Accepting the inevitability of failure can help gender diversity

Women struggle to be visible at the workplace while avoiding backlash – thus breeding a culture where a fear of failure is persistent.
By: | May 17, 2019


About the Author
Jennifer Martineau is the Senior Vice-President of Research, Innovation and Product Development at the Center for Creative Leadership.

It’s 2019, and even after countless campaigns and movements addressing the plight of women – and the hashtags and slogans that come with them – some things remain the same for women at the workplace.

The pressure they face at work is nothing new. Tired old narratives of the struggles women undergo at the workplace, unfortunately, still persist.

While they may be asked to be more vocal in sharing their opinions, they are at the same time judged and penalised more heavily for doing so – and attributes such as assertiveness, self-advocacy, and outspokenness are often labelled as bossy, pushy, or unfeminine.

On top of this, they are often handed the extra administrative tasks at work.

These expectations have meant that women struggle to be visible at the workplace while avoiding backlash – thus breeding a culture where a fear of failure is persistent.

The statistics compound this –according to the Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs, there are less than 5 females engaged in entrepreneurial activities for every 10 male entrepreneurs in Singapore.

With that in mind, I’d like to revisit the concept of agency at this juncture – which I introduced in the first part of this series. In a nutshell, agency is the human desire to control one’s life and to excel.

A person can be said to have mastered self-agency when he/she is able to make decisions that are well aligned with his/her priorities, and personal limitations.

In Kick Some Glass – a book I’ve recently co-authored with Portia Mount, we emphasised the importance of agency for women looking to get ahead on their own terms.

Agency allows women to stay in touch with their personal goals and values, while actively advocating and acting on their own behalf.

Previously, we explored four out of the eight ways by which women can develop the agency muscle – namely, having a clarity of direction; a planful action plan; being able to take calculated risks, and having self-awareness of one’s values and limitations.

Here, I’d like to explore how overcoming the fear of failure is crucial to building the agency muscle. More specifically, I’d like to take a deep dive into four particular characteristics women should look to build when it comes to overcoming the fear of failure:


1. Adaptability

Women with agency are flexible. They are not easily thrown off by obstacles (because there will always be one) or adversity. They adopt the motto that “sh*t happens” and sometimes an alternate route needs to be paved.


2. Resilience

Women with agency practice resilience.  They know that their success depends on their ability to bounce back from setbacks and challenges, so they invest in their own mental and physical wellness.


3. Learning

Too often, women fear that failure will make them appear weak, but we must remember that failure is necessary for us to grow. In CCL’s Women’s Leadership Experience course, we challenge women to talk about their most “glorious failures”.

AirBnB had a similar practice called “Friday F*ck Ups”. Women with agency see failure as a learning opportunity –  just one step closer to finding success, and learn from their own experiences of failure.


4. Letting go

Women with agency know that they cannot be responsible for EVERYTHING, so they learn what is important and what is not.  They focus on what is important and they can control, and let the rest roll off their backs.

There is not one successful woman out there who doesn’t have a story of failure to share. J.K. Rowling, author of the best-selling Harry Potter series, described the point at which she “stopped pretending to (herself) that (she) was anything other than what (she) was” as a key turning point in her career –this allowed her to direct energy into finishing the only work that mattered to her.

Ultimately, overcoming the fear of failure and mastering personal agency will go a long way in helping a woman Kick Some Glass and take control of her career.