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Why Women Need To Learn To Embrace Failure

Following up on our first guest blog post by Heather Cooan, today we welcome Arianne Donoghue. Arianne is the Strategy Director at Epiphany Search and a proud member of She Does Digital, a collective whose mission is to encourage more women to pursue careers in tech.

We all know that societal factors play a huge role in the gender gap within tech, such as how women are discouraged from studying certain subjects in school or expected to take on the majority of childcare and household duties. I believe there’s another, less obvious but potentially more damaging issue we need to address. What is it? The fact that we don’t encourage our girls to fail.

As kids, boys are encouraged to climb trees, break things, take things to bits and put them back together, to get dirty and to try things. In short, to be brave. In contrast, girls are told to smile, look their best, follow instructions – to be perfect. It’s little wonder then, that we find ourselves in a world where women will only apply for a job if they meet 100% of the criteria, whereas men will apply if they meet 60%.

It begins early, as highlighted in this study from the 1980’s where when given a difficult task, clever girls were quick to give up, whereas bright boys found the challenge energising. The more intelligent the girl, the more likely they were to give up. Given how girls perform better than boys in every subject this age, including maths and science, it’s interesting how fast girls start to doubt their ability and lose confidence when you’d expect that having that ability would give them confidence. But it doesn’t.

The Story So Far

I am definitely one of these girls. I excelled at school, was good at every subject and if I ever came home with anything less than an ‘A’, I took it personally. I was scared to try new things if I had a suspicion that I’d be anything less than perfect at them as I couldn’t stand the idea of failure. Since then, I’ve failed a LOT. But it’s only recently that I’ve started to stop fearing it.

I’ve now been working in digital for over 12 years and alongside the many failures, I’ve learned a lot about myself. Having made the same sideways move that many of us have made to get into digital and ended up having a career in this industry completely by accident, it took me a while to figure things out. I’ve made many big changes, such as taking my first job working agency-side, making the decision to go and work in London (which meant a 4-hour minimum commute every single day), and deciding to move cities, to somewhere we had never even visited, in the hope of a better work/life balance.

citation of Arianne Donoghue

In my time in Leeds, I’ve had some great jobs, some okay ones and some that went so terribly that I was asked to leave. So, after what felt like a string of endless failures, it was only natural that I began to doubt the personal philosophy I had for myself – about being bold and taking risks. Rather than look back at the opportunity missed and wonder, “what if”, you should take those chances and learn from them should things go wrong. Except I’d had so many things go wrong by this point that it felt like the wrong approach. I could no longer trust my intuition.

Around this time, I also learned I was autistic – high-functioning Asperger’s which suddenly explained the nearly 30 years of my life so far – the social awkwardness, the lack of friends, the struggles with talking to people. The fact there was something that marked me out as different, but nobody knew what it was. Now I knew.

This in many ways felt like the biggest failure of all – how are you supposed to fit in and get on in the world when you are literally built differently to everyone around you? It felt like my brain, the one thing I’d been able to rely on until now, was suddenly my worst enemy.

Embracing Who You Are

From that day I’ve had to re-evaluate my life and how I interact with the world. On the one hand, I felt like a massive failure for having a “defective” brain that didn’t work like everybody else’s, but I’ve also tried to do better at owning my differences. The wiring that gives me challenges also gives me a skill with numbers, data, patterns – an ability to absorb and process information and pick things up quickly. On the flip side, open plan offices are hell-on-earth for me due to the sensory overload and being around people for an extended period of time is really mentally taxing – but now I know why, I can try to manage it.

I’ve become more determined to bring my whole self to work (in part because it’s too tiring not to), not shying away from being direct and passionate, or trying to drive change. If I’m so direct that I offend someone, I apologise – but that’s gone hand-in-hand with being more open about who I am and how I’m made so people know that if I am a bit too blunt, it’s never meant maliciously.

There’s so much research showing that diverse teams do better, and if we weren’t suppressing who we really are at work, we would have more mental and emotional energy to spend on doing really good work and improving things for those around us. While there’s been growing awareness around gender, age, race and LGBTQ, I also want us to also think about diversity in terms of neuro-diverse and neuro-typical. Those of us with autism, ADD etc, literally experience the world differently every day and yet our skills and perspectives aren’t as valued in the workplace as they could or should be.

citation of Arianne Donoghue

Reframing Failure

Our industry prides itself on failure. It needs failure because it helps you learn. I have learned so much from my failures that now I don’t consider them failures at all – they’re just experiments that didn’t work, and I would posit that it’s only a failure if you learned nothing from it. What did Edison say? “I haven’t failed – I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work” when he was trying to create the lightbulb.

Facebook’s mantra used to be “move fast and break things”. Now it’s the slightly less catchy, “move fast with stable infra”, but the intent is the same – try new things – it’s ok if they don’t always work out. In fact, you should expect and encourage failure. It’s how we learn.

In the movie The Last Jedi, Yoda talks about failure being the best teacher. If you don’t know what you want to do when you leave school or university, it doesn’t matter. If you realise that you don’t want a career in what you studied, that’s okay – you learned something from the experience.

As women we often let a fear of failure put us off trying. It’s difficult to overcome because as we’ve read these behaviours are instilled in us from childhood. It is scary to do something new and not know whether you’ll succeed. But it’s also exciting and a wonderful way to find other like-minded women with whom you can come together and be ready to face anything, such as the Janes community.

citation of Arianne Donoghue

I want to leave you with a final movie quote, from Almost Famous: “be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid”. Despite the times I’ve taken risks and failed, I believe this more than ever now. Be bold, take the risks. Commit yourself to being brave and tackling something scary and new – if you don’t succeed the first time you’ll learn so much from the experience. Remember you don’t have to be the best at something for it to be worth doing! And when you succeed, you’ll have proven to yourself and those around you that not only are women brave, but that the prospect of failure is something to be embraced, not feared.