinic at Wesleyan University, found a similar problem in women with the study of math—which she explored in the September 1976 issue of Ms. magazine in an iconic article (which would go on to be a book): “Math Anxiety.” She noticed women’s reluctance to take math courses like calculus, algebra and statistics in college, attributing it to performance anxiety from internalized sexist stereotypes. Specifically, she names the root cause as “a culture that makes math ability a masculine attribute, that punishes women for doing well in math and that soothes the slower math learner by telling her she does not have a ‘mathematical mind.’”

Tobias said this culture can manifest in microaggressions from fathers, with casual comments like, “Your mother never could balance a checkbook.” Girls internalize these comments, and their learned attitudes carry into their careers. This can then block them from interviewing for potential jobs in math. 

Considering Tobias’ research, the ideas of “raw talent” and “genius” in STEM subjects likely play a role in deterring women from pursuing the field. Princeton University professor Sarah-Jane Leslie called this feeling “expectations of brilliance.” This means that some subjects, such as those in STEM, are thought to require innate talent; in other words, the stereotype holds either you’re born a math whiz or born for humanities.

“Across the academic spectrum, women are underrepresented in fields whose practitioners believe that raw, innate talent is the main requirement for success, because women are stereotyped as not possessing such talent,” hypothesized Leslie and her co-authors. 

Educators’ Power to Encourage Girls and Women

This research signals that girls need stronger support, or perhaps a different type of support, to reach their full academic potential. Much of the power to make a change may lie in the hands of educators and their teaching styles.

Carol Dweck, psychologist and Lewis and Virginia Eaton professor of psychology at Stanford University, wrote that many educators believe natural-born intelligence best predicts a student’s success in school. This belief is what Dweck calls “a fixed mindset”: the assumption that a student’s intelligence is fixed and that they cannot improve much beyond their innate talent. This mindset, whether in students or teachers, can damage girls’ abilities to reach their full academic potential and feel confident as learners.

In contrast, the “growth mindset” enforces that students can build their knowledge through effort, resilience, and openness to advice from those with subject expertise. Embracing imperfection and not being discouraged by mistakes is key in this perspective. 

Feminist activist and educator bell hooks advocates for radical openness and ungrading: approaches that would balance the power dynamic between teacher and student while encouraging more focus on the learning process. Often, approaches to teaching emphasize grade outcomes and efficient grading systems for teachers, compromising the space for deep thought required for students’ learning. 

Radical openness would mean more focus on the relationship and dialogue between the student and teacher. Ungrading would decenter the grading system that rewards students for conforming and encourage them to think more freely and critically. This kind of approach might help women question gender stereotypes in their learning process and grow in the absence of sexist norms.

Fighting Perfectionism for a Better Future

If girls and women respond to imperfect grades as shameful, they should remember that making mistakes does not mean they are not meant to pursue that academic subject. People make errors regardless of gender and can improve their knowledge by learning from them. What determines a “bad” or a “good” grade is subjective: You can view a B as 85 correct or 15 percent wrong. 

It’s time to nurture girls with the support they need to achieve their full academic potential. Some of the responsibility falls on educators to dismantle the stereotype that men are innately math whizzes. However, girls and women should feel confident that their gender is not a barrier to excelling in any subject. 

Up next:

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.


Claire Kenny is a former editorial intern at Ms. and graduate of Smith College, where she studied world literature with an emphasis on the study of women and gender. Claire has worked as a peer writing tutor at the Smith College Jacobson Center for Writing, Teaching & Learning and as an editor for Smith Writes. She also writes poetry, which has been published in literary magazines such as Meat for Tea and Third Wednesday Magazine.