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Why women don't roar at work

Janet Yellen

Tammy M. has never asked for a raise at work.

“If they feel that they want to reward me, then that’s on them,” Tammy says. “I don’t feel it’s my place to say ‘Hey, I need more money, please.’ I don’t like to pat myself on the back. I feel like people will just appreciate what you do and if they don’t, it’s not really my job to point it out to them how ‘good’ I’ve done.”

Crystal M. has requested a raise before, but like Tammy, she’s uncomfortable calling attention to her achievements on the job: “I am not as confident as I think I should be when it comes to talking about my accomplishments at work.”

That raise?

“It’s actually been very slow going and it hasn’t actually occurred. It’s been about a year and a half long process through two bosses,” Crystal says.

If last year brought the era of the “lean-In” approach for professional women, it’s not reflected in the remarks of these two employees or in the behavior of many more women in the workplace.

Psychologist Jessi L. Smith of Montana State University has observed how hesitant her female colleagues can be to self-promote. When she polled her fellow faculty members about their accomplishments – anything from publishing a paper to planting a garden – to print in a staff newsletter, she received “exactly zero responses.”

Smith says there’s “just a real reluctance and discomfort to announce to the small world of Bozeman, Montana the accomplishments they had been so successful at securing over the last year.”

That experience started her thinking about gender norms and workplace culture. Behaviors – like aggressively promoting yourself to your co-workers and supervisors – are largely accepted when a man is displaying them. If a woman exercises her bragging rights, it can be seen as a negative trait that alienates others.

Career coach Peggy Klaus, author of “Brag: How To Toot Your Own Horn Without Blowing It,” says she’s assisted countless women through their unease about talking themselves up over the years.

“I have seen a real shift in women who would come to me and say, ‘I can’t brag. It’s a sin. It’s pride cometh before the fall. It’s not ladylike,’” says Klaus.

She encourages them to practice singing their own praises in settings with an audience that won’t receive it as negative or braggadocios. And Klaus encourages them to understand that employers will not take note of work successes without help from their employees.

“Certainly if 2008 and the recession and taught us anything, [it’s] that if you sit back and don’t ask and don’t offer up what you’ve done, then you won’t get that promotion or that title or that bonus, “ says Klaus.

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The “black box” experiment

“Within American gender norms is the expectation that women should be modest,” begins the abstract of “Women’s Bragging Rights,” a study published by Smith and her former student Meghan Huntoon. For their research, they designed an experiment that encouraged women to talk about their accomplishments while providing justification for any discomfort the women may feel.

“We had groups of undergraduate women at Montana State University who are applying for a scholarship and we told them write either an application essay for yourself or to write a letter of recommendation and promote the accomplishments of a friend to win.”

Half of the women were told that there was a “subliminal noise generator” in the room – a black box that would emit an inaudible, high-pitched sound that could cause some anxiety. The noise was a fiction, but the women who were informed about the box had a largely different experience than the women who weren’t told about it.

“They enjoyed the experience more,” Smith says. “When women were able to have this black box to blame for any discomfort that they might have been feeling, they wrote better essays and received $1,000 more on average in scholarship money.”

So, what’s a woman to do if she’s mortified by the thought of self-promotion – or if being vocal about her career successes has made her more enemies than friends in the past?

Smith says, in an ideal world, the onus shouldn’t have to fall on the employee.

“Quite frankly, it is a lot of burden to retrain yourself and then if you don’t do it, well then it’s your own dang fault that you don’t make as much money as someone else and you didn’t get that raise and promotion,” she says. “We would suggest from a social-psychological perspective that the burden is on employers.”

She suggests instead having employees write their own freestyled annual review, supervisors should ask pointed questions and normalize the practice of self-promotion.

About the author

Lindsay Foster Thomas is the Associate Producer and Director of Marketplace's weekend program, Marketplace Money.
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Women are more replaceable than men. It is rare that a woman can do a job that a man cannot do in the workplace. When it comes to male-dominated occupations, then a woman in that role means that she automatically is an anomaly. If a woman "roars" she might be replaced as it would be easy to find a man who can do the same work. If a man "roars" it is likely to mean that few other men can just replace him.

What I have found is that men more easily embellish their accomplishments more, whether in a job interview, in an evaluation, etc. It took me a long time to realize this. Before then I just felt like all these male coworkers just had better and "more real" qualifications than I did, and probably led to me downplaying my accomplishments even more.

I've read "Women Don't Ask" and "Lean In" and all the books that point out what is wrong, but there's never much of a protocol for how to make it right. Like the first woman in the story, women often believe strongly in meritocracy and have faith in the "system"; if you do good work, it will be rewarded on its own merit. We tend to accept "rules" as unbreakable, like if an employer tells you "we only promote after two years," most women will just accept that and wait out the two years. Are these bad things? No, it's just that in practice, most American workplaces are still geared to male psychology. The rules are there, but if you want to get ahead you have to break them. Maybe employers should start taking it upon themselves to play by the "rules" and notice someone's good work on its own merits. Why does it have to be up to 50% of the workforce to change their fundamental psychology?

I wrote the book on how to write kick-butt resume cover letters. I also teach "how-to" workshops.

Last time I taught the class, a young woman was worried that "bragging" in her cover letter would come off as cheesy. Another was concerned that an assumptive close (I look forward to discussing how my skills/background benefits XYZ company...) was inappropriate.

It's true: we women have had modesty bred into us so strongly that "blowing our horn" is hard to to do. I disagree with the idea that this is a mindset shift; we're not dumb, we 'get' that we have to do something and we are certainly willing to advocate for ourselves. We don't know HOW, and that's a different issue.

It's a communication shift, the words we use, the information we share.

To me, there is no difference between bragging on the job to get a raise and bragging in a cover letter to get an interview. To me, bragging isn't the right word. Semantically, the trouble begins there -- bragging drives out the feelings and behaviors outlined above.

Instead, bragging needs to be converted to BENEFITS. It's not, "I did this and I did this and I am so great at that" it's more about, "I have a 25% cold call conversion rate; this generated X dollars in sales for the company."

Benefits are concrete, measurable, tracked back to you and what you did. Benefits are stated in clean, explicit language. Benefits can be a story or an anecdote with a 'happy ending' (for the company) - Benefits are never about you, the employee, and how immensely valuable you are to the company and why company should pay you X because of it.

Your benefit to the company is boiled down into three areas: make money, save money, save time. Every job out there tracks to the bottom line -- it must, or that job will be eliminated. When you ask for an interview or a raise, prove how you make money, save money, save time.

Tell your story, clearly. Let them see what benefits and results you deliver. Then ASK for what you want, not some generic "I'd like a promotion, please." Do your math, your industry research and say, "Colleagues industry-wide (not in the company, that's too close to home) make X. I would like my salary to be commensurate with the market rate"

What I tell women in my workshops: If you don't find a way to tell someone why you are the best at what you do, how you can solve a problem in a way that no one else can, no one will do it for you. You have to find a way to say this so that it's comfortable, makes you feel confident and positive.

I am a PhD chemist and worked most of my career at a global chemical company. The year I was hired, I was one of six PhD chemists hired and the only woman. At that company, chemists doing a decent job were generally promoted after 5 years. My immediate boss recommended me for promotion and assured me he had agreement from the director and that it was a done deal. But when the promotions were announced, the 5 male chemists were on the list but I was not. The director told my boss he didn’t say I would get promoted, just that I was “promotable”. When I talked to the director he told me that essentially he didn’t believe a woman could be a good chemist while also being a wife and mother. I asked him what I needed to do to be promoted and the only thing he suggested had nothing to do with the chemistry I was doing but that I needed to be a better coach to get my (male) technician promoted. I did finally get my promotion a year later. On a later occasion, my boss again recommended to our VP that I be promoted. The VP agreed to the promotion but nothing happened. My boss asked again, and again the VP agreed but nothing happened. We were facing a reorganization and both my boss and the VP would be moving along to new positions so if I didn’t get the promotion then, I’d have to start all over. I went to HR and she said that there must be a reason the VP hadn’t acted, but she’d talk to him. She reported back to me that he agreed I should be promoted. A month went by and nothing happened. Both my boss and the HR rep said their hands were tied. I was nervous about going over my VP’s head, but he was going on to another position and I figured I had nothing to lose. So I prepared a list of my accomplishments and went to our Executive VP. He said there must be a reason the VP hadn’t acted, but he’d talk to him. The next day I had my promotion. Tell me a man would have been treated the same way!

Disingenuous. There is little difference between this radio piece and the book that inspired it in terms of it promotional merit. Selling the idea that men are naturally self-promoting and women are not deserves more than a little skepticism. For all but the most obnoxious self promoters it is difficult. But this piece was not about facts was it? It was about resonating with the female segment of your listeners.

I worked at a company for four years without an annual review, raise or promotion, thinking they would recognize my hard work. Finally, I requested a review and got glowing acknowledgement and praise. Shortly later I requested a raise and was laid-off within two months "due to lack of work". No one else was laid off. I was the only woman employed there, except the daughter of the President. Very soon after that I saw a job opening posted on-line for my former position - same job description with a different title. Shame on me for staying at this employer for so long without recognition, but I think this points to why women hesitate to self-promote.

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