Over the past few years on casual dress days, I've noticed many of our Senior School students are wearing white sneakers. And they all look remarkably similar.
The Nike Air Force 1 has been a popular choice. Once the humble basketball sneaker of the 1980s, it has become popular with teens and celebrities. So powerful is the influence of the white Nike sneaker that I, too, have walked the Saturday coffee strip in a pair.
The plethora of white sneakers strolling through our school reminds me that we like to be part of a pack. Our white sneakers are like the stripes on a Zebra’s back. It prevents us from standing out to prey. Standing out is dangerous in the animal kingdom. You are more visible to predators even if our predators use words and looks instead of teeth and claws. But, if we are going to find out who we are, standing out is important.
Fear of standing out can be a big problem for girls and their careers says Rashimi Saujani, author of Fear Less, Fail More, and Live Bolder (2019). Saujani, a lawyer by training, is the founder of Girls Who Code, an organisation that aims "to close the gender gap in technology and to change the image of what a programmer looks like and does". In her popular Ted-Talk, Teach girls bravery, not perfection, Saujani argues that "most girls are taught to avoid risk and failure, to choose safe careers". She says that girls suffer from a "bravery deficit" because they are conditioned to avoid mistakes.
“So many women I talk to tell me that they gravitate towards careers and professions that they know they're going to be great in, that they know they're going to be perfect in, and it's no wonder why. Most girls are taught to avoid risk and failure. We're taught to smile pretty, play it safe, get all As. 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 out on a date, they're habituated to take risk after risk. They're rewarded for it.” (Saujani, 2016).
Saujani sees the willingness of boys to take risks and make mistakes as an advantage in STEM subjects where making errors and solving problems is part of the process of creating things. That’s one reason Saujani believes males outnumber females in Silicon Valley. Saujani cites the work of Stanford Professor of Psychology, Carol Dweck, famous for her work on the power of the growth mindset:
“In the 1980s, psychologist Carol Dweck looked at how bright fifth graders handled an assignment that was too difficult for them. She found that bright girls were quick to give up. The higher the IQ, the more likely they were to give up. Bright boys, on the other hand, found the difficult material to be a challenge. They found it energizing. They were more likely to redouble their efforts.” (Saujani, 2016).
While we have come a long way since the 1980s, females are still massively underrepresented in the STEM fields. Saujani thinks it is because women choose careers where they are more likely to be perfect. Saujani sees that as a serious problem. Her mission is to help girls be more accepting of mistakes. She sees this disposition not only as good for a career in tech but important to driving your own life in a direction that is purposeful. Saujani implores her Ted-Talk audience "to tell every young woman you know to be comfortable with imperfection". She wants girls to be brave not perfect.
Being brave not perfect has been the common theme in the stories I have celebrated at the school. Last year I mentioned Australian high jumper, Nicola McDermott, silver medallist in the high jump at Tokyo 2020. She taught us that we do not have to earn love to be our best. Knowing we are loved enables us to be our best. Similarly, in January, the now-retired World No. 1 Australian tennis player Ash Barty won the Australian Open and reminded us of the benefits of trading a perfection mindset for a purpose mindset. When Barty focused on being the person she wanted to be not just the athlete people needed her to be, her career transformed. Purpose trumps perfection.
These exemplary young Australian women have shown how the rules that govern personal success and satisfaction are changing for young women in this country. To be successful in life, we need to connect our strengths to a purpose that fills us with energy and makes the world a better place. That's the challenge of a wholesome education. That’s our vision for excellence at Perth College. And that’s why we invest in such a variety of experiences in PC from Pre-Kindergarten to Year 12. As well as mastering our core curriculum, our students are encouraged to identify and build on their strengths, develop an appetite for change and challenge and persevere through difficulty.
This shift to a more dynamic and wholesome curriculum is evident across our entire curriculum and is visible in a quick snapshot of Term One. ELC students are getting their hands wet by learning experientially about Aquaponics X. Year 1 students are programming Dash robots. A team of Year 5 students came third in the Young ICT Explorers National Competition. Year 6 students took part in the Dream and Lead conference to develop leadership capabilities.
Year 7 students went on a re-imagined camp and engaged in self-development work on their strengths through the InsideOut program. Our students from Junior School on are engaging in the Sports Development and Performance Program, designed to set them up for the health and wellness benefits of life-long participation in community sport. Our Performing Arts Team and students are working hard to bring to life our Senior School production Anastasia: The Musical. SPARC students are making connections with partner organisations such as Australian Institute of Management WA, Educated by Nature, Bloom entrepreneurs. In our STEAM offerings, students are creating COVID Action Plans. In Year 10 photography, productions are enhanced through the use of drones.
Four years ago, a PC student wrote to me and said: “I feel like if you are not academic you are nothing.” That caught my attention and resonated with my own beliefs about how we could improve education for girls. It is one of my missions to change this experience. To make our school a place that doesn’t define what’s wrong with you but identifies what is right with you and how you can use your strengths to change the world.
This is one of the reasons I remind Senior School students that they are so much more than their ATAR. We believe that you must connect your skills and strengths to a strong purpose to live a fulfilling and meaningful life that makes a difference.
This message is connecting with our PC community as such an approach articulates what is best for the students in our care. Some people might fear that we don’t emphasise examination results enough. I can assure you we are passionate about excellence, and challenge, and for those students who choose an ATAR pathway, we will always support them to achieve their best and celebrate those achievements.
The pursuit of perfection is not the path to excellence. For girls to truly reach their potential, we must support them to find spaces where they get comfortable with making worthwhile mistakes that they learn from. In this regard, I find the title of Saujani’s latest book instructive: Fear Less, Fail More, and Live Bolder.