There have been differences in the way that women and men perceive and respond to failure in competitive environments. How do teenagers, specifically 15-year-olds, across the world conceptualize fear of failure? Can fear of failure identify gender differences in educational and career choices? In an effort to answer these questions, Borgonovi & Han (2021) conducted a study with 517,047 15-year-old students from 59 countries, who took part in the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).


Through analysis, Borgonovi & Han (2021) found that female students reported higher fear of failure than male students in 56 out of the 59 countries. There were big gender gaps in schools composed of high-achieving students. Female students attending schools with higher overall performance reported higher fear of failure because high-achieving female students were more susceptible to high fear of failure. For example, female students with high reading performance scores tended to be more anxious about failing than high-achieving male students because females in general valued education more than males. On the other hand, male students reported lower fear of failure when they were in the presence of high-achieving peers.


Though women generally reported greater fear of failure than men, gender gaps varied by culture. Societies with high gender inequality had a small gender gap because both females and males reported high fear of failure. However, in egalitarian societies with economic advances, there were great gender gaps because women in these environments reported significantly higher fear of failure than their male counterparts.


In summary, fear of failure was most prevalent in high-achieving female students attending schools with high-achieving peers in more gender-equal societies. Borgonovi & Han (2021) deduced possible causes of this result. Women fear failing because they feel pressured to debunk gender stereotypes and fulfill the standards of being successful women. Additionally, because of society’s emphasis on success, women find it shameful when they do not live up to the ideal of female empowerment. Consequently, it is possible that women avoid educational and career paths that involve failure. However, male students perceive failure as a possible outcome and do not feel ashamed of failing. Societal norms seem to shape gender differences in fear of failure.


The findings of Borgonovi & Han (2021) inform EPIC’s research on failure. They provide insight into the cultural differences that students may allude to when sharing their failure stories. They also allow us to determine how academic performance may affect students' perceptions and conceptualizations of failure.


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Borgonovi, F., & Han, S. W. (2021). Gender disparities in fear of failure among 15-year-old students: The role of gender inequality, the organization of schooling and economic conditions. Journal of Adolescence, 86(1), 28-39.