Let's stop looking down on ‘good students’ at work

22 févr. 2024


Let's stop looking down on ‘good students’ at work
Laetitia VitaudExpert du Lab

Autrice, consultante et conférencière sur le futur du travail, spécialiste de la productivité, de l’âge et du travail des femmes

The expression “good student” has been used for a long time to describe someone who works hard in a studious manner rather than demonstrating initiative at every turn in the workplace. But our expert, Laetitia Vitaud, believes this term is not as harmless as it might seem.

For years, women have been encouraged not to fall into the habit of behaving like “good students” at work, which can see them being too passive, even to the point of not pursuing a promotion or a raise. I have to admit that I subscribed to the view too. I probably even fueled it, devaluing a few “good students” in the process, but today I’m critical of using the expression “good student” because of everything that goes with it. I’m convinced it’s destructive.

Whether in an academic or professional context, the term “good student,” much like the adjective “kind,” is almost always pejorative. It implies that someone’s not very bright. At best, they’re like well-trained monkeys, capable of understanding instructions and obediently following orders, but lacking in creativity, initiative, and critical thinking. Used almost exclusively for women, this thinly veiled criticism carries toxic undertones, both for companies and society as a whole. Here are three reasons why I believe we should stop using it.

Reason #1: There’s nothing wrong with being a ‘good student’

A “good student” does well in school – in other words, they get good grades and demonstrate a serious commitment to education and learning. The qualities needed to achieve this include: strong listening skills; the ability to understand instructions (by putting themselves in the boss’s shoes); turning in consistent work; and showing respect for rules that encourage people to work well together, such as not talking over someone else. A good student also demonstrates social skills, motivation, productivity, and perseverance.

So why is the term used as a criticism at work? What’s wrong with achieving results and respecting the norms and rules that maintain harmony and cohesion within a team? The devaluation of showing respect for following instructions couldn’t be more paradoxical. Glorifying “rebels” and “geniuses” – individuals who rarely play well with others but bend the rules, and prefer to hog the limelight – is tantamount to encouraging bad behavior. Managers want creativity and initiative – and that’s great. Good students will give managers this and more if given clear instructions, the right working environment, and the autonomy that goes with it.

Reason #2: Beware of sexism

The expression “good student” is used almost exclusively about women. From school onwards, girls make up the majority of good students. Unfortunately, gender stereotypes such as “women succeed when they work hard, while men are naturally smarter,” affect the perception of women’s intelligence. Journalist Mary Ann Sieghart echoes this observation in her book The Authority Gap: “However much we claim to believe in equality, we are still, in practice, more reluctant to accord authority to women than to men, even when they are leaders or experts. Every woman has a tale to tell about being underestimated, talked over, ignored, patronised and generally not taken as seriously as a man.”

Because women are seen as less intelligent, they have to overcompensate by working harder without developing the confidence that should go it. This kind of thinking begins at an early age. Sieghart refers to a British study, “We absorb the idea of male superiority from a young age. When asked to estimate their children’s IQs, British parents give their sons 115 on average and their daughters 107 (the actual average is 100). This discrepancy represents a significant statistical difference, and it’s common for boys to grow up thinking they are smarter than girls.”

Reason #3: Schools and children are better than that

Girls perform better in school than boys, but this doesn’t help them professionally because academic skills are not the key to success at work. There seems to be a tendency to cheapen the teaching we receive at school. Everything related to schooling is being devalued systematically, which partly explains why many teachers are leaving the profession. It’s as if we believe that we don’t learn anything of value or relevance at school. So, because girls are more successful at school, it can feel like the skills they’ve acquired there aren’t worth much.

But is this true? Aren’t general knowledge, critical thinking, and the ability to work and socialize together among the key foundations that we pick up in school? At the same time, by treating “good student” employees as if they were in school, we disempower them, treating them like kids who depend on their legal guardians, and must be docile and submissive. If this form of infantilization seems humiliating, it’s because we don’t respect the intelligence and rights of children either.

Rather than looking down on or sneering at “good students,” let’s congratulate them on their desire to work hard and do well. Better yet, let’s treat them as the precious resources they are by recognizing, encouraging, and promoting them. Long live the “good students.”

Translated by Lorraine Posthuma

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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