The Difference Between How Failure Impacts Men and Women

April 9th 2016

“Failure is only the opportunity to begin again, only this time more wisely,” Henry Ford once said, to name only one of countless clichés that trumpet the inspirational power of defeat. However, studies show that the psychological experience of bouncing back from rejections or mistakes isn't universal: Young girls, in particular, struggle more to recover from failures than their male counterparts.

The gender failure gap begins in childhood.

According to a study reported by Time, when fifth-grade students were faced with a deliberately confusing task, girls were the most deterred by the experience, and that the girls with the highest IQs had the hardest time.

"When girls make mistakes, they’re more likely to interpret the setback as a sign they lack ability — a factor much harder for girls to change," reporter Rachel Simmons wrote. "Boys, on the other hand, tend to attribute failure to more controllable circumstances."

Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D., a social psychologist who authored "Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals" looked into the disparity on Psychology today. Halvorson attributed these attitudes to how girls are praised from a young age, and hypothesized that when girls are told they possess positive qualities in absolute terms, it also makes them susceptible to self doubt.

Because many young boys struggle to pay attention and follow directions in elementary school classrooms, they are used to being told to put more effort in, according to Halvorson, which translates into beliefs that poor performances can be overcome and don't reflect inherent, irreversible flaws.

"Girls, who develop self-control earlier and are better able to follow instructions, are often praised for their 'goodness.' When we do well in school, we are told that we are 'so smart,' 'so clever,' or 'such a good student.' This kind of praise implies that traits like smartness, cleverness, and goodness are qualities you either have or you don't," Halvorson wrote.

Adult women also struggle to overcome failure.

Harvard economist Claudia Goldin identified a similar pattern in female college students, Time pointed out. Goldin looked at the gender gap among undergraduate economics majors, and said that young women who dropped economics majors early on in their studies were "disproportionately those who did not get an A or A-."

On Psychology Today, Halvorson wrote that girls who are told they were bright at a young ages often were more critical of themselves even as adults.

"We continue to carry these beliefs, often unconsciously, around with us throughout our lives," she explained. "And because bright girls are particularly likely to see their abilities as innate and unchangeable, they grow up to be women who are far too hard on themselves — women who will prematurely conclude that they don't have what it takes to succeed in a particular arena, and give up way too soon."

Bright girls, according to Halvorson, often grow up to become their own worst enemies, and believe that they are "stuck," unable to shape their abilities, gain new skills, or change their professional paths as adults.

Fighting the gender failure gap?

Jessica Lahey, who authored the parenting book, "The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed," also found that girls were deflated by the way adults responded to failure.

"When girls are 'rescued' from failure, they lose motivation at a higher rate than boys," the New York Times Women in the World explained, summing up Lahey's research.

“All this swooping and fixing make for emotionally, intellectually, and socially handicapped children, unsure of their direction or purpose without an adult on hand to guide them," Lahey explained in her book, according to a Huffington Post report.

Lahey also told the Huffington Post that these attitudes carried over to how incidents with drugs and alcohol were treated in older children.

"Telling kids, 'You should never ever drink. You should never ever do drugs because it’s all bad,' it just does not work for kids," she said. "Giving kids information is actually a much better way to go. So I choose truth and I choose information with my own children, and so far so good, and I’ll keep my fingers crossed for the rest of it."

It's important for parents of both genders to let children of all ages make mistakes, according to Lahey, rather than communicating that screw-ups are violations of black-and-white standards of behavior, achievement, or massive betrayals of parents' expectations and values.

Halvorson offered similar advice for adult women suffering from remnants of "bright girl syndrome."

"No matter the ability — whether it's intelligence, creativity, self-control, charm, or athleticism — studies show them to be profoundly malleable," she wrote. "When it comes to mastering any skill, your experience, effort, and persistence matter a lot. So if you were a Bright Girl, it's time to toss out your (mistaken) belief about how ability works, embrace the fact that you can always improve, and reclaim the confidence to tackle any challenge that you lost so long ago."

Aaliyah (R.I.P.) offered similar advice in her in her chart-topping 2000 hit single, "Try Again," singing, "If at first you don't succeed, then dust yourself off and try again."

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