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Want More Women to Succeed? Let Them Fail

by Joanna Barsh on June 23, 2010


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Want More Women to Succeed? Let Them Fail

The stats are just awful: while women account for more than half the college graduates and more than half the PhDs, we make up less than 20% of top management in almost every industry you look at. Now draw a circle and estimate three percent of it. That is the percentage of CEOs who were women in 2008. (Continued below...)

MIX Maverick Joanna Barsh explores the differences between women and men when it comes to leadership.

So what’s holding us back? The pipeline argument still holds water: it is going to take many more years for those young women grads to work their way through corporations that value “pilot hours.” Still, that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Our research suggests that women just don’t seize the chance.  Some of us hold ourselves back, waiting for enough experience to gain the confidence to raise our hands. Some of us never made the connections or could not find the key to unlock the networks and forge the powerful personal connections that help accelerate people to the top. Fear of failing is a powerful constraint, and while I don’t argue that women have it more than men, our gender’s hormone cocktail doesn’t include enough testosterone—that fuel for risk-taking—to overcome it in most cases.

But what worries me most of all are the leaders today who, with the best of intentions, resist giving women opportunities that stretch them because they might fail. I asked a top executive to put a woman into the candidate pool for a senior position if she were as qualified as the weakest man. He told me, “I cannot advance a woman who might fail because if she does, she will set our women’s initiative back ten years.” Hmmm. When a man fails in that top job, 97 times out of 100 he is replaced with…another man.

Thank you, pioneer women who are failing (publicly) in your top jobs. I look forward to the day when women fail as much as men.

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