When I was growing up, my mom told me I needed to be a good girl in life and doing that meant following a few simple rules. One of those rules was to never talk about myself or money. Never, ever. She said good girls just don’t do the self-promotion thing because talking about what you’ve accomplished is bragging and talking about money is impolite.
I listened to my mom, so do other women. 61% of women in a study said they would prefer to discuss the details of their own death than to talk about money.
In another study, 76% of executive women said it was difficult for them to draw attention to their accomplishments.
Brothers hear their moms say these things to their sisters but not to them, so they carry these socially approved notions—OK for boys to do it, not OK for girls—with them into the workplace.
Some women don’t ask for the raise or higher starting salary and receive neither. Other women do talk about their accomplishments and are branded as selfish, non-team players. Business women are caught in the crossfire between social conditioning, stereotypes, unconscious bias, and leadership norms.
One element of that nasty crossfire is the double standard—women who behave in a manner more expected of a man are criticized when men aren’t. Women should care for others and not themselves. That man understands his worth.
Another element is how people evaluate us is by our accomplishments, successes, abilities, and potential. If business women aren’t providing that narrative, people draw unflattering or incomplete conclusions about our abilities or fail to give us credit for them.
And yet another is a lack of critical thinking and curiosity. Paola Sapienza, professor Northwestern Kellogg School of Management, points out that “men tend to overstate how well they do relative to women. And the people who are making the decisions after hearing everyone speak tended to take most people’s statements at face value. You’d think that people would discount what men say somewhat and inflate what women say about themselves. But in reality, they didn’t do that.”
The bottom line impacts of all these elements?
- Bosses criticize women for playing against social expectations of being modest when they ask for a raise.
- Bosses bypass women for opportunities because it’s assumed they have no achievements because they haven’t talked about them.
Business women can circumvent the crossfire and begin to change social norms about women talking about their accomplishments by doing four things.
4 ways for women to bypass the barriers to effective self-promotion
First, women have to get right with their own reservations about talking about their accomplishments and give themselves permission to do so.
From all those years of “good girl” messaging, I thought talking about my achievements was bragging, and I didn’t want to be that icky person who was always talking up what they’ve done and how wonderful they are. I had to learn a couple of things before I could get past that line of thinking.
- Bragging and self-promotion are two totally different actions. One is a social turn-off; the other is a leadership skill.
- Bragging is “me-focused.” I landed the big account; I was the one who convinced the boss to change his mind, I did all the work on that project.
- Self-promotion is me-sharing-how-I-can-serve-you; it’s “we-focused,” and it’s a valuable leadership skill.
Second, women accept that talking about their successes and skills is a just another part of being an effective leader. It’s also a way for women to change the social norms that say women who talk about their performance are being immodest.
“Self-promotion is a skill that produces disproportionate rewards, and if skill at self-promotion remains disproportionately male, those rewards will as well.” ~Clay Shirky, NYU professor
Until people begin “discounting what men say and inflating what women say about themselves,” women telling their story isn’t optional; it’s mandatory.
I had a hard time getting my mom’s voice out of my head when it came to talking about myself. Then I learned about the smorgasbord of opportunities in which I could share my expertise and accomplishments and not come across as the braggart beating his chest.
Consider these avenues of action. You can:
- Write an article for the company newsletter or blog in which you share a story about a skill and a success it brought you and how others might benefit from doing the same.
- Teach a workshop to share a skill. Be a mentor.
- Send short emails or texts to the boss about a successful outcome, just want to let you know that blah-blah good happened.
- Speak up in meetings.
An important part of getting good with this skill is learning to take the praise when it’s offered and not attribute the positive outcomes to luck.
Third, women frame the story they tell about themselves to include both their performance and their potential.
- The business world evaluates men on potential, women on performance. Until there are enough women in senior positions to change that orientation, business women have to own closing the gap.
- Because most people don’t make the automatic leap we hope they will, we have to do it for them and say things like, with help from my talented team, I made our department the highest performing one in the company. I’d like the opportunity to do the same with the northeast division.
A study conducted by Catalyst, an international nonprofit focused on advancing women, found that women who consistently made their achievements known did better than women who didn’t.
This both/and approach is a way to bridge existing social expectations and ultimately change social norms. In interviews, meetings, and other venues, we bridge social bias by talking with grace about our past performance, future potential, and how the organization benefits by what we do.
Fourth, women support other women who are learning to get comfortable with self-promotion.
This support is crucial—it helps to make it OK for women to talk about themselves and their accomplishments and not feel like they are doing something wrong when they’re really doing something right.
This support can take lots of forms.
- It may mean gently reminding a male colleague how men receive accolades (and promotions and raises) when they talk about themselves, so let’s be fair and do the same for women.
- It may mean coaching a female colleague to get go of her fear and talk to her boss about her achievements while asking for a raise.
- It may mean asking a colleague to support us as we bravely apply for the job we really, really want, even if a few performance gaps exist.
Take the leap with knocking knees and courage
Despite what our moms may have taught us, we have to learn to be fearless and go for it because self-promotion matters.
So do we.
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There’s plenty of data that shows the positive effects that result from the growing presence of women in the business world.
There’s a couple reasons why women have proven to be a positive boost for business:
- They’re half the population, which is a tremendous floodgate of talent.
- Women tend to have a different take on things, which has proven valuable. For example, women are generally more sociable and tend to excel in a group dynamic that enables them to flourish, which helps others in the group.
- Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians, according to research by McKinsey & Co.
Making the case for more women in technology
I worry, though, that similar progress in gender diversity isn’t being made in technology, a male-dominated sector. Here’s a couple reasons why I’m worried.
Women are receiving fewer STEM degrees. Over the past decade, number of women securing STEM bachelor degrees has been declining. The biggest decline was in computer science. In 2004, women received 23 percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded. In 2014 that fell to 18 percent.
Dealing with the presence of unconscious bias. Some people have an implicit bias that girls and women are not as good as boys and men in math and science.
It’s more than identity politics. A 2015 lawsuit exposed Silicon Valley’s “brogrammer” culture and how challenging that environment can be for women, which is bad for business. Why is it bad? Women are the lead adopters of technology, according to Intel researcher Genevieve Bell. Dow Jones found that successful startups have more women in senior positions than unsuccessful ones.
As more women lead businesses, the boys’ club will need to adapt. More women are starting companies, and they’re doing well. This may lead women business leaders to wonder why most of their tech divisions are dominated by men. Women can help build a more collaborative environment, which will help the old boys’ network to adapt.
On the bright side, educators see the importance of emphasizing STEM for girls. Sierra College has been holding its annual Nontraditional Employment for Women (NEW) event to encourage high school girls to consider careers in science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM).
Employers are facing an ultra-connected, multi-generational, multi-ethnic, and global business world. That world needs all the talent, perspective, and insight that women offer. Encouraging girls and women to be themselves within the STEM and STEAM space is the smart thing to do.
Today’s guest contributor is Nicole McMackin, president of Irvine Technology Corporation, a firm specializing in information technology solutions and staffing. Nicole grew up in Southern California and is a graduate of the University of California, Irvine, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree. She sits on numerous boards, including the CHOC Children’s Families in Need, Orange County Board of Education Executive Committee, Tilly’s Life Center Board, University of California at Irvine Chancellor’s CEO Roundtable, and Young President’s Organization. She is an Honoree at the YWCA.
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After five minutes, I was worried because I was still sitting alone in the coffee shop. The woman I was to meet hadn’t arrived. Hmmmm, had I gotten the date, time, or place wrong for our meetup? A frantic scroll through sent messages confirmed I was in the right place, right day, and right time.
Ten minutes ticked by. Still sitting alone. Might she have been in an accident? Taken ill? Dealing with a work emergency?
Concerned, I called her.
She apologized, saying she’d forgotten about our get-together. Said she’d gotten busy on another project and that our appointment had totally slipped her mind. She didn’t offer to reschedule. The call ended pleasantly.
She’d forgotten about our meeting. That stung. It had been her idea to meet—she said she wanted to get to know me.
Feeling a little hurt, I finished my latte and watched others as they huddled over their coffees at the small tables, engaged in conversation with people who remembered and showed up, whispered the little voice in my head. My little personal pity party was under way.
My little voice reminded me that I didn’t matter enough to be remembered. *ugh* A low, slow simmer of anger bubbled up and mixed with my hurt. Together those feelings lingered throughout the day.
Care about people’s approval and you will be their prisoner. ~Lao Tzu
Come the next morning, I wasn’t hurt or angry anymore.
Instead, I was fixated on what her forgetting said about me. Did she forget because she discovered I wasn’t important enough? Did she not mention rescheduling because she’d decided I wasn’t interesting enough to meet with? What had i done?
These ridiculous, self-defeating thoughts continued to lurk in my head over the next several days.
Just give it a rest, will you? Implored my little voice. You’re giving this non-issue too much air time. She was busy. This isn’t about you. My little voice bounces between critic and coach. Fortunately, the coach was back.
The coach voice was right. The woman said had she’d gotten busy and forgot. Accept it, believe it, and move on, urged the coach. Quit making something personal that isn’t personal at all.
I was giving entirely too much power to a stranger. I had no control over the woman forgetting. I did, however, have complete control over how I responded to her forgetting.
I called her and suggested we reschedule. She readily agreed.
When we met, she thanked me for reaching out. She said she couldn’t bring herself to call me because she was embarrassed and ashamed for having behaved badly. She said she thought she was a better person than that but, obviously, she wasn’t.
Isn’t it fascinating how both of us had turned the focus back onto our self-perceived failings and short-comings and made something personal that wasn’t?
Always on the lookout for teachable moments, I found seven of them in this situation:
- Don’t jump to conclusions. Get the facts, test assumptions, and clarify, clarify, clarify before deciding you have the answer, know the reason, etc.
- Not everything is about you, so don’t unnecessarily give your power away.
- Consider the situation from the perspective of the other person, seek first to understand.
- Don’t conflate the behavior with the person. There are times when all good people behave badly.
- Self-worth comes from the inside out, not the outside in. Don’t be so quick to sell yourself short.
- Talk it out.
- Forgive, let go, move on.
We’re all human. That means we construct our view of reality through our personal filters, experiences, values, and beliefs. That, in turn, means we need to be eternally vigilant to not make everything about us. Because most of the time, it isn’t.
When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.” -Miguel Ruiz
When we get out of our own way, that’s when success, true connection, and growth happens. Thank you, little coach voice.
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I’m often interviewed and asked about successful women in the workplace and my views on being one of the few to break the glass ceiling in the technology sector.
My response has always been that I never saw a glass ceiling, so I didn’t give myself an excuse not to break through it.
What research reveals
However, various articles and statistics about women in leadership roles in the United States do prove that there is a disparity of women leaders in the workplace. Currently, the Fortune 500 is led by 32 female CEOs, a record high.
In a recent study conducted by Pew Research Center, 34 percent of respondents surveyed believe that male executives are better than women executives at assuming risk. Moreover, when asked about specific industries women could support, a significant portion felt that men would do a better job leading technology, finance, and oil and gas companies, whereas women would be strongest at running retail and food companies.
Although that survey is full of traditional stereotyping of women, you still need to ask yourself: “Why aren’t more women promoted into the CEO position, but rather held back?”
Historically, it seems that women do not have the consistent high-ranking executive sponsorship who campaign for their advancement. Why is this?
As a sex, women represent more than half the population, a group that’s more than ready to prove themselves in senior levels in the workplace and to have the opportunity to earn equal pay for the same job.
Although women can keep up with the rigorous pace and workload at the office, maybe they can’t keep up with the social politics of the perceived “Good Old Boys Club.”
Because of the lack of women in leadership roles combined with the desire for career progression, women’s perceived need of survival overtakes their personality or natural disposition to be a leader.
Typically, in these scenarios, women play down their strengths in an attempt to over-compensate for not being equal or the same to men. Throughout my career, I’ve heard more commentary about a woman’s disposition in a meeting or board room than I ever heard about a man’s.
Women are left in a quandary, discussed, judged, and evaluated every time they open their mouths. They’re are considered harsh and manlike if they speak up to their peers or a weak follower if they don’t.
Recent studies show that a diversified executive team will produce up to 34 percent more revenue to a corporation than an executive team filled with the same sex.
Corporations and stockholders are beginning to recognize the need for more sex and gender balance within companies, which is leading them to adapt policies that deviate from the perceived “Good Old Boys” norms and create an environment that’s friendlier to all minorities.
A call to action
With the backing of corporate stockholders, women now have an opportunity to take accountability and remain true to themselves while engaging with their male peers.
Women will only succeed if they demonstrate the will and power to not act like a man, but to leverage their natural gifts of honesty, teamwork, compassion, and persuasion.
About today’s guest contributor
Nicole McMackin is president of Irvine Technology Corporation, a firm that specializes in information technology solutions and staffing. She has an established career in sales and management, emphasizing account ownership within Fortune 300 organizations.
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As women have taken on greater leadership roles in the business world, it’s paid off for both them and business.
A study by the Peterson Institute for International Economics found that firms with women in the C-suite were more profitable. Meanwhile, the number of female-owned businesses grew 45 percent from 2007 to 2016 compared to just a 9 percent growth in the number of businesses overall.
But will all those women in leadership roles change the workplace culture to make it more female friendly—and does it matter?
The power of culture
As a corporate anthropologist, I’m aware of the recent shift in thinking surrounding how cultures should be restructured in order for women to thrive in the workplace. This has caused me to ask: What type of culture do women really want and is it that different from what men want, too?
The results of my research were surprising.
It turns out that, in many ways, men and women want similar things in the workplace. Both prefer a strong clan culture that emphasizes collaboration, teamwork and a focus on people.
So what lessons does that hold for women who start their own businesses or are hired or promoted into leadership positions in existing businesses?
3 things for female leaders to do
Based on my personal experiences, and what I’ve learned from female business leaders I’ve interviewed, some of the ways women can succeed when leading an organization and make the workplace more attentive to the needs of both men and women include:
1) Create a culture that blends work and home.
I talked with the founder of one company that intentionally took a whole-life approach and didn’t force employees to choose between work and family. That company won all sorts of local awards for being one of the best places to work in the area.
2) Encourage staff to be innovators.
Often even the employees who think outside the box are reluctant to act outside the box for fear of repercussions if things don’t work out quite the way they hoped. But for innovation to happen, a good leader needs to empower employees to try new ideas.
3) Be an adventurer, stay curious.
If you expect your employees to try new ideas, you need to be willing to do so as well. Don’t worry about failing. Keep tinkering and trying stuff and sooner or later you’ll hit upon your a-ha moment.
My research shows that the females who know how to create success are not just building better businesses; they are changing the way people work.
The corporate cultures in women-run businesses reflect the personal beliefs and values of the women leading them, and those businesses tend to be highly successful.
What’s been your experience running or working in a women-run business?
Andi Simon, today’s guest contributor and the author of On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights, is a corporate anthropologist and award-winning author. She is the founder and CEO of Simon Associates Management Consultants, a public speaker, an Innovation Games facilitator and trainer, and a tenured professor of anthropology and American studies at Ramapo College of New Jersey.
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Is being kind passé?
Is returning or swopping favors not in style? Is it a practice that’s so tainted by unethical or manipulative behavior that people no longer feel the need to exchange things for mutual benefit?
These questions pin-balled around in my head as I thought about two scenarios I’d experienced.
I facilitated a community table discussion amongst eight individuals from a variety of walks of life. When the session was over, several people began exchanging business cards. A polite but matter-of-fact woman said this to everyone who offered her one of their cards, “Thanks. I don’t want your card but I do want you to have mine. Here you go.” Her refusal to participate in what I viewed as a social nicety shocked me.
Six of us volunteered to write a workbook for a nonprofit workshop. Five of the six agreed to the terms of editing and proofing each other’s content. The sixth wanted others to critique his materials but wouldn’t agree to review the materials of the others. The group insisted, so he dropped out of the work. His unwillingness to engage in reciprocal work felt alien to me.
As I’m prone to do when things puzzle me, I dove into research.
Numerous writers observed that the norm of social reciprocity—exchanging kindness, goods and services for mutual benefit—has been part of the cultural fabric. In People of the Lake: Mankind and its Beginning, Richard Leakey and Kurt Lewin note that the “I help you, you help me” orientation, or what they call “an honored network of obligation,” has been practiced for centuries.
True community is based on upon equality, mutuality, and reciprocity. It affirms the richness of individual diversity as well as the common human ties that bind us together. ~Pauli Murray, activist
3 forms of reciprocity
Reciprocity touches many aspects of our lives and typically takes one of three forms
◊ Generalized reciprocity is an exchange in which a person gives a good or service to another, does not receive anything back at that time, but has the expectation of future repayment. Think of a mentor/mentee relationship or watching the neighbor’s house while they’re on vacation as they’ll do the same for you when you go away.
◊ Balanced reciprocity as defined by Wikipedia “refers to direct exchange of customary equivalents without any delay.” Think bartering, exchanging notes from a business conference with a colleague, a neighborhood boarding up each other’s windows in advance of a storm, or meting out justice in which the punishment fits the crime
◊ Negative reciprocity is the most impersonal form of exchange, in which the parties’ goal is to get as much as they can with little to nothing offered in return. Think someone trying to take advantage.
Back in 1960, Professor Alvin Gouldner suggested “that a norm of reciprocity, in its universal form, makes two interrelated, minimal demands: (1) people should help those who have helped them, and (2) people should not injure those who have helped them.”
What’s in it for me angle
But my two experiences and other research points to people who take a different view on the value and practices of reciprocity:
◊ “There is considerable evidence that a substantial fraction of people behave according to this dictum: People repay gifts and take revenge even in interactions with complete strangers and even if it is costly for them and yields neither present nor future material rewards.”
◊ “In a world of winners and losers, there is little room for principles of equity, reciprocity, and impartiality,” writes Professor Walter Fluker in Ethical Leadership.
◊ “Employers preemptively tell new employees not to expect a relationship premised on the fulfillment of mutual commitments.”
Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough. ~Franklin D. Roosevelt
Women and reciprocity
Research shows that women’s voices are heard less in business meetings. My own experience parallels the research:
When Perdue and Perschel tell the following story at women’s conferences and workshops, heads nod in recognition: Have you ever been the sole woman in a meeting and spoken up only to be ignored or negated? Then, within minutes, one of the men at the table says almost the same things as you did and is lauded for his fabulous idea? ~Women and The Paradox of Power, Jane Perdue and Dr. Anne Perschel
Being reciprocal with my female colleagues by sharing one another’s ideas or backing one another up in a meeting certainly benefitted all of us.
Swings in practice
So, there’s some fairly broad swings in how reciprocity is being viewed/practiced, ranging from “an honored network of obligation” to social glue to manipulative to something optional.
What’s are your thoughts on how reciprocity is or isn’t being practiced?
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