Courtney Martin, the influential activist and writer, had no idea what was in store for her when she wrote a post for Feministing in 2006, "trying to unpack what it means to be a feminist in romantic relationships." Martin wrote that having a guy open a door for you was romantic "if it happens out of care and interdependence, but not romantic if the guy thinks you are an 'invalid.'" She was using the word ironically -- but the blogosphere exploded. "Very quickly," Martin said, "the disability rights community online held me accountable for that language, saying that the word invalid was derogatory." She told me about the shame she felt in the moment, wanting to just hide in her Brooklyn apartment. But over the course of several conversations with her critics, she learned a lot -- and ultimately was satisfied that she'd responded to criticism with integrity. She's continued to blog, to publish books and give TED Talks. She recovered from making a big mistake in public -- and in fact, she's doing great.
Courtney Martin generously told me her story in the interest of mentoring others -- and the world needs more women like her. The authors of a recent Atlantic Monthly story (and book) on women and "the confidence gap" argue that many successful women harbor insecurities. But if talking about these insecurities is valuable, it's also crucial that women talk about mistakes we've made at work, and the fact that we survived and even thrived. No one is perfect -- but this phrase will remain empty until we accept that even successful, much-admired women screw up and stay in the game. Here are some examples:
After Melissa Harris Perry and a group of comedians on her show joked about Mitt Romney's family photo, which included an adopted Black grandchild, many viewers responded with outrage -- and Harris Perry clearly felt terrible about it. As she apologized on the air, she teared-up and said she'd never want to imply anything but support of diversity and of interracial families. "I am reminded that our fiercest critics can sometimes be our best teachers," she added. The apology was graciously accepted by Romney, who told Fox news, "I think it's a heartfelt apology... we hold no ill will whatsoever." And Harris Perry continues to produce a smart, excellent show.
Lidia Soto-Harmon, CEO of Girl Scout Council of the Nation's Capitol, told me about a mistake that she made when leading a workshop for bilingual and bicultural girls. They were discussing their experiences in pairs and were then supposed to present to the group, but a couple of pairs didn't want to, and Soto-Harmon assumed they were just shy. "Go on, one of you get up," she said in English, and when no one did, she pointed to a girl and said, "You come, stand up. Just share with the group." She recalls, "The child looked terrified, and all of a sudden I realized that she didn't speak English. They had been talking to each other in Spanish. I wanted to melt in my shoes. Here I was, someone who has an awareness of what it's like to be more comfortable in one language than another, and I hadn't thought of the possibility that some girls wouldn't want to present to the group in English. Of course, once I realized that this was the issue, I told them that they could absolutely say it in Spanish, and I would translate!" Soto-Harmon, who is Cuban-American, told me that this experience has helped her to be empathic when others make cultural faux pas.
About 10 years ago, Harvey Mudd College recruited Princeton dean Maria Klawe as president, telling her that they wanted someone forward-thinking and bold. As Liza Mundy reports in her excellent article for More Magazine, "How to Fail Successfully," Klawe "generally underestimated the extent to which the academic community would resist her zealous efforts to execute her mission. She also answered questions in meetings so quickly that listeners felt she wasn't being deliberative or thoughtful." Klawe ended up working with a coach "to develop a leadership style that was slower-paced as well as more strategic and reflective." Lately, Harvey Mudd has been all over the news because of its soaring success in recruiting female computer science majors -- and it's Klawe who's led the charge in developing a revolutionary approach to attracting women to this discipline.
In the Pulizter Prize-winning memoir Personal History, Katherine Graham writes about her "many mistakes" as first female CEO of the Washington Post Company. One example: A four-year process of "planning and designing an elaborate building that wasn't going to work for the production of the paper." They had to scrap it all together. Graham also writes openly about feelings of insecurity that plagued her, saying, "Partly this arose from my particular experience, but to the extend that it stemmed from the narrow way women's roles were defined, it was a trait shared by most women in my generation." At one point, Graham even told an interviewer at Women's Wear Daily that "men are more able than women at executive work," and that "a man would be better at this job." Her friend Elsie Carper -- a reporter and editor at the paper -- subsequently marched into Graham's office and said, '"Do you really believe that? Because, if you do, I quit.'" Graham confesses, "That shook me up." Ultimately, Katherine Graham evolved as both a feminist and a famously strong leader who was steady at the helm when The Washington Post broke one of the biggest stories of the century: Watergate.
And truly, she was ahead of her time in apparently realizing that we can mentor each other by demonstrating -- through our own stories -- that mistakes happen, even during the most successful of careers. One saying that I've found comforting is that "the only constant is change." While public mistakes may feel terrible in the moment, the moment always ends. And what remains, what we carry forward, is everything we've learned.
Jessica Bacal is the Director of the Wurtele Center for Work and Life at Smith College and the editor of Mistakes I Made At Work: 25 Influential Women Reflect on What They Got Out of Getting It Wrong (Plume).