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Brag Like a Lady: Self-Promote Without Backlash

Tips for women to self-promote without triggering gender bias.

co-authored by Rachel W. Dempsey

As we discussed in our last post, a recent study by the non-profit Catalyst found that the best strategy to get a raise is to make your achievements known around the office. Seems simple enough, right? Let your co-workers know about a deal that went your way. Be sure to get credit for ideas you originate. Mention that big account you just landed at the next partner's meeting.

Except, as it turns out, self-promotion is just as likely to make people think you're a jerk as it is to make people think you deserve a raise or a promotion. As Alice Eagly and Linda Carli write in their book Through the Labyrinth, "[S]elf-promoting women risk having less influence than women who are more modest, even though women who self-promote are considered more competent than their more-modest counterparts."

This goes back to the pattern we identified in our last post. The characteristics we associate with success, including confidence and competitiveness, are generally stereotyped masculine. Characteristics that are stereotyped feminine, like communality and selflessness, not only don't overlap with the characteristics we associate with success - in many cases, they're actually mutually exclusive. A woman who trumpets her own achievements is violating the expectation that she is community-oriented rather than focused on individual reward, which can lead to bias and discrimination.

This doesn't mean you can't or shouldn't self-promote. It just means you have to be savvy about it. Here are a couple of strategies for how to brag without the backlash.

1) Highlight your team's achievements

People expect women to be community-oriented, which is why there's often a backlash when they call attention to their individual achievements. One way to get around this prescription is to call attention to your team's achievements, while making sure it's clear that you played an important role in their success. If you're a team leader, send around an e-mail letting everyone know how well your team is doing. That way, your colleagues will know what a good leader you are, but at the same time you'll avoid looking like you're self-centered, by showing your support for the people who work for you.

2) Call upon your posse

Although the Catalyst report points out that networks often don't provide women with the same boost they provide to men, a network of colleagues to support you can come in handy when it comes to raising your profile in the office. Having other people trumpet your achievements for you is a great way to make sure your bosses know your value, and because you're not actually promoting yourself, it's less likely that you'll end up triggering stereotypes about how women should behave. Make sure that if you're relying on other people to give you a boost, you do the same for them!

3) Use "guerilla stealth"

It's possible to promote your accomplishments so subtly no one notices what you're doing - think subliminal messaging. If you've won any awards or prizes, make sure to display them in your office, although not necessarily front and center. Make sure your CV is always up-to-date, and if you're asked to write your own profile for your company's website, don't be afraid to go a little over-the-top. (You can always blame it on an overenthusiastic Marketing department.) In meetings with your boss, be sure to slip in mentions of your recent accomplishments - for example, if you're discussing an upcoming project, you can say something like, "We had so much success with the approach we used on the previous account. Does it make sense to use it here, too?"

4) Be helpful

Finally, one great way to maintain a communal aura is to offer your experience as an example to colleagues. Say, for example, you're a lawyer who wins a big argument before a particular judge. When you get back to the office, rather than sending around an e-mail that just details your success, you can write your co-workers a note letting them know what worked for you, so that they can be better prepared the next time one of them faces that judge. That way everyone is made aware of your success, and at the same time, you look like a team player.

While we're specifically speaking to women, a lot of our advice is useful to everyone, regardless of gender. However, because of the lack of fit between how professionals are supposed to act and how women are supposed to act, the consequences of a misstep are greater for a woman than they are for a man. The problem with so much of the advice out there is that it advises women to act more like men in the workplace without warning them about the risks of departing too much from people's expectations for women. Of course, in the long term we hope for our advice to become useless. But for now it's important to find the balance that works for you.