There's a Gender Failure Gap—Here's How We Can Close It
I've wasted a lot of time in my life being afraid of failure. I gave up studying foreign languages because I was afraid to speak and use the wrong vocabulary word. I stopped playing pool, chess, and countless other silly card games because I couldn't bear the thought of making a poor play. I don't do karaoke because I can't sing. I abandoned the idea of grad school because I just couldn't get the hang of microeconomics. My determination to avoid failure at all costs still didn't stop me from getting fired from a job at a coffee shop when I was in college, or from bombing the interview for a dream job in my mid-20s. When my engagement ended last year, I still blamed myself for the end of the relationship.
Now, at 34, however, I regret all the things I didn't do far more than the things that blew up in my face.
Experts will tell you that failure is a critical tool to success. It’s the main component of the scientific method: hypothesis, test, re-test, test again. Early childhood development research is full of “resilience” training for kids. Stress and adversity are normal parts of life, and adapting and learning from those experiences without feeling traumatized make us healthier adults. Yet women often end up taking a less healthy approach to failure: we take it too personally and too often change course because of these setbacks. Why?
There’s loads of evidence that failure affects women (and people of color, and queer people, and anyone who faces institutional barriers to equality) more than men. We talk about the gender wage gap, but a failure gap may be even more worthy of analysis and discussion.
Women take themselves out of the academic pipeline to STEM fields because they fear doing badly in school, according to 2014 research. Harvard professor Claudia Goldin found that women in introductory economics classes were twice as likely to change majors after getting a B than women who got As—a gap that didn’t exist for men. Women are less likely to consider themselves qualified to run for political office, even though they’re as likely to win as men. “The reality remains that women are still held to a higher standard–especially regarding their qualifications,” said Barbara Lee, founder and president of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation. “Our research shows that women candidates must prove they are qualified while men get a pass. Voters automatically assume men are qualified for the job.”
This crisis of confidence is a serious issue, and it’s based in reality. Research released just last year found that women and men ask for raises at work at the same rate—but men are 25 percent more likely to get them. We’re more likely to be criticized for being assertive. We face a greater backlash from potential employers when we negotiate for better compensation packages, and it discourages us from even asking for better deals.
The old adage is true: Failure is inevitable. There will always a home improvement project that will collapse or a job that you'll lose. But fixing this failure gap is going to involve a lot more than just telling ourselves, “it’s okay to be imperfect” or “just try again!” There’s no easy fix to the weight of our own expectations and the million tiny factors that add up to inequality. (Women are only recently accepting that the idea of "having it all" is unrealistic on its face, after all.) But we can start with a very simple first step: talking about it—and openly.
All this week, we'll be showcasing stories of career setbacks, relationship implosions, and how fear of being less than perfect can sabotage even simple tasks. We hope that these stories will give women a new perspective on their own difficult moments. Not everyone has the luxury of talking openly about failure or their anxieties over it, but it's important to start somewhere.
Transparency about pay can help close the gender wage gap, and transparency about failure can reinforce something everyone needs to remember: failing at something isn’t a reflection of your personal worth or moral value.
More From Glamour:
• What Would Your Day Look Like If the Gender Pay Gap Applied to All Aspects of Your Life?
• Good News for 2020 College Grads: You Could Close the Gender Wage Gap
• It Will Take Centuries for Hispanic Women to Close the Gender Pay Gap
• Jane the Virgin's Gina Rodriguez on the Pay Gap: "Equality Stands on Merit, Not on Gender"
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