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Secret Career Weapon: Admitting Your Mistakes Then Learning From Them

Nervous Business WomanWhy is there an expectation in our society that the higher you are within the business hierarchy, the less likely you are to make mistakes?

Whether you are an entry-­‐level analyst or a top-­‐ranking CEO, the potential to make mistakes is equal. What we do after we make them is what distinguishes the leaders from the followers.

And yet, as a society we look so harshly upon failures and mistakes and are conditioned to judge women who make mistakes more harshly than men, especially if they occupy traditional male roles. The study “People in jobs traditionally held by the other sex are judged more harshly for mistakes,” from the Association for Psychological Science calls this dynamic a “glass cliff.”

It defines this as “What counter-stereotypical individuals (such as female CEOs) are in danger of falling from” once they break the glass ceiling since they point out that women in high status leadership roles are more susceptible to being judged more harshly for their mistakes than others.

What is a mistake?

Is there a scale by which we measure mistakes? Is it measured in embarrassment, pain or money lost? What is the metric? According to the Merriam-­‐Webster Dictionary, a mistake is “to make a wrong judgment about (something).” To misjudge something is something every person deals with in his or her professional life on a day-­‐to-­‐day basis.

As this anecdote shows, this is a common form of sponsorship offered to men by other high-powered men. But does that same opportunity exist for women? This article from the “Harvard Business Review” would suggest that sponsorship can often help men recover from mistakes in business whilst women are afforded less support.

The 2008 Catalyst survey cited in the article, which pulls from an online survey of 4,000 MBA alumni conducted by the Graduate Management Admission Council, indicates that more men and women say they get valuable career advice from their mentors, but mostly men describe being sponsored while women are viewed as “risky appointments.”

The Impact of being judged on your performance and not on your potential

Julie Zeilinger published a piece on Forbes.com called “Why Millennial Women Do Not Want to Lead” that may offer some insights into this question. She argued, “Young women today are bred to doubt ourselves, question our worth and view ourselves as improvable projects rather than embrace the imperfection of our humanity.”

Don’t be afraid of failure

For founder and CEO of Girls Who Code Reshma Saujani, getting there includes a lot of failure. She says, “I always say fail hard, fail fast, fail often … I think if you have an idea, you just have to put it out there in the world. If you haven’t failed yet, you haven’t tried anything!”

As Saujani pointed out, failing is critical and failing often is ideal. And yet, for women, failure is viewed as a completely negative affair both externally and internally. So how can we get the benefits of failing if we are not allowed to fail?

Finding Ways to Fail as a Woman

Failure has stigma attached to it. One way to get the benefits if you do fail is to seek out less public, safer environments to air your mistakes. This could be having your current mentors or support group be your sounding board or it could be at a more organized event. This is already happening on a large scale at an event called FailCon, a one-­‐day conference in San Francisco. In the New York Timescoverage of this and other business failures, Ashley Good, chief executive and founder of Fail Forward said “Nobody wants to fail. It’s awful. You will never hear me say to celebrate failure.” But, she added, “Failing intelligently is an increasingly important skill.” And one that women should benefit from too.

If successful in breaking down stigma’s, the next time you are asked to speak or attend a seminar in which successful women are the focal point, there will be a metric by which to measure the success of that event: By the number of women who readily reveal their mistakes and failures and who use their platform to level the playing field for professional women.

By Natalie Costa