What Works for Women at Work: Answers to Common Questions-Self-Promotion?
It sounds like you’re confronting The Tightrope: the double bind that forces women to choose between being respected, but not liked, or being liked, but not respected. In your case, when you promote yourself, you’re penalized for being confident and assertive. That is, you face backlash for practicing stereotypically masculine behavior that is respected in the workplace, but deemed unseemly coming from a woman.
Women are often criticized for not engaging in self-promotion, which they are told is crucial to success. When women actually do promote themselves, research indicates that doing so does not help them to the extent that it helps men; like you, many women encounter pushback for their efforts. It’s completely unfair, but mirroring your male colleagues’ self-promotion strategies likely won’t do you much good.
But don’t despair! When women temper their behavior, mixing the masculine with the feminine, they can overcome The Tightrope and even outpace their male peers. Here’s how smart, professional women have promoted themselves without triggering backlash:
- “Display awards that you’ve won. Make sure your CV is widely available. If you’re asked to share a bio about yourself, on your company’s website, perhaps, or with other attendees before a conference, don’t be afraid to go a little over the top. People will usually assume someone else wrote it for you if it’s in the third person, and anyway, chances are that everyone else’s will be over the top, too.”
- “It’s much easier to speak up and promote someone else than yourself. Women who are connected to each other and to supportive men and get in the habit of promoting each other – this is the way women’s competence gets noticed without it looking self-promoting.”
These strategies work because they subtly communicate your competence in a way that doesn’t make it look like the endorsement is coming from you. Here’s a related idea, what we call forming a posse: when one of your coworkers accomplishes something important, send around an email to your team or close colleagues congratulating her or him. Keep up with this practice and soon others will join. This way, everyone can be honored for their achievements without having to awkwardly call attention to themselves. And, you know, what goes around comes around.
Why does this approach work? Research has shown that while women who self-promote often face backlash, those who promote their peers tend to do so very successfully. Promoting others can be perceived as nurturing, communal behavior, which corroborates prescriptive stereotypes of women as helpful and community-oriented. Workplace behavior that reinforces prescriptive stereotypes is generally better received than behavior that challenges them. So as a general rule, make sure you’re doing whatever you can to make your achievements salient to your supervisors without explicitly announcing them yourself.
In a pickle at work? Then Ask the New Girls!