It’s Time To Stop Raising Girls To Believe Success Is A Matter Of How Hard They Work

Girls need to know they are entering a world that penalizes them for being female.

  • Rachel Simmons

Written on Dec 16, 2021

mother and daughter Alena Ozerova / Shutterstock

Many families around the world raised their girls to believe they could do or be anything.

There seemed no reason not to: as doors opened to girls and women, parents funneled the headlines into dinner table pep talks with their daughters. The data was indeed promising: measures like grades and leadership positions in school predicted the sky was the limit for girls.

But what we told our girls at the dinner table fell short of what was really happening out there for women.


And not telling our girls the whole story sets them up for something pernicious later on as women.

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Consider Stanford social psychologist Carol Dweck’s observation: “If life were one long grade school,” she said, “girls would rule the world.” By this she means that girls are socialized by our culture to please, obey and work very hard — all behaviors richly rewarded in school.

But of course, life isn’t one long grade school.

When women enter the corporate world, the rules of success change radically. Raising your hand and waiting to be called on don’t earn you the gold star from the teacher. Nor does putting others’ needs first.


The workplace, it turns out, values muscles that men had many years to flex as boys: self-promotion, risk-taking, and assertiveness, to name a few.

But what really gets me? When women encounter this sea change in norms — when they begin to sense that the behaviors that won them accolades now hold them back, or get them punished — they blame themselves.

They pore over what they failed to learn, or do, or anticipate. They scrutinize. They overthink, awash in self-criticism. 

They wonder what they might now do, or control, or figure out, to fix themselves to fit better with the world.

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And it's no wonder: If you’re told your potential to succeed is simply a matter of YOU as an individual — that the sky is your limit and you can do anything — what happens when you suddenly can’t? You blame yourself.

You don’t blame the institutions that are built around male norms and reward conventionally male behaviors. You don’t blame the system that punishes women for reading the room and trying to adopt those norms. You don’t blame the pervasive bias that exists and intensifies as you rise within your career.

You blame you. You turn your gaze, and your outrage, inward.

It’s time to stop raising girls to believe success is a matter of how hard they work.


Girls need to know they are entering a world that penalizes them for being female.

They need to be ready to fight the system instead of themselves. And for those involved in coaching, learning, and development: we MUST stop teaching women leaders that psychological barriers are the sole reason why they’re falling behind.

Let’s teach women and girls to understand how gender and other identity markers (like race and national identity) shape leadership, how what we learned about gender in childhood informs how and whether we rise as professionals, and how the workplace was constructed to favor men.


Barring this, we will consign our highest performing women to a lifetime of ruthless self-criticism — energy that they could spend changing the world, earning, and delivering results.

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Rachel Simmons is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Odd Girl Out, The Curse of the Good Girl, and Enough As She Is: How to Help Girls Move Beyond Impossible Standards of Success to Live Healthy, Happy and Fulfilling Lives.