Making mistakes as a woman in charge: 6 things to note

Research has shown that women are judged more harshly than men when they make a mistake, which can result in a strong aversion to risk, lower confidence and missed leadership opportunities.

Here are six considerations to note about the female experience of erring. 

1. When a woman makes a serious mistake, she can face greater likelihood of harm to her career in the long- term than a man does after a serious error. For instance, physician referrals to female surgeons decreased 54 percent after the death of a patient, but didn't drop for male surgeons, according to a 2017 Harvard working paper based on Medicare data covering 9,140 surgeons. Female surgeon's' mistakes were also more likely to influence how their female peers were treated. After a bad experience with one female surgeon, referring physicians were less likely to refer to other female surgeons in the same specialty. There were no such spillover effects to other men after a bad experience with one male surgeon.

2. People are less likely to support an organization after an ethical failure if the business is led by a woman, according to a study published by the American Psychological Association. "Women incur greater penalties for ethical transgressions because of persistent gender stereotypes that tend to categorize women as having more communal traits than men, such as being more likable, sensitive and supportive of other," said lead author Nicole Votolato Montgomery of the University of Virginia.

3. Women who earn below an A in introductory economics classes are far more likely than their male peers to switch majors. Women who earned B's were half as likely as those who earned A's to stick with the major, according to an analysis, whereas a man who earned a B was just as likely to major in economics as a man who earned an A.

4. In addition to gender bias, other research has suggested that women's risk aversion is also informed by the rate and quality of feedback they received about their missteps as children. Boys tend to experience a greater quantity of scolding and punishment, which strengthens their resiliency and ability to take failure in stride. "When we observed in grade school classrooms, we saw that boys got eight times more criticism than girls for their conduct," Carol S. Dweck, PhD, writes in Mindset. Complicating matters, the feedback patterns differ for girls and boys. "Boys' mistakes are attributed to a lack of effort, whereas girls come to see mistakes as a reflection of their deeper qualities," Dr. Dweck said in The Atlantic.

5. One productive way to process mistakes is by adopting a growth, versus fixed, mindset. As Dr. Dweck advises in Mindset: "Is there something in your past that you think measured you? A test score? A dishonest or callous action? Being fired from a job? Being rejected? Focus on that one thing. Feel all the emotions that go with it. Now put it in a growth mindset perspective. Look honestly at your role in it, but understand that it doesn't define your intelligence or personality. Instead, ask: What did I (or can I) learn from that experience? How can I use it as a basis for growth? Carry that with you instead."

6. It is often helpful if managers or leaders are explicit and spell out how they assess mistakes, so direct reports can adopt a similar evaluation for themselves. This may help prevent a kitchen-sink mentality in which all mistakes — from the most minor to most substantial — are treated with the same amount of gravity. "As a manager, when I'm managing someone relatively new who's making mistakes, here's what I look at to determine how concerned to be: Is the person taking the mistakes seriously and learning lessons for next time? Are they adjusting their systems and their thinking to prevent those mistakes from happening again? Or are they being cavalier, not processing the feedback, and continuing to mess up the same things? I also look at the nature of the mistakes. If they stem from carelessness or truly bad judgement, that's going to concern me a lot more than if they just reflect that that person is still in the middle of learning new processes and systems," career advice columnist Alison Green writes for New York Magazine.





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