A few years ago, I was exchanging cards with another participant at a conference. My card described me as Facilitator, Consultant and Coach – all of which were accurate and, in my mind, adequate. The young man’s card read CEO- Great Learning Company (name changed). I was impressed.
“How many people do you employ in your organization?” I asked.
“Oh, I am the only employee, but I do have a network of associates,” he replied breezily.
“And what do you do?” I continued, curious to know more about the Great Learning Company.
“I do training and coaching,” he proceeded to talk about the clients he had and the amazing work that he did.
This man was doing exactly what I did but he was the CEO! Why did I not describe myself as a CEO or MD or Director? I wanted to dismiss him as an overbearing self- promoting fellow but there was a feeling of disquiet. Was I missing out on something?
Modesty is not a virtue in the professional world. Self- deprecation is almost self- sabotaging. Yet, many women find it difficult to do personal branding and self- promotion. I have also struggled with this aspect of my work and writing.
Many research studies show that this aspect is damaging for women’s careers and amplifies the gender pay gap. A recent study by Christine L. Exley and Judd B. Kessler from the Harvard Business School showed that women consistently provided a less favorable assessment of their past performance and future potential compared to equally performing men. Men overreported their performance while women reported scores closer to performance.
A study by Hewlett Packard showed that men applied for promotions if they felt that they had fulfilled 60% of the job criteria while women applied only if they matched 100% of the job requirements. So why does this happen?
The social norming starts from childhood when women are taught to cover up and shut up. Whether it is skin or success, good girls don’t reveal or expose anything. I recall my Hindi teacher in school teaching us an adage- Lajja stree ka gehna hai! Shyness (or shame) is a women’s ornament. It might make you cringe but that is the mentality most girls are brought up with. Across religions and cultures, the standard of a good girl is one who is submissive, quiet and obedient. Any behavior apart from this is seen as deviant or unfeminine and is usually punished.
Modesty in the garb of a virtue is a survival strategy. Even today, young girls are shamed in public for wearing ‘revealing’ clothes. Women politicians are still shouted down and insulted. Attenuation is a way to avoid attacks on your body and sanity. Let the macho male beat his chest and trumpet his achievements, let the male preen and prance around attracting attention. The female stays safe by being small and invisible.
The 21st-century world has radically changed the role of women at home, at work, and in society. But this phenomenon is barely 100 years old. We have centuries of cultural coding to grapple with. Should we change?
If women want equal opportunities and equal pay, there is no option but to put ourselves out there. If you enter the race, you need to run. You can still run without breaking the rules or shoving your fellow runner off the track. It is possible to win the good race, but you need to do what it takes.
Of course, you can stay out of the race and keep pining for the medal. Or you can run your own race on a new track. But as women make the choice to enter the working world and own their dreams of success, we need to find viable means to own our abilities and get visibility for our work. We need to realize that talking about ourselves and our work brings us more opportunities and a bigger platform.
We need to find that sweet spot between hogging the spotlight and hiding our light away. It may be difficult to completely change our mindset and become a new person overnight. However, we can start with some simple practices.
Accept compliments with grace
I know so many women who will immediately downplay any compliment they have been given. They will deflect it or feel embarrassed and wave it away like an errant fly.
“Oh, it was nothing.”
“I got lucky.”
“I owe it to my amazing boss/husband/parents.”
“Really? Actually, I have put on some weight.”
“It is not a big deal.
This is not only insulting to the person who has taken the initiative to tell you something good but also disrespectful to yourself.
Just say, Thank You. And, “I worked hard for that,” or “It feels good that my contribution has been recognized.” Or, “Yes, I do good work.” Allow yourself that sweet moment of self- acceptance. Savor it.
Use enabling language and tone
Our words are a reflection of our being. The tone is an indication of what we truly feel. We do not have to be bombastic or pompous. Instead use words that project an image of confidence not diffidence.
Avoid sentences like – “I am just a housewife.” “I am only a junior…”I do some part-time..”. If you put yourself down, others will easily join the party.
Describe who you are and what you do in a compelling way. Prepare your elevator pitch or value statement and get some feedback from some trusted friends. You can be authentic and impactful by using words skillfully.
Connect to Purpose and Values
Connecting to purpose has been very helpful for me to grow my work. Find the why of what you are doing. You need to believe that your work is important and worthwhile. It is okay to own your longing and ambitions. Your acts of promotion and visibility are about the work and not you. People can usually figure it out when you brag to overcome your inadequacies or to show up others. Talking honestly about your accomplishments and strengths is different. Don’t just talk about what you have done, mention the why link it to your larger goals and values.
“Full many a flower is born to blush unseen and waste its sweetness in the desert air,” wrote Thomas Grey. We don’t have to be those wasted flowers, especially not those shrinking violets. Speaking up and sharing our strengths allows us to bloom and grow and take our rightful place under the sun.
Nirupama Subramanian is an author, leadership development facilitator, certified coach and co-founder of GLOW-Growing Leadership of Women. The views expressed are the author’s own.