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Could Women Change the World By Changing the Way We Explain Our Successes and Our Failures?
Editor’s Note: This is a continuation of our core conversation series, “Extraordinary Women Change the World.” Last time, Kyeli Smith talked about the adversity she faced when her hands stopped functioning normally and what she found on the other side of it. Today, Cath Duncan points out a crucial difference in the way men and women speak about success.
Think of the last time you experienced success in your business. What was the reason for that success? Write down your answer. Now think of the last time you experienced failure in your business. What was the reason for that failure? Write down your answer for that. too.
How do you explain your successes and failures?
The research shows that if you're a woman, there's a good chance that you would explain your success as being a result of luck or some other fleeting and external force outside of your control, while explaining your failure as being a result of lack of skill or some other internal, personal, and enduring trait. Men, on the other hand, tend to explain their successes and failures the opposite way around.
"Men attribute their successes to themselves and to internal and stable factors and their failures to external and unstable factors, whereas women attribute their successes to external and changing factors and their failures to internal and stable factors (Deaux et al., 1975). When participants were asked to evaluate equal performances of others and to point out the reasons for success, both men and women attributed the success of men to their talent. (Deaux & Emswiller, 1974)." - Original source: Rubenstein, 2004.
This research was done in the seventies, so I asked on Facebook whether my friends thought that things had changed. Here's what a few of my smart female friends had to say:
"Unfortunately, I don't think this has changed near enough. We see some progress in some areas of society; however, overall the socialization for boys and girls around success and internalization and externalization are still quite rigid." - Angela Wheeler "I recently read an article where a female executive said that she posts a position that has 8 criteria for the candidate. Guys will say, "I have 5! I have this job nailed!" and women say, "I only have 7.5, they'll never pick me", so ... no, not much has changed. But this is something I really try to focus on with my clients so maybe we can change it ... person by person." - Michele Woodward "I think it's spot on with how I think versus how my fiance thinks. And we've recently had discussions about how upbringing with social expectations drastically shapes boys versus girls. I would like to read more!" - Rebekah McClain "Don't think it has changed at all! Are we that predictable? I have seen in the business world how men will quickly point out when they did a specific job or task well -- quickly taking ownership of a success -- whereas women wait for someone else to point it out when they did something well." - Karlien Scholtz
These friends of mine are women who know a thing or two about taking on big challenges and creating unusual levels of success. Most of you here know Angela as PF's Operations Specialist and Community Manager, and you probably know that she recently overcame a near-death experience that she so powerfully turned around. But since (like many other women) Angela is fairly modest about her successes, you might not know that Angela also backpacked through Europe one summer, conducted research and took classes in Central America, has worked as a prevention advocate at a domestic violence and sexual assault center, has a PhD in Sociology, and is a published author, successful grant writer, speaker, and business owner. Michele is a successful executive coach who's logged thousands of coaching hours, working with clients on every continent except Antarctica. She's also a former White House staffer and corporate executive, has written two books (and is working on the third, and fourth), recently served as Executive Director of the Ronald Reagan Centennial Commission, was a principal organizer of the State Funeral of President Gerald R. Ford, and previously organized the State Funeral of President Ronald Reagan. Amongst all those amazing accomplishments, Michele's most proud accomplishment is being a single mom to two great teenagers who are wonderful people, doing their own good work in the world. Rebekah is a survivor of rape and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Amongst managing all the other everyday demands of life and career (she's Lead Manager with a Seattle group home that cares for people with physical or mental handicaps), her truly impressive achievements are that she's lifted her PTSD symptoms and transformed her life to release herself from the demons of her past. In her "spare" time, she's boldly working to eliminate societal shame about rape and PSTD and to empower other people living after rape and/or PTSD through her writing and speaking at Monster Under My Bed. Karlien is a successful multiple-global-business owner, currently the Director of Labourwise Human Resources in South Africa, and the mother of two wonderful children. Karlien has a BA, BA(Hons), and MBA (all Cum Laude, of course), has run the Comrades and Two Oceans Ultramarathons twice, has climbed Kilimanjaro, and does a lot of fundraising for charities in South Africa in her "spare" time. These are all smart, successful women who know what it is to face significant challenges and fears and to pursue big goals. They all have an appreciation of what both failure and success feel like. They're leaders and connectors who experience their own struggles as they try to make sense of both success and failure in their journeys. And they're also actively supporting other women in their pursuits to overcome failures and create more success for themselves and their families ... and to enjoy life while they do it. They're saying that their observations are that not much has changed since this research was conducted in the ’70s, and they're probably spot-on. When you consider that, in spite of some significant shifts in gender equality, we still live in a world where in 38 out of 50 states of the USA a woman can be charged for murder after unexplained miscarriage or stillbirth, then it's probably safe to assume that women are still being burdened with too much responsibility for failures and are not being given (or taking) enough credit for their incredible resourcefulness and many successes.
Are you in the habit of accepting too much responsibility for failures and too little credit for your successes?
What's the impact when you do that? How does it affect your ability to be resilient and to rebound from failures? What happens to your stress levels and your ability to enjoy your challenging pursuits while you work at them? How does it affect your ability to market your business (especially if you're in a service business) and the amount of recognition, reward, and influence that you've been able to garner in your work? What if you were to practice looking for the internal, enduring personality traits and skills that have contributed to your successes and to begin explaining failures as "bad luck" or the result of fleeting external circumstances? How different would you feel about your business successes and failures then? And how much more confident, productive, and impactful could you be? What would that be like?