Recently a colleague of mine moved offices and asked the maintenance crew to hang some things up on a wall. Paul, who came in to do the work, commented casually, “All the men around here hang up their plaques. None of the women do.”
None of the women do.
For many women I know, the modus operandi is waiting quietly to be appreciated (not wanting to brag) and then wondering why no one notices what they do. How important is it to promote yourself? Self-promotion, when accurate and genuine, can be a good and necessary way to get a current or potential employer to understand one’s accomplishments and a factor in developing a positive perception quickly. In a national survey of medical school deans, self-promotion was identified as one of the common characteristics of their “rock star” faculty (defined as those at the top of their field) along with other positive characteristics such as strong worth ethic, opportunism, charisma, and political savvy.
The twist is that it has been well documented that self-promotion can also decrease likability. This is a particular risk among women, for whom conventional stereotypes include the expectation of modesty, meaning that statements of self-promotion can seriously backfire. Self-promotion, in other words, is both correlated with success and contraindicated for women.
Stephanie Abbuhl (University of Pennsylvania) warns women: “If you are perceived as being too feminine, you may not be perceived as being competent, but if you’re too masculine, you are seen as difficult to work with.” The definition of frustrating!
So is there any way to strike the delicate balance between letting your accomplishments be known so you can be valued for the work you do without experiencing backlash? I asked a number of senior faculty in emergency medicine around the country for their advice on graceful self-promotion. A common thread from these mentors is to compromise: in any self-promotion, women are most successful when mixing “masculine” competence with “feminine” warmth and collaboration.
While it may be galling to have to operate within the bounds of gender stereotypes, given the tenacity and ubiquity of these stereotypes, it may be practical in the short term to identify the elements of traditional femininity you personally feel most comfortable with, and incorporate these into your self-promotion style. And if it makes you feel any better, individuals of both genders may benefit from adopting certain “feminine” qualities. As Kathleen Clem (Loma Linda) puts it: “For men as well as women, self-promotion exercised with warmth is better than a strut of dominance.”
Of course, it is sometimes best to state your accomplishments simply and directly, without overstating facts but also without apology or self-deprecation. Lending support to this approach, Ellen Weber (UCSF) advises, “Most Chairs are happy to hear about your accomplishments and you don’t need to dance around that.” Regardless of gender, however, too much of the “I” can damage others’ perceptions of you: there is a reason self-promotion is frequently referred to as “shameless.” Promoting the “we”—your team, not solely yourself—allows you to discuss work you feel is important and productive, while indirectly promoting yourself.
Similarly, a recent Forbes column recommended adopting a mentality of “branding”: letting people know what you are about, what is important to you, and what you have to offer as an employee, colleague, or team member. The article distinguishes this from “self-promotion” because it is not about advancing yourself for the sake of being advanced, but advancing the cause you believe in.
Another thing you can do is resolve not to perpetuate the problem: don’t be the woman who denigrates her female colleagues for a little accurate self-promotion. Our success as a group becomes our success as individuals. Consider how best to promote the successes of your fellow women in EM, whether by taking a moment each year to nominate colleagues and mentors for awards (women remain underrepresented as recipients of many medical awards) or suggesting women you know to be considered for leadership roles within your department, institution, or national organization. This type of goodwill goes around and will come back to you.
Third party promotion has long been proposed as a way to circumvent the self-promotion/likability dilemma. A group of women (or of women and men) can agree in advance to be each other’s “third party” by broadcasting each other’s achievements through email, social media announcements, or other avenues for kudos within your department or larger organization. Through this practice, successes are known, everyone is seen as a team player, and the need to self-promote is abated. As Paul the maintenance man puts it, “You’ve worked very hard for your accomplishments. You should be proud of them and let people know.”
A version of this article was originally published in the AWAEM Awareness newsletter January- March 2014.