Two employees are asked to summarize their progress at work. One employee boasts of having personally done an “outstanding” job. The other presents an informative report with the same data but credits the entire team for a job well done.
Can you guess which employee was male and which was female?
If you guessed that the self-promoting employee was male, you’re right. Studies reveal that women are far less likely to tout their own laudable job performance than male counterparts. While this might not necessarily be a problem in other contexts, in the world of work, it can be. Getting recognized for your accomplishments can be key to achieving visibility in the workplace.
“If you don’t self-promote, your contributions will probably not be visible nor recognized, which will limit your ability to get a promotion, a raise, or important projects that will help you advance in your career,” says Areen Shahbari, CEO of Shahbari Training & Consultancy and an instructor at the Harvard Extension School and Harvard DCE Professional & Executive Development, including Women Leaders: Advancing Together.
“Many times, women think ‘my boss should be able to know and recognize the value I bring,’” says Shahbari. “That’s not what happens in reality. Managers in many cases are unable to quantify the specific value that you bring, and how much effort it took you to bring about a certain outcome, if you don’t talk about it.”
The Gender Promotion Gap
Studies confirm the existence of a “gender promotion gap” in which women seem consistently reluctant to publicize their achievements.
In a study conducted by Christine Exley, assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and Judd B. Kessler, an associate professor of business economics and public policy at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, women were less likely to self-promote even when they clearly performed better than others.
“In every setting we explored, we observed a substantial gender gap in self-promotion: women systematically provided less favorable assessments of their own past performance and potential future ability than equally performing men,” the researchers concluded.
Other studies back their findings. Looking at more than 100,000 clinical research articles indexed on PubMed, researchers have observed that male scientists are more likely to use superlatives like “unique” and “unprecedented” to describe their work than female counterparts. The repercussions can be consequential: papers characterizing results with glowing superlatives are more likely to get cited.
Why Are Women Reluctant to Self-Promote?
It’s still an open question as to why women are less likely to tout their accomplishments at work.
Exley and Kessler found in their study that the reasons do not seem attributable to low self-confidence, as one might expect, because a “self-promotion gender gap” persists even when women know they have done better than others. Some have posited that because women place a high value on people and relationships, they are hesitant to dwell on achievements if they think they might alienate less successful colleagues.
While this may be true, Shahbari attributes the reluctance to evolutionary and cultural reasons.
“In most cultures and countries, women are still the main care givers of their families. The Caregiving in the U.S. 2020 report shows that the majority of caregivers (61 percent) are still female. Also, varying estimates across different countries indicate that 57% to 81% of all caregivers of the elderly are women. Women have been taking care of household chores, raising kids, and caring for the elderly in the family for centuries without getting compensated for the work they do.”
Out of this conception of woman as caretaker grows an expectation that women “should take on anything that you ask them to do, and do it happily, with a smile, without asking for anything in return, while showing gratitude and no complaint” she says.
In a context in which women are expected to perform without complaint, there’s little room for celebrating achievements.
In fact, self-promotion in such a context can backfire. A similar phenomenon arises, Shahbari says, when women negotiate raises, promotions, and bonuses.
“There is an expectation that women should be grateful for any work opportunity they get and so when they ask for more, they get penalized.”
Her observation is confirmed by experiments revealing that women who initiated negotiations for higher compensation got penalized more than men did.
What this means is that if you’re a woman wanting to increase your visibility at work and move into a leadership role, you’ll have to go about promoting your skills, talents, and accomplishments in a way that adroitly navigates these cultural biases.
Self-Promotion Skills That Won’t Backfire
Shahbari makes a distinction between what she calls “healthy” self-promotion and the kind of egotistical bragging that most of us instinctively dislike.
Healthy self-promotion, she says, emphasizes one’s value to the team, organization, or company. It is not boasting meant to elevate oneself over others in blind self-interest but is more informational, the way a good marketing campaign should be.
“You work for a company; you want to bring value to the company; and you want to show that value so your manager can understand better how to utilize and maximize the knowledge and skills you bring in a way that benefits the company further and helps it move forward,” she says. “Staying in the shadows does not serve you, your manager, your team, or your company.”
Here are a few strategies Shahbari recommends for raising your visibility in the workplace:
Find Common Ground
When you’re speaking to managers about your work, emphasize first and foremost how your accomplishments have contributed to the company’s broader mission and objectives.
Seek Out High-Profile Projects
Consider how you can apply your special talents to upcoming high-profile projects and approach your manager about contributing. You’ll have an opportunity to shine, and your boss will appreciate your strategic thinking.
Use “I” Statements
Women often describe work efforts using words like “we” or “the team.”
A better strategy, according to Shahbari, is to state what is true. Own your contributions by using “I” to describe how you specifically helped with a project’s success while using the term “the team” to describe how the team contributed to a project’s success.
This allows your manager to better understand the value you bring to the table. Knowing this, your manager can capitalize on your capabilities and skills in ways that further contribute to the company. For instance, she suggests phrases like: “Here is how I helped my team build this product” or “The fact that I was able to secure the needed budget and resources on time, helped my team stay on track and launch the product when it was due.”
Enlist the Help of Allies
If you still do not feel comfortable talking about the great job you’ve done directly to your boss, ask a supportive ally within the company to talk about your contributions and the value you bring. Any compliments they pay should be true and genuine.
Key, says Shahbari, is asking both male and female colleagues to offer positive feedback about your work to managers. And if the positive remark comes from someone high up in the company, it will have even more impact.
“Psychologically, that’s how we’re built,” says Shahbari. “If you can get multiple allies, maybe at your level, maybe a little higher, maybe even higher up within the organization, to talk positively about you, the perception about you will change in the company.”
Build A Broad Network
Your network of allies should extend beyond your immediate circle. Cultivate higher-level allies. This runs counter to the instincts of many women who focus their interactions exclusively on a direct manager. However, it’s the upper-level executives who often have the most insight into the company’s strategy and politics.
Shahbari suggests saying something like: “I want to get to the next level. I want to be involved in projects that could benefit the company where I can also get more visibility. How do I do it? What do you suggest? What path should I follow?”
A broad network of allies also includes those outside the company. Attend conferences. Ask for and accept speaking engagements. Join networking and professional organizations.
Too often, women appear meek when they speak. Unfortunately, this hesitancy, in both body language and tone, can project a message that you’re not capable or even interested in a high-profile role. But there are ways to counter this.
“I’m meeting with my boss or someone, maybe an executive within the company,” says Shahbari. “Those are high stakes kinds of meetings. So doing some exercises to boost your confidence before getting into those meetings is important to overcome this hesitation.”
It may sound all too literal when it comes to visibility, but at important meetings, don’t sit at the back of the room, cautions Shahbari.
“Usually, women do that,” she says. “It’s as if they don’t belong. Like, someone is doing them a favor to allow them to be there. No, you belong. You are capable. If you weren’t capable, you wouldn’t be there.”
Take your seat right next to the top executives.
Final Thoughts on How to Self-Promote at Work
No doubt, a strong set of gender biases underlies women’s hesitancy to promote themselves.
Evidence suggests that women are more likely to advocate for working conditions that allow them to conform to gender expectations, such as flexible work hours to pick up the kids from school. However, behaviors like asking for a raise, or even advertising one’s achievements, challenge conventional gender roles and thus fall by the wayside. Men may be more likely to self-promote, Shahbari posits, because the drive for money and status fits the role assigned to their gender.
Regardless of the why, she says, “women need to be able to talk about the impact they make at work and showcase their contributions confidently, and they deserve to get recognition, adequate salaries, promotions, and benefits.”
Yes, self-promotion is a delicate tool to be used wisely, but it can be a very effective way to increase your visibility at work and get what you rightfully deserve.