July 15, 2014 — Successful women’s resistance to talking about mistakes first struck me a couple of years ago, as I watched Hillary Clinton introduce a panel of top female leaders in government. The panelists sat on a brightly lit stage in a Washington, DC conference room packed with students from women’s colleges. After Clinton spoke, the moderator approached the microphone: “Could each of you talk about a mistake you’ve made in your career and what you learned from it?” she asked the panelists.
I sat with my pen poised, ready to take notes. As Director of the Wurtele Center for Work & Life at Smith College, I knew my students were eager for stories like these. When we had speakers who were candid and real about the choices they made in life, I saw students physically relax. The undergraduate women around me spoke frequently about feeling as though everyone except for them knew what they were doing and how to do it. Or perhaps it was a sentiment I picked up on because I related to it so strongly. When I was first given the mandate to create a leadership center, I stumbled over myself—and my colleagues—in my eagerness to accomplish things. I wanted everything done perfectly and quickly, and was anxious when it didn’t go that way.
But my pen remained poised, and the page remained blank; not one of those high-powered women described a mistake they’d made. Instead, each spoke in general terms about the value of learning from mistakes. Maybe it was hard to come up with something on the spot. Or maybe, as women at the top of their fields, they were unaccustomed to discussing their errors in public—especially because “women’s mistakes tend to be given more weight and remembered longer than men’s,” as Joan C. Williams and Rachel Dempsey report in What Works for Women at Work.
The problem with paying lip service to “the value of learning from mistakes” is that it perpetuates the gender gap in perfectionism. Studies at Duke, and more recently at Princeton, indicate that young women feel the need to do everything well, to be “effortlessly perfect” and to “measure up to an impossible standard.” Recent research on women at Harvard revealed that female students who got Bs in an introductory-level economics course were nearly twice as likely as male peers, given the same grades, to quit studying economics altogether. Trained to be perfect students, praised for being perfect students, they quit when they couldn’t immediately perform at the level to which they were accustomed.
In college, these young women may decide to major in something else and excel at it. But in a career, fear of failure becomes a problem. Leadership experts Herminia Ibarra, Robin Ely, and Deborah Kolb wrote in a 2013 article in Harvard Business Review that “people who focus on how others perceive them are less clear about their goals, less open to learning from failure and less capable of self-regulation.” Ibarra, Ely, and Kolb went on to say that because there are so few women in the top levels of organizations, the ones who do get there are more visible—and more highly scrutinized—than men. This can lead to anxiety about getting the details right, to risk aversion, and to losing one’s sense of purpose. If women are to develop as leaders, they need—among other things—“a safe space for learning, experimentation and community.”
Women leaders can have a major impact by sharing real stories about themselves—complex stories that allow for obstacles, frustrations, and missteps on the road to success.
My hope is that we will work together to change our current culture of perfectionism. The stakes are high, I know, because of the extra scrutiny that female leaders face. But too few young women realize that the most successful people are the ones who learn from their mistakes—not the ones who never make any.