Joanna Barsh remembers the horror well. Having recently been made a senior partner at a consulting company, she was invited on a retreat to discuss the firm’s direction and decided to make a splash – an 11-minute video that went way beyond the scope of the project, outlining problem areas and a possible rebirth of the company.
In a fancy hotel room in New York City, 20 older men sat at a table to hear her presentation. It wasn’t an ordinary table, but a U-shaped one. Barsh stood before the men for half an hour. But it didn’t go well. The general sentiment among the men was insult: How dare you? We just elected you. Obviously we made a bad decision. Barsh gamely defended her ideas, but struggled to hold back tears. And then of course came the guilt and the shame.
Now director emeritus at McKinsey & Co., a global consulting firm, Barsh relates this story in a new book, Mistakes I Made at Work: 25 Influential Women Reflect on What They Got Out of Getting It Wrong. Written by Jessica Bacal, inaugural director of the Wurtele Center for Work and Life at Smith College, an all-women’s liberal-arts institution in Northampton, Mass., the book can be seen as a crucial character boot camp for women everywhere. It’s one of the great ironies of the sisterhood that, despite the celebrated confessional nature of female relationships, women rarely communicate the truth about the things that really matter. And one of those is how they have made mistakes in their careers.
Women may pay lip service to sacrifices they have made, but it’s rare to hear them openly discuss their failures or setbacks. As a result, we tend to look at high-achieving women and think of them as superhuman, unlike the rest of us, a rare breed that appears to have navigated the challenging landscape of choices, glass ceilings and glass cliffs – I’ll explain that one later – with ease. This isn’t just untrue, but unhelpful.
Arguably, one could say that successful women don’t want to share their career horror stories because of the competitive nature of their gender. If they compete about who is the better mom in the anxiety free-for-all that is modern motherhood, what would stop them from one-upmanship and image control in the working world? I, for one, wouldn’t discount that theory, but Bacal doesn’t go there.
Instead, she focuses on research, such as the 2006 Girls Inc. report outlining how the “good girl” messaging that permeates the culture results in women feeling pressure to be perfect, accomplished, thin and accommodating. The need to be perfect keeps girls from taking risks – a necessity in leadership – and makes them more likely to feel demoralized by challenges. And the pressure to have it all together, slipping elegantly through the crush of your professional and domestic lives as if through a room of glittering guests in a evening gown, is a huge reason many women don’t want to show any evidence of a crack in the smooth public veneer. If you did, especially as a working mother, someone might suggest you should just do less – go home, honey, and focus on the kids.
It’s also worth noting that fashion magazines don’t do much to counteract this ideal of “effortless perfection” to which many women hold themselves and then feel bad about if they don’t achieve. Sure, the ladies’ mags have their stories about hardships and emotional predicaments, but they’re all written in an effort to explain how fixable everything is – not just your thick waistline but your wobbly mind. It’s no wonder that young women such as Julie Zeilinger contributed a blog post for Forbes.com in 2012 entitled Why Millennial Women Do Not Want To Lead. Then a 19-year-old undergraduate at Barnard College in New York, she wrote that “young women today are bred to doubt ourselves, question our worth and view ourselves as improvable projects rather than embrace the imperfection of our humanity.”
Honestly, this is why I sometimes dream about writing a piece for Harper’s Bazaar about a day that begins with bad hair, tea and toast in bed, the extended, lazy reading of papers, a bubble bath and the donning of an old pair of yoga pants for work, spent sitting all day long on my spreading derrière at a computer. It would be such a fresh alternative to the day-in-the-life stories of fab women who start yoga at 7:15 a.m., schedule their green-juice break before their meeting to discuss the latest colours for their fashion brand and then manage to get home for a cup of chamomile tea with the kiddiwinks all the while dressed in a Marni skirt, Calvin Klein blouse and Isabel Marant shoes.
Mistakes I Made At Work is an important book because it shows that life is not a magazine spread. Everyone’s path to success is different, often filled with cringe-worthy mistakes, bad judgments, burnout and 180-degree changes in course. And there are great insights here such as dropping the “apologetic style” of good-girlism, not fearing what other people think, realizing that “life is not a game that you always have to be winning” and learning to negotiate the glass cliff – a term coined by researchers who discovered that female leaders experience higher risk of failure than men and are judged more harshly for it.
In sections entitled Learning to Take Charge of Your Narrative, Learning to Ask, Learning to Say No and Learning Resilience, Bacal recounts the anecdotes of some top-flight women, including Cheryl Strayed (author of the bestselling memoir Wild), Corinna Lathan (founder and CEO of engineering research and design at AnthroTronix), Anna Holmes (founder of Jezebel.com) and Danielle Ofri (a clinician at Bellevue Hospital in New York City and associate professor at New York School of Medicine).
One of Ofri’s stories is wonderful in its honesty. As a medical resident, she made an error in the treatment of a patient and was made a fool of in front of her peers. She describes how she thought a lot about the difference between guilt and shame. “Guilt relates to an act you did – and you can remedy that act to resolve guilt. But shame is internal. It’s the realization that you’re not who you thought you were. Guilt makes you want to fix things. And shame was what I had felt as I stood there in the ER being reprimanded.” Her conclusions are relevant to everyone. “You don’t learn a lesson any better through humiliation” and “You don’t have to be the model of perfection to be good at your job.”
Ofri had stood at the glass cliff and survived to tell the tale – eventually. It did take her 20 years to break the silence on her mistake and what she learned from it.
Follow Sarah Hampson on Twitter: @hampsonwrites.