When I was at Shazam, it was my job to bring more women into our engineering teams. I wanted to invite applications to our internships in Engineering and Product from women from all backgrounds, regardless of qualifications and career stage.
I had managed to create the access to opportunity, yet I was still unsuccessful in getting women who had not followed the traditional qualification route of university, to be successful.
Because being a Software Engineer at a company like Shazam means taking a lot of risks and getting stuff wrong. That’s exactly how we had set the application process up, inviting folks to come in and spend the day experimenting with us, then share what had worked and what hadn’t. That meant failing. Not just failing, failing in public.
As women we are often socialised to need to be perfect, to not take up space and to fly under the radar. Therefore asking someone to stand up and share their code, at the risk of getting it wrong, was hugely exposing to some of the women we were trying to hire. We gradually realised this and were able to evolve our processes, but my goal is now to help other women overcome perfectionism.
When does perfectionism kick in?
Because the very best things happen when we are trying things and getting stuff wrong. They have to me!
I believe that we overdevelop perfectionism in childhood, with gender stereotypes that perpetuate to this day. Boys are encouraged to get out there and try things, to build things and be brave, whereas girls learn early on to serve others and try to be perfect. This then builds up over time, and everyone upholds and polices the gender roles that we have been assigned.
Being agentic refers to goal-achievement and task functioning (competence, assertiveness, decisiveness – having agency basically), whereas being communal refers to the maintenance of relationships and social functioning (benevolence, trustworthiness, morality).
We actually all have both sides, but as women, we are conditioned to overdevelop our communal side, and for men it’s the agentic side. It’s literally how we are rewarded in the world and therefore the lens we use to assess ourselves. Gender socialisation means we are only half of a whole, when actually all need both to BE a balanced whole. These two elements should not actually be male and female, we both carry both, and can have different levels of each.
Without societies influence, who thinks they might have been much more agentic…?
I can honestly say I would have been.
It also comes down to how we see failure, with those higher in agency more likely to say; I got this wrong, and those who are more communal more likely to say, I am wrong.
Those who are higher in agency are usually stronger with self compassion – that doesn’t mean they don’t beat themselves up – but they are trained to be far superior at having boundaries and saying, no I don’t want to do that. Those of us who are more communal, are horrible at it.
The good news is that we are typically great at compassion towards others, we now have to get better at applying it ourselves as it isn’t a new skill. For those of us with an overdeveloped sense of community, we can simply learn to build up our agency.
Overcoming your own perfectionism is an individual job, but here’s some ideas of how you can improve.
- Talk to yourself like you would talk to a friend: we know how to be a great friend to others, now we have to apply that to ourselves. When you catch yourself in negative self talk, say it out loud and make it real, that really helped me!
- Be ambitious but also realistic: there is a reason why we try to set SMART goals, I am all for being ambitious but let’s make sure we set goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound.
- Build the feedback habit: start giving and receiving feedback openly with those you feel safer with, and graduate to those that you don’t. The more we get to hear thoughtful criticism, the better we get at hearing it and not making it about us.
- Celebrate daily: I am a big fan of tiny, incremental changes and celebrating progress often! Look at the person you are today vs last year and see how far you have come.
This is the hard stuff sis, but it is necessary work that only we can do. It is this coding that means we will only apply for a role when we meeting 90% plus of the criteria, vs men who are more like 60% plus.
I wasted years trying to be perfect, with tonnes of doomed projects and wasted effort because I was scared of getting things wrong.
But, my loss is your gain.
Here are two things to get you started that will save you years of trying to learn this for yourself you can do this weekend:
Thing 1. Be inspired by others
I have done this in many ways, but I think watching Reshma Saujani’s TED talk: Teach Girls Bravery, Not Perfection is a great place to start to help you to think about the different ways that we see failure.
Thing 2. Rebuild your creativity with the Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
This isn’t simply a book for artists my friends, it is for all of us, because we are all creative.
Creativity is the single biggest thing that will give you longevity. The challenge is that it is also the thing that’s the hardest (but not impossible) to enable because it means trying things and not being perfect.
These are just some of the things that completely changed the way I thought about perfectionism.
And it’s just as well, my ‘failings’ have ended up being my greatest assets and certainly the things that gave me the wisdom to support others on a similar path. Now go forth and break stuff 🤘🏼