Women, Toot Your Own Horn or Get Left Behind

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By Janet Choi

Women face tough challenges in accessing leadership opportunities. Just look at the numbers. While women make up 51.4% of middle managers, they account for a mere 4.2% of Fortune 500 CEOs.


During law school, I participated in a clinical program where students work in the field while receiving practical training and guidance. While discussing a self-evaluation written after a client interview exercise, I noted that I’d been pretty hard on myself, commenting lightly, “Well, who thinks they do everything great?”

“Plenty of people do,” my supervising professor replied. “And they’ll say so, even when they’re not.”

While the extremes of egotism can be awfully distasteful, there is something to tooting your own horn. Among the complex reasons for the self-promotion paradox that women face, including harmful gender stereotypes and perceptions, is a lack of confidence in communicating achievements, in saying so even when they actually are awesome at what they do.

In fact, a 2011 Catalyst study found that the most powerful tactic for women in advancing their career was to make their achievements known. Calling attention to accomplishments led to more career satisfaction and was actually the only reliable factor associated with bigger raises. As much as we believe, or want to believe, that our achievements speak for themselves, that alone isn’t enough. We have to speak about them too.


This is an important practice for everyone. Doing your work is only half the job. Productive people get stuff done on their own, but moving that work forward and outward rides on communicating about the stuff that got done. Whether you’re an entrepreneur, an employee, or looking for work, when you do things, tell people, doors open because people know where to knock and why. Those people will include powerful leaders who can act as sponsors and mentors and amplify your “tell people” message.

The tricky part, though, can be how to tell people, so that you feel authentic to who you are and the message is accepted by others. For women, that’s not as easy as it might sound. As Whitney Johnson and Tara Mohr explain in their call to find effective forms of self-promotion: women have to navigate a double-bind, stuck between being perceived as too passive or too aggressive, but never just right, or stuck facing higher standards of work but shamed or gaslighted when bringing up their great performance.

Effective forms of self-promotion will differ, depending on who you are and where you work. Here are a couple tips to get you started:

  • Keep track of your accomplishments. To effectively self-promote, you yourself have to acknowledge and keep track of your achievements.
  • Use social tech tools like Asana and iDoneThis to build a visible, everyday record of progress and achievements. If your employer is against implementing such tools, use them yourself to document your work.
  • Ask for promotions and raises. You’ll be able to support your request with concrete evidence.
  • Look for more frequent and alternative opportunities for get feedback. Don’t wait for your formal annual review to bring attention to your accomplishments and grow the quality of your work.
  • Get out of the office. Promoting yourself doesn’t have to be on someone else’s terms. Write a book, start a blog, make a side-project, collaborate with new people outside of work, speak at panels and conferences. Tell people about what you’ve done, what you’re doing, why it’s important, and how you did it.

See what doors you can open, gaps you can close, and barriers you can break!

We’d love to hear about your thoughts and experiences regarding self-promotion and advancing in your career.

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Image: Howard Lake/Flickr (speak up!)


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