Michelle Obama Says She's Tired of Seeing Men "Fail Up"
DFID - UK Department for International Development / Flickr
Michelle Obama was welcomed with applause when she walked onto the stage of Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium on Saturday evening to sit down with Black-ish actress Tracee Ellis Ross. The audience had spent the day talking about gender equality as part of the United State of Women summit, and they listened for 40 minutes as Obama spoke.
The summit's main theme, gender equity, was all encompassing. Someone in the audience even shouted out something about the former first lady running for president, to which she's repeatedly said she's not even considering. In fact, this time her response was what many of us really needed to hear. She responded: "That's not the answer, either. When I hear people say, 'You run,' it's part of the problem. We still didn't get 'Yes we can' right. It's not 'Yes you can;' it's 'Yes we can.' And until we get that right, it doesn't matter who runs."
And, as she's done before, she discussed Donald Trump's win without ever outright mentioning his name. She made clear that she has no patience for men who fail time and time again and, yet, still rise to and power.
"I wish that girls could fail as bad as men do, and be OK," she said. "Because let me tell you, watching men fail up — it is frustrating. It's frustrating to see a lot of men blow it and win. And we hold ourselves to these crazy, crazy standards."
She also spoke about the importance of women taking more risks in the workplace.
"So many of us have gotten ourselves at the table, but we're still too grateful to be at the table to really shake it up," Obama said about women in the workforce. "That's not a criticism, because for so many, just getting to the table was so hard, so you're just holding on. But now we have to take some risks for our girls… just holding on to our seats at the table won't be enough to help our girls be all that they can be."
But we know all too well that if women fail in the workplace, they accrue more blame. Meanwhile, when a male founder's business flops, for example, he's memorialized for taking those risks. He "fails up," which means he actually derives gain in spite of failure that would usually either preclude said gain or have adverse consequences.
Obama isn't the first to talk about "failing up." While Leslie Odom Jr. is best known for his Tony and Grammy Award-winning turn as Aaron Burr in the hit Broadway musical Hamilton, it's the power of failure that he explores in his book,Failing Up: How to Take Risks, Aim Higher, and Never Stop Learning. In his book, Odom shares personal stories and life lessons to inspire people to follow their dreams, too.
But it's not so easy for women to fail and still become massively successful stars, or presidents, or leaders in their respective workplaces.
When a woman speaks up in a meeting but her idea is shot down, for example, she's just wrong; when a man speaks up in a meeting but his idea is shot down, his shared insight is nonetheless appreciated. Perhaps that's why men do a whopping 75 percent of the talking during the average business meeting, according to results from Partners In Leadership research. Women, above men, still struggle to find their voice in the room largely because women fear being wrong. They tend to delay pitching new ideas until they feel they can produce a perfect outcome.
Likewise, when a woman leaves work early to meet family obligations, she's perceived as careless about her job; when a man leaves work early to meet family obligations, he's respected for being a hardworking family man who's able to manage both work and kids. That's because working women are discriminated against for having families in the first place. Mothers are too-often subjected to discrimination, from the “motherhood penalty” to the assumption that women with children are less interested in advancement opportunities. Cornell researchers conducted a study in which they sent fake résumés to hundreds of employers, and they found that mothers were half as likely to be called back by prospective employers. Meanwhile, a recent study found that, while men’s salaries increased more than six percent when they had children, women’s decreased four percent for each child they had.
Even when a woman starts a business but fails to find enough funding, it's assumed that her idea wasn't good enough; when a man starts a business but fails to find enough funding, however, it's assumed that there was a lack of funds. Female entrepreneurs receive less than three percent of all venture capital funding. According to a 2016 report from CrunchBase, which examined the gender dynamics at top venture capital firms and how their money is distributed, only a mere seven percent of VC partners are women, and research suggests that the gender imbalance fuels a systematical bias against female entrepreneurs. Companies pitched by men are about 40 percent more likely to receive funding than those led by women, for example. While venture capitalists invested more than $58 billion in startups last year, women only got two percent of that money, according to a study published in the Harvard Business Review.
In fact, even the kinds of questions female entrepreneurs get asked focus on prevention and loss, while the kinds of questions male entrepreneurs get asked focus on potential gains, according to another study, We Ask Men to Win and Women Not to Lose: Closing the Gender Gap in Startup Funding. With regards to income, for example, venture capitalists ask women, “How long will it take you to break even?” And they ask men, “How do you plan to monetize this?” With regards to projections, they’ll ask women, “How predictable are your future cash flows?” And they’ll ask men, “What major milestones are you targeting for this year?”
Almost 70 percent of men in the study were asked about their aspirations about making money for investors. Meanwhile, the women were asked about how they planned to avoid losing investor's money. Dana Kanze, the study’s author, says women are set up for failure right from the start.
And it's not just any kind of failure, because all of the aforementioned examples prove that it's indeed OK to fail, so long as you "fail up."
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.
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