The fear of failure is failing women

Living in Silicon Valley has provided me with an abundance of female role models. From women like Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook), who break the glass ceiling on the daily, to powerful and empowering organizations such as Girls Who Code, I find the pinnacles of female empowerment within 30 miles of my home. I am lucky to witness the power of females and the constant changing of social norms that are beginning to define this decade. 

So it struck me as odd when on the third day of school, three of my friends taking AP Computer Science began sharing their observations. Just one week into school the difference between the number of girls and boys was already evident. I remember one of my friends distinctly saying that each lab table only had one female student in the group of four. 

I was surprised. I knew of course that gender equality was not completely achieved. But I did not expect the gender gap to be this prominent, especially at the high school level.

Needless to say, not all women who choose not to take academically rigorous STEM programs are conforming to fears of failure. While many women may truly prefer another area of study more, or appreciate lower levels of competition, there is still a very significant statistical difference between the number of men and woman too high of one to dismiss the unequal gender ratio as simply differences in preference.

This phenomenon is well documented. The gender gap in competitive classes is specifically widened in STEM fields where women measure what ‘success’ is at a higher standard than men. Sherry Correl from Stanford University has dubbed this the stereotype effect; when women believe they are competing in an industry or environment where stereotypes have placed them as inferior to their male counterparts, they hold themselves to a higher standard.

Cristal Glangchai corroborates this in Quartz magazine when she documents her observations at an undergraduate entrepreneurship course at Trinity University. While the course featured an equal number of male and female students, Glangchai noticed that women rarely spoke up without being called on. Societal norms and stereotypes have ingrained in females the idea that being a female in a STEM field means they are an exception. She concludes that as a result, females in these areas, especially successful ones, feel out of place. 

Any setback only confirms the biases they are taught to believe and increases the chance they quit in the face of the first hurdle. And by feeling like an exception, they ultimately hold themselves to higher standards as well. 

This is clear in Harvard University researcher Claudia Goldin’s research as to why the ratio of men to women in higher-level economics programs was at an astounding 3:1. She found that women who received a B were half as likely to continue than women who received an A. On the other hand, men who earned a B were just as likely to continue as men who earned an A.

Females dropping out of advanced courses creates a positive feedback loop: seeing fewer females in these classes disincentivizes future females from taking it, which in turn furthers the cycle. Additionally, seeing fewer women strengthens the stereotype effect as well, providing visual evidence that contributes to greater fear and the idea of being the ‘exception’. 

Of course, this isn’t to say that all males are fearless and willing to brave all failures in their way. Failure in itself likely affects both males and females at equal rates, but the implications it has and the reaction it garners differs drastically between genders.

But the root of this issue comes far before women ever reach the workplace or higher education. The creation of this fixed mindset begins in the classroom and at home, boiling down to the feedback and rhetoric that women are exposed to from a young age. 

In a recent study, Professors Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan note the differences in how girls and boys are raised. Girls specifically are taught to value obedience and pleasing others, thus placing a higher value on the feedback of authority figures, such as teachers and parents. Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychology professor, corroborates this, finding that the difference in expectations means boys end up acting out more in the classroom, thereby experiencing increased criticism from a younger age.

A lack of exposure to criticism results in lower resilience among women. When women are socialized to comply, they lose the opportunity to build their own sense of identity, and pushing through setbacks becomes that much more difficult. This ultimately translates to fewer females in higher management positions and academically rigorous programs. 

While many women choose to limit occupational advancement, either to satisfy personal goals or societal pressure, conformist attitudes brought on by the fear of failure is still a defining factor in female advancement. 

It is our job as members of society to acknowledge these differences. Calling attention to the inherent differences that start as young as high school is needed to remind our educators, parents, and other influential figures on the long-lasting impact of their own biases and words. Here at DVHS is where we have the most potential. Recognizing the disparities in our own community and shifting our rhetoric to overcome them has the ability to reverse and break these cycles. Most importantly, we must teach women to embrace failure, grow from it, and eventually, overcome it.