The Self-Sabotaging Professional Trait That Looks Different In Women Than In Men

In the pursuit of excellence, perfectionism looms as a double-edged sword. On top of being exhausting, it can also lead to self-sabotage in a professional context.

As a professional trait, perfectionism looks different in women than men. It can drive ambition but can also lead to paralyzing self-doubt and stress. Let’s explore the intricate dynamics of perfectionism, looking at its prevalence among genders, its roots, and its implications in personal and professional realms.

Perfectionism looks different in women than in men

Research indicates that perfectionism often manifests differently between men and women, influenced by societal norms and expectations. Women are generally socialized to be more compliant and detail-oriented, which can translate into higher levels of perfectionistic self-expectations. While men often face intense pressure to succeed in competitive environments, shaping their form of perfectionism more around the societal benchmarks of success and failure.

In our book, I Am Perfectly Flawsome – How Embracing Imperfection Makes Us Better, my co-author Tom Collins and I found a mountain of evidence to support how perfectionism looks in real life.

The data

Studies suggest that women do tend to experience higher levels of socially prescribed perfectionism than men, especially in the areas of appearance, relationships, performance, and academic achievement. Three findings from a 2022 study with more than 1,400 participants drive home the disparity in impact:

Our survey data backs up this troubling gender gap as well. 85% of adult women surveyed said they felt pressure to be perfect (vs. a still large majority of men at 77%).

Quantifying perfectionism is challenging, as it exists on a spectrum. However, estimates suggest that about 30% of the general population exhibits traits of perfectionism to a degree that significantly impacts their quality of life.

Perfectionism in childhood

Studies suggest girls are more likely to internalize perfectionism, particularly because societal norms often encourage them to value appearance and social acceptance. Research conducted by Girlguiding UK revealed that 36% of girls aged 7-10 believe their perfect looks are paramount. This internalization can relate to how we socialize girls to be more conscious of others’ perceptions and to conform to social standards.

Boys, while also affected, often experience external pressures to demonstrate competence and control, shaping a different facet of perfectionism.

Long-term effects

Perfectionism can affect individuals at any age and in any demographic, but it is particularly prevalent among those exposed to high expectations or competitive environments from a young age. This includes students in academic institutions, professionals in high-stakes industries, and individuals in highly judgmental social settings.

What causes people to be perfectionists?

The roots of perfectionism are multifaceted, involving a blend of personality traits, upbringing, cultural backgrounds, and societal pressures. Many perfectionists have grown up in environments where high expectations are the norm or where they receive affection contingent on achievements. This emotional inheritance can embed deep-seated beliefs about self-worth being tied to flawless performance creating a toxic mix that can become debilitating if left unaddressed.

There are benefits to being a perfectionist

Perfectionism isn’t inherently bad. On the positive side, it can drive individuals to achieve great heights, maintain quality in their work, and continually improve. However, the downsides include chronic stress, anxiety, fear of failure, and potential burnout. In extreme cases, it can lead to mental health issues such as depression, eating disorders, and even suicidal ideation*.

The root causes

One prominent psychological theory that explains perfectionism is the Diathesis-Stress Model, which posits that perfectionism arises from an interaction between underlying vulnerabilities (like personality traits or biological factors) and life stressors. This model helps explain why some individuals develop perfectionistic tendencies in response to external pressures while others do not.

The three facets of perfectionism

The Canadian researchers Paul Hewitt, PhD and Gordon Flett, PhD have been studying perfectionism for over 20 years and have devised their multidimensional perfectionism scale to identify three different facets of perfectionism: Self-oriented, Other-oriented, and Socially-prescribed perfectionism.

While adaptive perfectionism can be beneficial, maladaptive perfectionism is damaging because it sets individuals up for inevitable failure and disappointment. The relentless pursuit of an unattainable ideal can erode self-esteem, strain relationships, and lead to a pervasive sense of failure.

Long-term impacts of perfectionism

Understanding the nuanced impacts of perfectionism is crucial, particularly in recognizing its differential effects across genders and its roots in cultural and familial expectations. For professional women feeling out of alignment, anxious, or overwhelmed by perfectionistic tendencies, support can be transformative.

-minded women can provide the tools and community needed to navigate these challenges and embrace a healthier, more balanced approach to personal and professional aspirations.

If you’re struggling with the weight of perfectionism, consider reaching out for support by turning to a friend, coach, or hypnotherapist to discover strategies for overcoming the challenges of perfectionism and the imposter syndrome that it can create.

*Remember, help is at always hand. In the US you can dial 988 or 24/7 to talk confidentially with a trained professional for help and guidance.


I Am Perfectly Flawsome: How Embracing Imperfection Makes Us BetterMichele Molitor, CPCC, CCHt, is a certified coach, clinical hypnotherapist, and co-author of the new best-selling book  I Am Perfectly Flawsome – How Embracing Imperfection Makes Us Better. She coaches high-achieving professionals in reducing their overwhelm and reclaiming their self-confidence, calm, and clarity to create a thriving life and career.   Connect with her directly to unlock your potential and step into your power with confidence.


This article was originally published online at YourTango Magazine.

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