How letting women fail can help them succeed

August 29, 2014

In life, and especially at work, women often are afraid to break the rules. They are also afraid to fail in ways that can differ from men. Often, this holds them back in their careers. It isn’t an irrational position. Instead, it’s more likely a reaction to social pressures that tell them they will be more harshly judged than their male peers on their perceived missteps.

Over at the Harvard Business Review blog this week, Tara Sophia Mohr writes that she is skeptical of the “confidence gap” as a reason that women aren’t getting as far up on the career ladder as their male peers. She did a survey of professionals and asked them: if they looked at a job, but decided not to apply, why not? It usually wasn’t because they didn’t think they could do the job well, she says.

Instead, she found that most often, men and women don’t apply for jobs because they feel that they don’t meet all the requirements in the job description. In other words, “what held them back from applying was not a mistaken perception about themselves, but a mistaken perception about the hiring process.”

Here’s the full division of answers:

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It’s interesting how little variation between men and women there seems to be. Where there are differences, they are that 1) women are afraid to fail and 2) women believe they must follow the guidelines as written. These two issues seem to be rooted in traditional notions of femininity: women are expected to be gentle and deferential.

This is important because it’s not just about how women think of themselves, but about how people perceive those women. It isn’t an accident that women internalize these expectations. We expect women to act that way. Then, generally, reactions to women in the workplace fall in line with those expectations.

This is where personality comes in. In the same situation, a man may be considered confident, whereas a woman would be called abrasive. And that affects who gets the job or who gets promoted. In another informal study out this week, Kieran Snyder looked at the performance reviews of high-achieving men and women. She found that even in positive reviews, women are more likely to receive critical feedback.

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Snyder writes that, “negative personality criticism—watch your tone! step back! stop being so judgmental!—shows up twice in the 83 critical reviews received by men. It shows up in 71 of the 94 critical reviews received by women.” The two polls, taken together, paint a picture of women being more risk averse than men — for very practical reasons.

Mohr’s post points to the fact that women need to break the rules more often. But with Snyder, it’s unclear that women who break the rules are rewarded in the same way as their male counterparts, so that can’t be the only answer. We probably make small judgements daily that contribute to the continuation of this way of thinking. It can only stop if we make ourselves stop.

Women shouldn’t be afraid to fail. But we as a society (men and women), need to stop judging women so harshly for their flaws. For them to be equally good, it has to be okay that they are equally bad sometimes.

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