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Failing up: Why do men succeed when they fail?

Lydia Smith
Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
Photo: Reuters

We all make mistakes from time to time, and learning from them is how we improve. That being said, there can be a price to pay for a serious error at work. It might mean missing out on a big break or promotion — particularly for women, who are often penalised more harshly if they mess up.

The concept of men “failing up” — making a major mistake, yet landing a pay rise or promotion — is a serious double standard facing women at work. It’s certainly frustrating and unfair to see women scrutinised more than their male counterparts, but it can also impact female representation in top jobs and positions of power.

Speaking at the United State of Women Summit last year, the former First Lady Michelle Obama said she had no patience for men who could repeatedly fail and still succeed.

“I wish that girls could fail as bad as men do and be OK,” she said. “Because let me tell you, watching men fail up—it is frustrating. It’s frustrating to see a lot of men blow it and win. And we hold ourselves to these crazy, crazy standards.”

So why is it that women are less likely fail up, compared to men?

One key factor is that women are judged more harshly at work than their male counterparts, particularly when it comes to making mistakes.

In 2017, analysis of more than 9,000 surgeons found that after the death of a patient, male surgeons didn’t experience any decline in physician referrals – while female surgeons received 54% fewer referrals. Another 2017 study by Korn Ferry International found women who led large public and private companies faced greater scrutiny because of their gender.

They’re also more likely to be judged according to their voice and personalities too. In 2015, a study found that women’s perceived competency drops by 35% when they’re judged as being “forceful” or “assertive” — qualities often lauded among male CEOs.

“There are fewer women in leadership roles and therefore when they mess up, the spotlight is on them, they are more visible in a way that just isn’t the same for men,” say Katy and Fi, the founders of Catalyst Collective, which specialises in empowering women in the workplace and overcoming the gender pay gap.

“Women are held to higher standards, so their work is judged more harshly, and they have less access to powerful sponsors who can give them top cover when things go wrong.

“So, women don’t stuff up any more often than men, but when they do the consequences are harsher, they fall further and harder than their male counterparts,” they add.

Some people are always going to be lucky when it comes to getting ahead at work – sometimes all it takes is being at the right place at the right time. Others, who are no less competent, may miss out.

But when it comes to helping women get ahead in the workplace, there are several factors which can help.

“What everyone can do is get really savvy about standards you are holding different people to and how bias plays out in every workplace,” Katy and Fi advise.

“And flip it – ask yourself if the same thing happened to a comparable male colleague, would you be reacting in this way (judging or penalising yourself)? If the answer is ‘no, I’d be reacting less harshly’, then check yourself on that.”

And if you do make a mistake — or fail — then dealing with it productively is key to moving on and moving up. We all fall short at some point, or experience a setback, but it doesn’t have to mean the end of the line for your career.

“Women also dwell on failure more and for longer than men. Women tend to ruminate and beat themselves up more,” Katy and Fi add. “Women can learn to accept failure as part of growing. Take the learning from it and move on.”