Fear of failure is failing women

Fear of failure

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. 

Two decades and one book later, Boorstin has turned her mother’s failed prophecy into a study of women who defy the leadership odds. And it’s a tiny group; women make up roughly 8% of CEOs, while female founders secure just under 2% of Venture Capital. Not only do these outliers share a spot at some of the most powerful tables in the world, but they also share a common way of thinking. “Across the board, they all have a growth mindset, combining humility and competence. And that seemed essential”. 

The gendered approach to growth mindset

Standford professor Carole Dweck is the brains behind the now ubiquitous theory of growth mindset – the belief that ability isn’t fixed. 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. 

Think about that for a moment because it’s a big deal. If you were one of those girls sitting with legs crossed and back straight while the boys got a telling off, you might have learned a life-altering lesson. You might still believe you must be born with talent to be good at something. But ability isn’t all that innate, and Ed Sheeran’s embarrassingly average singing voice proves it (fast-forward to 7:20).

An unfair penalty for failure

On top of being told we need to be ‘born with it’, women are more likely to be told off when we get ‘it’ wrong. That’s right. To reinforce an unhealthy fear of failure, women are more harshly penalised when we make mistakes. The unsurprising result of this double whammy? While no one loves to fail, women take it particularly hard. And this fear of failure is holding us back. 

Note: If you are reading this as part of our first male allies cohort, thank you for putting your growth mindset towards gender equity. ❤️

The frenemy you need to ditch

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is giphy.gif

Attempts to avoid the shame associated with failure can lead women to limit their choices and take fewer risks than their male counterparts. That may seem smart until you realise that risk and reward are correlated. Without risk, rewards become a lot more scarce – which is an issue when you apply it to your career. Sometimes, the biggest risk is doing nothing.

One thing that those female leadership outliers agree on? Setbacks from failure are simply steps towards learning.  So, it’s time to undo a lifetime of socialisation and turn failure into an upward force:

Get comfortable 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. “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 molehills.  

Back yourself to learn by doing

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’.

It’s time to check those self-limiting beliefs and, instead, embrace simple ways to learn by doing. Be like the Powrsuiter at our recent mini-masterclass. She decided to be brave and introduce herself first… Only to forget what the Icebreaker question was. Cue: an even better icebreaker as her group bonded over a situation that is much scarier in theory than practice.

Face our fears

It’s time to make failure a far more normal part of our lives. And we get opportunities to do it every day. Try a new hobby or sport (#Golf), attempt a new dish, voice an opinion, reach out to someone you admire, test a new elevator pitch… Catch yourself before the ‘no’ slips out and give it a shot. The great thing about a growth mindset is that it grows with you. The more you try and fail… The easier it is to give the next thing a go.

30 second action

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? Run a workshop? Did the fear of failure kick in? How did you respond?

Was this helpful?

Weekly leadership insights, straight to your inbox

One leadership skill, every week

Each week, we cover one leadership skill or challenge and share a 30-second action that turns theory into practice.