Guest Column - July/August 2017

The Female Mystique

Why Women Don't Get Promoted

By Michelle M. Smith, CPIM, CRP

Where are all those powerful girls and women who crushed it throughout their school years?

Compared to succeeding in the work world, it's often easier for women to excel in school because they can do great work without having to defy feminine norms or navigate the likeability costs that too frequently come with being high achievers in the workplace. Yet, research has found that a higher percentage of women in senior leadership positions have a positive impact on an organization's bottom line. Credit Suisse's study, The CS Gender 3000: Women in Senior Management, confirmed that "where there is at least one female in the boardroom, companies have seen an average Return On Equity of 14.1 percent since 2005 compared to 11.2 percent for all male boards."

Women have to realize that their presence in leadership is essential, but if their good work isn't leading to raises or promotions it's likely because it isn't sufficiently visible—on an ongoing basis—to those scouting talent within their organizations.

How to Make Your Successes Visible

More often than not, female employees are totally unpracticed in the art of making their accomplishments visible when they land in the workplace, and self-promotion can feel forced or awkward.

Tara Mohr, author of Playing Big: Practical Wisdom for Women Who Want to Speak Up, Create, and Lead, offers these three ways for women to become more comfortable with promoting their achievements, while keeping those efforts aligned to their values:

1. Embrace visibility: How can your talents, ideas and accomplishments become more visible to audiences, influencers and decision-makers within your organization or field? When you shift the frame to visibility, you'll notice it's not all about you. Instead, it becomes about making your work and ideas available to those who can utilize them.

2. Focus on service: Make your work more visible so you can reach those you want to serve. Posting an article on your company's intranet or hosting a discussion at your office about the innovative process your team has been using makes your achievements more visible and allows other teams to benefit. Sharing your ideas about potential operational improvements showcases your good thinking and can make a positive impact for the customers you serve.

3. Tell the whole truth: For many women, it's helpful to think about "telling the whole truth" rather than self-promotion, especially because so many of us tell little lies of omission about our own roles in successful endeavors.

Are you guilty of any of these omissions?

  • Always giving credit to others on the team while not acknowledging your own role.
  • Communicating about areas of a project where you fell short, but not communicating equally about your areas of success.
  • Never mentioning your extra work or off-hours spent on a project.
  • Not highlighting your past accomplishments, education, awards, etc.—even when they're highly relevant.
  • Rationalizing away your past achievements, training, education or awards.
  • Confusing the personal path of turning away from external status markers with the devaluing of what you've achieved in the past.

What we are and aren't willing to say about ourselves affects our sense of self. Learning to become comfortable with self-promotion is important for professional success, but speaking forthrightly about our accomplishments allows women to integrate those qualities into our sense of self. If we never hear ourselves owning—or even hinting at—what we've overcome, created, nurtured or completed in our lives, how can we embrace competence, strength and resilience into who we are?

4 Tips to Help You Become More Visible

Turn these concepts into reality by following this additional advice from Tara Mohr, which applies equally well for men in the workplace:

1. Relating to authority: Get really good at understanding what your leaders want and expect of you, and provide it to them. But don't stop there—challenge and influence those authority figures where appropriate, and also find other leaders in the company who may be closely aligned with your point of view. This expands your sphere of influence and opens up opportunities for greater and wider responsibility, which may lead to a leadership role of your own.

2. Preparation vs. improvisation: Your schooling taught you to be ready with an answer for anything you might be asked, and that's still wise advice. But brilliant careers require that we think well on our feet too. Continue to be prepared, but understand that being able to successfully improvise on-the-spot is essential and a valuable skill in a fast-evolving workplace.

3. Inside out vs. outside in: Seeking information and insights from external sources is a powerful method for ensuring you obtain a well-balanced, comprehensive view of a situation. As you advance in your career and into more senior roles, you'll also need to turn your focus inward for guidance. As a leader, it's essential you have a strong and trusted internal compass to guide you as you pursue additional viewpoints to provide checks and balances.

4. Do good work vs. do good work and make it visible: In academia, working hard and performing well was enough to put you at the top of the class. In business, continue to work hard, but make certain colleagues know about your excellent performance. Find your way to own your accomplishments and talk about them gracefully.

Continue to use your good-student skill set as a foundation for creating and doing quality work, but also embrace these new visibility skills that will allow you to continue to crush it throughout your life and career!

Named one of the most influential women in the incentive industry, Michelle M. Smith, CPIM, CRP, is an accomplished international author, speaker and strategist. She's past-president of the FORUM at Northwestern University, president emeritus of the Incentive Marketing Association, vice-president of research for the Business Marketing Association, and vice-president of marketing for O.C. Tanner.