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.
Image before quote credit: Pixabay