In the Barbie movie, when the Nobel Prize for journalism is awarded to Barbie, she says, “I worked very hard so, I deserve it!”. What stood out to me in this scene was that a woman was not afraid to assert that she had accomplished something great and was going to acknowledge it. When it comes to the real world though, we might witness that people depending on their gender identities will showcase or celebrate their achievements differently. Just like the rest of our reality, the act of self-promotion is gendered.
Self-promotion involves communicating one’s achievements and positive attributes. It is an important tool to make one’s accomplishments visible as a way of advancing one’s career or educational opportunities, such as, receiving promotions, attracting mentors and managers, and deriving satisfaction from one’s work.
Research has found a significant difference in self-promotion amongst gender identities. More specially, men have typically been found to provide more favourable subjective evaluations of their past and present performance as well as prospective abilities. One crucial condition in which this gap disappears however, is when women are asked to evaluate the tasks of others because women are better at that and feel more comfortable advocating for or promoting others’ work. This is something I have found to be true even in my personal experience. I have had several informal conversations with colleagues, most often women from diverse ethnic backgrounds, who have said they feel too ‘awkward’ or ‘whiny’ or ‘assertive’ to celebrate themselves and showcase their achievements.
Self-promotion does not exist in a silo. The recipients of such self-promotion or attempts to stand out might play as crucial a role as the person promoting themselves. As such, people with diverse sexualities, genders, abilities and ethnicities find standing out and advocating for themselves difficult to do when the reward for self-promotions lies in the hands of a fairly homogeneous set of people who are often the gatekeepers of opportunities in the workplace. This might lead someone who does not fall within that set of people (think: a non-white cisgendered able-bodied man) to exert extra effort in standing up for themselves and thinking about how best to present themselves. Likewise, such individuals might also find it difficult to establish mentor-mentee relationships with supervisors or leaders who do not perceive them as similar.
Cultural differences can also influence the degree to which someone might lean into promoting themselves. Different cultures have different norms and values around individualism and modesty that can play a role in how comfortable someone might feel about promoting and celebrating their achievements. For instance, people coming from individualistic cultures might promote themselves and their accomplishments more easily because such behaviour might also be encouraged and expected. However, for people from collectivistic cultures self-promotion might be considered to go against social norms that typically focus on the collective, on collaboration and on highlighting accomplishments as a team effort. Culture also intersects with race such that a person’s willingness to advocate for oneself or self-promote might be met with resistance or negative feedback.
It is clear that women and people from other under-represented groups might not talk about their work as easily or as favourably as the vast majority of men. And yet, self-promoting is important because without it, one is likely to fall behind one’s more vocal peers.
What then, could be driving this pattern?
Research done with men and women has found that one factor that could account for such differences arises from the cognitive dissonance (the mental discomfort that results from conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviours) between expectations around being modest and self-promotion as immodest behaviour. So, for instance, when women self-promote, this behaviour feels inconsistent with traditional beliefs that women should be modest. This might create a sense of discomfort, which reduces women’s self-promoting behaviour. Self-promotion might also be uncomfortable if women perceive it as going against how they should and ought to behave. Prevailing gender stereotypes dictate that women are typically expected to conform to stereotypical feminine traits, such as being nurturing and supportive, rather than assertive and competitive. Men, on the other hand, are expected to conform to stereotypical masculine traits, such as being confident and assertive, rather than collaborative and empathetic.
Finally, gender differences in self-promotion might arise from the fear of backlash. In fact, when women do self-promote, they risk receiving social and economic penalties for doing so, in the form of being less liked, less hired, or even less promoted. This suggests that women may choose to avoid self-promotion in order to mitigate such potential negative consequences. These findings also extend to black employees who receive less favourable evaluations when they engage in self-promotion.
Self-promotion is especially important for women and other under-represented groups in order to be perceived as more competent. People need to be able to showcase their contributions with confidence and highlight the kind of impact they make at work, because they provide valuable expertise and experiences. One way in which individuals can subvert the discomfort surrounding self-promotion is by leveraging social media as a way of showcasing their expertise and having their worth be seen. Learning such effective ways of promoting oneself can be a means of combating the biases and negative consequences ingrained in the self-promotion process.
It is important to state though, that the responsibility should not rest solely on these individuals. It is crucial for organisations and other individuals to sponsor and advocate for people who might be disadvantaged when it comes to their self-promotion. Being cognisant of intersectional differences can enable organisations and teams to advocate for individuals so that attempts at self-promotion are not thwarted and everyone has the opportunity to succeed, not just those who are typically more likely to advance themselves and are expected to.
Whether it’s by sharing and celebrating one’s accomplishments at timely opportunities, or finding suitable allies or intermediaries, self-promotion can be a delicate yet effective tool to increase people’s visibility and help them receive the recognition, advancement, and benefits they deserve – not just in Barbie Land.