Why Do Women Struggle to Promote Themselves?

Why Do Women Struggle to Promote Themselves?

Six months into a new role as vice president of operations for a small, Midwestern organization of health clinics, Amee Ellsworth’s boss introduced an in-person mandate requiring Amee to move to Minnesota to do her job. It was a deal-breaker. Amee worked remotely from Montana and couldn’t move.

Amee parted ways with the company but felt devastated. It was the second time in a year for her to be out of work. She launched another job search, but this time she saw few results. So, Amee decided to enlist professional career change help.

To her delight, the services she received turned out to be transformative. It wasn’t just because she found a rewarding job with the potential to catapult her to a higher level quickly. More importantly, Amee learned to recognize the significance of her career achievements and communicate that significance to employers.

“I have some major achievements in my career, but I had never thought about the value of those achievements to an employer before. I just felt like I was doing my job,” said Amee. “Now I realize how amazing those accomplishments are. And I’ve learned how to articulate them in an interview. I learned to look at myself like an employer would in assessing me for a job.”

Amee’s experience is quite common among women. Many women struggle to effectively promote themselves and convey their value in the workplace. Unfortunately, this can lead to serious, long-term, career consequences. Despite their hard work and consistent performance, women who are not adept at vocalizing their achievements face a lack of professional recognition, missed opportunities, and unfulfilled potential.

He Said, She Said

The topic of gender disparities in the work world, especially pay gaps and representation in leadership roles, is more current than ever. By contrast, the subtler, yet equally important, issue of gender gap in self-promotion receives little attention. That self-promotion is critical to career advancement and recognition in the workplace is well-known. Nevertheless, the gender gap in this area remains pernicious and little understood.

That may be starting to change.

A recent study by Christine Exley of Harvard Business School and Judd Kessler of Wharton Business School focused on the differing approaches of self-promotion by men and women with an eye to uncovering the whys. Their results were surprising.

The researchers asked 1,500 workers to complete a test with 20 analytical questions. Then they asked the workers to estimate how many answers they thought they had answered correctly. Next, they asked the workers subjective, self-evaluative questions that one might give during a performance review. For example: “Rate your agreement with the statement “I performed well on the test” on a scale of 0 to 100.”

They found that men rated their performance 33% higher than women did. That was true even when women performed equally or better on the test than the men.

Exley and Kessler explored various settings to suss out the factors driving the gap. One of them isolated confidence, which, the study demonstrated, was lower in women than in men. (i.e., Women underestimated how many correct answers they received on the test, whereas men overestimated.) But even when workers knew their test results, the subjective self-promotion gap remained.

They wondered if men were more willing than women to inflate their performance when financial incentives were present. They tested for it and accounted for that variable. The gap remained. When workers were cautioned that excessive self-promotion would be discovered, the gap still stuck.

Even when workers were made aware that other test-takers were over-promoting themselves to their advantage, the gender gap persisted. In every setting, women systematically provided less favorable assessments of their own past performance and potential future ability than equally performing men.

What Is Driving the Self-Promotion Gender Gap?

Despite testing several hypotheses to uncover the reasons behind the self-promotion gender gap, Exley and Kessler were left stumped. “At this point we can only speculate,” they concluded.

There are other working theories on what could be driving the gender gap. One involves backlash avoidance – when women avoid anticipated negative social consequences for acting assertively or authoritatively in the workplace. It stems from the disconnect between leadership stereotypes and gender stereotypes.

Studies show that women experience harsh judgement for departing from traditional female traits like collaboration and nurturing. Women exhibiting assertiveness, ambition, and competition – stereotypical leadership characteristics – are seen as bossy, abrasive – even unlikeable. Men exhibiting similar behaviors, by contrast, are seen as confident, competent, and promotable because these traits are also traditionally male.

Women are penalized more than men for negotiating their salaries, too. Their reputations may be sullied, their work relationships impaired, they may even see agreements rescinded.

“If women are punished for excessive self-promotion more than men, this could lead women — more than men — to internalize the risks of describing their performance too favorably. If internalized, a gender gap could then arise in settings like ours…,” wrote Exley and Kessler.

When it comes to compensation, women sometimes resist negotiating salary simply to avoid potential conflict. Or, like Amee, they never think to question the first offer.

“Normally, I would have accepted whatever package was offered to me,” said Amee about her salary negotiations. “But my consultant coached me to approach salary negotiations with market research to make a case for higher compensation. I was able to get a significant increase. That was very valuable!”

The Double Standard Dilemma

Another problem is that women are sometimes held to a higher standard than men. An unsettling MIT study finds that female employees are less likely to be promoted than their male counterparts, despite outperforming them.

The study used data on 30,000 management-track employees from a large North American retail chain. The company used a numerical talent assessment tool that compares performance and potential where ratings for potential strongly predict promotions.

It found that “…on average, women received higher performance ratings than male employees, but received 8.3% lower ratings for potential than men. The result was that female employees on average were 14% less likely to be promoted than their male colleagues.”

“Taken together, we find that gender differences in potential ratings can explain up to 50% of the overall gender promotion gap,” wrote the study’s authors.

Overcoming the Challenge

Without a doubt, women’s struggle to promote themselves poses a regrettable challenge in their careers. But overcoming it is possible. These few pointers can help.

First, identify your goals. It’s much easier to succeed if you know what success looks like for you. This clarity will guide your decisions and focus your professional efforts where they matter most.

Second, know your worth. This relates to both role and salary. If you, yourself, don’t know what you have to offer, you can hardly blame employers for not recognizing your value. Take stock and get in the habit of noting your achievements. Make the effort to translate your achievements into metrics. Then use Glassdoor and other online tools to ascertain what your skills are worth on the job market.

Lastly, learn how to advocate for yourself. This involves developing the confidence and skills to effectively communicate your strengths, accomplishments, and aspirations. You are both the salesperson and the product that you’re trying to sell. Figure out how to tell your story and your ideas in a compelling way.

When necessary, balancing assertiveness with empathy can mitigate negative impressions of nontraditional female leadership characteristics. If you’re unsure how to advocate for yourself, hire a coach. Coaches can provide you with not only strategies, but also feedback on how well you implement those strategies.

In addition, coaches offer an unparalleled perspective on the unique challenges facing different groups in the workforce. For Marion Engelke, as the first female CEO of career management firm The Barrett Group, women’s difficulties in the workforce have gone from personal to professional.

“I am inspired every day by the incredible talent of women in our workforce,” said Engelke. “Women’s journey in self-promotion is a struggle due to the complex interplay of societal perceptions, expectations, and cultural narratives. I believe that it’s crucial for organizations to create environments where we empower women and recognize their contributions. Amee’s journey offers a fantastic narrative of resilience and courage for all of us as we work on breaking through old barriers and redefine what it means to be a leader.”

Rewrite Your Narrative

In truth, these are useful practices for both men and women, but they’re especially vital for women whose self-promotion struggles are baked into professional norms. They certainly were for Amee.

“I came into this job with a lot more confidence. I knew before that I changed lives – thousands of lives, but I didn’t know how to articulate that to employers,” said Amee. “The greatest value I’ve gotten from The Barrett Group is realizing the value I bring to the table and how to advocate for myself.”

By mastering this approach, women can rewrite the narrative, turning what was once a hurdle into a stepping stone for personal growth and career advancement.

Written by Julie Norwell

Julie Norwell is Senior Writer & Content Manager at The Barrett Group.

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