The dangers of blaming female leaders for one woman's misstep

"Failure is how we grow. Actually, it's how men grow. It's how women shrink. Women are not allowed to fail."

A recent Bloomberg Businessweek article reported on toxic cultures at woman-owned companies like Away and ThirdLove, who have been accused of treating employees unfairly. While it’s absolutely a positive shift in our society that workers feel empowered to stand up for their rights and to go public when their needs are not being met, there’s also a scary media narrative brewing. The media has equated these examples of women-owned companies as a larger warning that females can’t lead effectively. This narrative is sexist, dangerous and will only continue to perpetuate the gender gap in leadership. 

The truth is, men continue to hold 95% of the top jobs at the biggest U.S. companies, and many of those companies have been operating with toxic environments for years or even decades, with employees to scared to say a word. And many male CEOs are given the opportunity to fail over and over again—with few or no repercussions (and sometimes, they even get rewarded by "failing up" into another leadership position!).  

It reminds me of a quote from the new third season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, said by the title character: "Failure is how we grow. Actually, it’s how men grow. It’s how women shrink. Women are not allowed to fail. And we finally get an opportunity to do something that isn’t normally done by our sex, we get one chance. One. How come men fail and people say, ‘You gave it the old college try.’ But women fail and they say, "You gave it the old college try, but you shouldn’t be in college." The series is set in the 1950s and 1960s, and it’s unfortunate that the same mentality remains today. 

Moreover, it’s become common to relate a woman’s gender with the reason why they failed -- we have to nip that in the bud. While it feels almost silly to have to mention the countless women business leaders that have led fearlessly to build an inclusive environment, I point to leaders like Cate Luzio, Founder & CEO of Luminary, and Amy Nelson, Founder of The Riveter. These women didn’t just create great working environments for their own staffers, they’re making it better for female leaders beyond their network, and that’s something to be celebrated. A balanced Bloomberg Businessweek story would have reinforced the point that there are positive and inspiring examples of women leading organizations. These women are doing work that is moving the needle for women by supporting a new generation of leaders. 

Perhaps it’s time we started to reframe what makes a good leader, putting empathy, vulnerability, and openness ahead of the more traditionally male characteristics used to define "success." Leadership doesn’t have to be loud and aggressive. Only once we start to accept and promote different types of leadership will the playing field truly be level. We’re starting to change that narrative, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.

As a business community, we must be better about how we speak about female leaders. There will be some that fail, but it’s not because they are women. Your gender doesn’t define whether you’re going to be a good leader or whether you’ll promote a positive working environment, but that’s no excuse to stop the fight for gender equality. 

Our media should be held to higher standards as well. Back in September 2019, Forbes published its list of America’s 100 Most Innovative Leaders. The list featured only one woman. Forbes put the blame for this on its methodology and promised to review its process. This ranking came from a progressive digital publisher with a platform dedicated to the advancement of women, ForbesWoman. They lacked vision. 

Women are far from perfect but let’s not call out an entire group for the mistakes of a few. Let’s recognize those that are working hard to reimagine and change how business is done. Men have had a longer runway. It’s time to give women the opportunity to learn, grow and to fail without punishing their entire gender.

Jennifer DaSilva is president of Berlin Cameron.

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