In the previous chapter, you read about executive presence and learned specific strategies for cultivating it. Like Nancy came to understand, if you don’t take measures to visibly demonstrate your executive presence, it holds limited power. But showcasing one’s leadership is not necessarily easy for women. For some, it feels like self-promotion—and the record is pretty clear that women tend to be uncomfortable with that. I’ve had my own share of struggles showcasing my accomplishments. I recall after getting my doctorate degree how I waited a full year to add Dr. Heather Backstrom to my website—a full year! Even though I had earned the degree, with a 4.0 magna cum laude GPA no less, I was still reluctant to put it out there for others to see. In comparison, a male friend at school put doctor on his website immediately. He didn’t struggle with letting the world know of his great and well-earned accomplishment. How come I did?
My example is consistent with research on the differences between men and women when it comes to self-promotion. Christine Exley and Judd Kessler researched this phenomenon by running various versions of the same test to measure workers’ performance, confidence, and self-promotion. They describe their findings in a 2019 Harvard Business Review article: “We found that men engage in substantially more self-promotion than women.” Exley and Kessler were particularly interested in the self-promotion gender gap because of its pervasiveness and impact on professionals’ jobs and career trajectories. They theorize that “those of us who do more self-promotion may have better chances of being hired, being promoted, and getting a raise or bonus.”
Yet, for women, self-promotion can be a double bind. Spotlighting accomplishments and experiences is crucial, but if a woman overdoes it, she risks being seen in an unfavorable light. As Florida International University (FIU) shares in a blog post:
On the path to getting ahead in organizations, men and women leaders need to behave in ways that are ambitious, self-confident, independent, [and] competent . . . in order to be promoted and be seen as “leaders.” However, robust research suggests that, when these behaviors are enacted by women (but not by men), [it] can lead to a social and economic backlash. Indeed, dozens of studies over decades have shown that this puts women in a precarious position—if women are dominant or assertive, they often become labeled as “too bossy,” whereas men who engage in the exact same behaviors would not be punished, and in fact may be rewarded and promoted for their “leadership.”
What a tightrope women have to walk! As an article in the Atlantic puts it, “Women must learn to master the art of appearing both sure of themselves and modest. Too much of the latter, and women’s achievements get overlooked. Too much of the former, and they can face what experts refer to as the ‘backlash effect’—social and professional sanctions for failing to conform to gender norms.”
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