Fear of failure is failing women

At thirteen, Julia Boorstin’s mum told her that women would have equal footing in the workplace by the time she grew up. Now a senior business journalist in her forties, she could be forgiven for wondering when exactly adulthood kicks in. 

Instead, two decades and one book later, Boorstin has turned her mum’s failed prophecy into a study of the women who defy the leadership odds. This tiny group (8% of CEOs and 2% of VC-funded founders) displays surprisingly diverse skill sets; however, she found that their commonalities are far more striking. “Across the board, they all have a growth mindset, combining humility and competence. And that seemed essential”. 

Standford professor Carole Dweck is the brains behind the now ubiquitous theory of growth mindset – the belief that ability isn’t fixed but can be improved. She found that young girls were often told they were smart, embedding the belief that capability is innate. In contrast, teachers and parents usually told boys to try harder, setting an expectation that they could develop new skills. The unsurprising result is that, while no one loves to fail, women take it particularly hard – and this fear of failure can cause women to fumble on their way to the top. 

The frenemy you need to ditch

Attempts to avoid the shame associated with failure lead many women to limit their choices and take fewer risks than their male counterparts. It’s why women are less likely to take demanding courses, negotiate for what they deserve, and don’t apply for jobs unless they believe they’re 100% qualified. Extrapolate it out, and it’s easy to connect the missing dots all the way to the top. Speaking of the top, Boorstin found that the women who make it are almost unanimously united in the rare belief that setbacks are simply steps towards success. 

Here’s how these extraordinary women turn failure into upwards force:

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable

Leaders with a growth mindset see failure as a learning opportunity (F.A.I.L = First Attempt In Learning). They accept that trying new things invariably leads to mistakes and develop resilience by pushing through the tough times and bouncing back.

Bumble CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd encourages women not to be scared of ‘what ifs’ because she believes the only failure is not trying at all. According to Wolfe Herd, how a person handles fear can determine whether they are successful or not. “I think fear of the unknown and perceived failure is what holds people back,” she says. “I am more scared of complacency than having something not work out. I’d rather take a leap of faith and fall than stand on the edge forever.”

Like everything, practice makes perfect. Take Mrika Nikҫi, a 16-year-old who has climbed the seven highest peaks on seven continents. She’s made a habit of pushing herself to her limit and, as a result, has increased her tolerance for discomfort. We aren’t all Mrika, but we can follow her strategy – embrace difficult situations, see them through and learn from mistakes – even if your first few mountains look more like a molehill.  

Back yourself to learn by doing

You’re probably aware that men are confident with 60% of the required ability, but women feel they need to check every box before applying for that shiny promotion or project. Even if you don’t have all the specific experience required, you’ll probably find reframing your relevant strengths and expertise may be enough to land you the job. So instead of giving up before you start (the only real failure!), back yourself to fill any skill gaps through on the job learning.

Aristotle wrote, “for the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” Sheryl Sandberg, the author of Lean In and Option B, encourages women to stop thinking, “I’m not ready,” and start thinking, “I want to do that – and I’ll learn by doing it.” Nat and Kristen? We devoted a whole PowrUp podcast episode to how we built self-belief by saying ‘yes’.

30 SECOND ACTION

The first step in seeking out failure is recognising your instinct when presented with a growth opportunity.

Think about a time recently when you’ve had the chance to do something different. Was there an opportunity to learn a new skill? Take on a new challenge at work? Run a workshop?

It doesn’t matter whether or not you said ‘yes’ and followed through (although we’d love to hear if you did!). What’s more valuable is recognising how you felt and if the fear of failure kicked in. How might you approach a similar opportunity next time?.

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