Experts point out that women don’t feel this way because they are innately anxious or insecure. Rather, it’s a reality that in a number of fields, women are judged more harshly when they miss the mark. “The bar is often set higher in terms of performance standards for women,” says Linda Carli, a professor of psychology at Wellesley College, pointing to a body of social science that documents the “glass cliff” phenomenon, in which women are given assignments that have a high chance of failure. Studies have suggested that women are more likely to be given problematic cases by law firms, recruited for tougher seats in political elections or brought in to lead companies only when there’s big trouble (think Marissa Mayer at Yahoo). In these cases, their failure is not only more likely but also more visible. Not all studies of the glass-cliff effect have confirmed that it exists. But Eric Ries, an entrepreneur and author who is well versed in the culture of Silicon Valley, says he has sat through enough corporate meetings to find it “totally believable that we have set up a system where women have a higher cost of failure and are right to be afraid of it.”
But even if women’s fear of failure is a logical reaction to a judgmental workplace, they still need to cope with it.
The most important step, says Clance, is to cultivate your own resilience: Remind yourself that nobody has ever died from failure. On the flip side, she stresses acknowledging your successes and believing the good things people say about you (which women often don’t). It’s also possible to change the culture in which you are being asked to function. She cites one patient, a young physician just getting started in her career, who was terrified of missing a diagnosis. Clance worked with the doctor to dial back her schedule so she would feel less harried. She helped this woman actively change her environment rather than passively accept it, and thus alleviate her fears.
And slowly, as these issues become more visible, the culture itself could change. Leaders like Klawe are working hard to establish supportive environments where women—and men—can take risks safely. When undergraduates enroll at Harvey Mudd, Klawe makes sure they learn how to handle failure. She talks about the importance of working in teams, of seeking help and giving help to others. She tells them to create “a community of people who are going to support you no matter what.” And she tells them to understand that failure will happen. If you build in an understanding that adversity will occur—if you accept that it’s natural for things to be hard—you are less thrown off when that turns out to be true.
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