Failure is the new success--as long as you're male and white, with a preference for schlubby headgear.

That's very apparent in several recent stories about the obstacles facing women in Hollywood, especially directors and other behind-the-scenes powerbrokers. Indeed, it's an dire situation: In each of the past two years, only 1.9 percent of the 100 top-grossing films were directed by women, according to the numbers Maureen Dowd cited in her massive New York Times Magazine feature this weekend.

Yes, 1.9 percent. That's worse than what one female tech CEO I recently interviewed referred to as "the 2.7 percent club," meaning the tiny cohort of women-led startups that get venture funding. Women in Hollywood are facing some of the bleakest gender discrimination in any industry--though that's a bit like comparing the degrees of frostbite sustained by Titanic passengers. It's pretty bad all around.

The Times story, in particular, highlighted two recurring themes about "women leaders in (fill in the industry)." First, there are binders full of qualified, smart, hungry people of every gender and race at the entry levels of most professions. (Yes, even in tech, whatever your pipeline complaints.)

So the burden is on each industry's leaders--and its chroniclers in the media--to be as encouraging, and aware, of the entry-and-midlevel women and people of color as they are of the young white bros in hoodies or baseball caps. Sometimes that means actively working to change your company's culture, and how your industry rates individual achievements, instead of throwing up your hands and saying that women and non-white guys can't fit in to the way things are right now, or haven't succeeded in the way that you measure success.

The second and related point that Dowd's article underscores: The cost of failing while female is often painfully high.

"We don't get the benefit of the doubt, particularly black women. We're presumed incompetent, whereas a white male is assumed competent until proven otherwise," Dee Rees, the director of the Sundance film Pariah, told Dowd. "They just think the guy in the ball hat and the T-shirt over the thermal has got it, whether he's got it or not."

Mimi Leder, the director of Deep Impact, told Dowd that after her third film, Pay It Forwardlost $7 million domestically in 2000, she "went to movie jail and stayed there for a long time." It was nine years before she directed another feature film, and she hasn't directed another since then.

Compare that with, say, the career of John Lee Hancock. In 2004, his third film, The Alamolost more than $80 million--note: this loss encompasses global box office totals--and instantly became a regular on lists of the worst film flops of all time. Hancock spent some time in movie jail. But less than five years later he was tapped to direct The Blind Side--which went on to be nominated for two Oscars, including the one that Sandra Bullock won for Best Actress. He's directed two more feature films since.

The failure divide is a very familiar situation, no matter the industry. It's especially ironic considering how much praise is given to public failure in the tech and startup circles, "where 'Fail fast, fail often' is basically a mantra," as The New Yorker put it in May. But while failures by the likes of Steve Jobs, Reid Hoffman, and Peter Thiel are held up as models, failing while female is all too often a one-way ticket to exile.

This is exacerbated by the "glass cliff" phenomenon, the term for women attaining powerful positions only when their companies are on the edge of collapse. Nobody else wants the job (or the blame when things inevitably deteriorate), so the glass cliff makes failure even more likely for those women who do get ahead.

Even without it, however, the relative dearth of women in leadership positions means that for every woman who fails, the narrative is all too often "All Women Can't Do This" instead of "This Person Couldn't Do This." 

Box office bombed? Women can't direct action movies. Made controversial and "polarizing" personnel decisions, or strategy calls that hurt the company's stock price, or even more fundamental mistakes? Women can't run tech companies, or prominent newspapers, or investment banks, or secretive unicorn startups.

This persistent narrative is one reason I'm closely watching what happens with Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes. Whatever her individual failures--and there's a lot of evidence of some--it's been hard to ignore that they've elicited commentary of a certain ... tone. Serious and high-minded (and male) journalists have remarked on her "naivete," her "need to grow up," and her "anointing" as a Glamour Woman of the Year. On less mainstream sites, there are arguments that Holmes's failure actually proves that all female Silicon Valley CEOs are bad at their jobs. (Not linking, because duh.)

The topic came up with some women venture capitalists I met a couple of weeks ago, who had a more optimistic view of Holmes's fate and what it means for other women in similar positions. If Theranos does indeed implode, the VCs argued that Holmes will easily get backing and support for her next project from Silicon Valley; that, in short, any failure of hers will be as equal a badge of honor as that worn by any post-failure male tech founder.

I hope so, in general--whether that's in the specific case of Holmes, or of embattled Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer or, if Hillary Clinton doesn't win her party's nomination, of whomever is the next woman to mount a serious campaign for president. I'd like to think that we're approaching a point where an individual's gender isn't widely taken as pre-determination of her ability to succeed--or to recover from failure.

But as the women of Hollywood would probably agree, I'll believe it when I see it.

Published on: Nov 23, 2015