Wednesday, 15 April 2009

(Self) promotion

Last week, I had a performance review at work. It went just fine. My boss was encouraging and helpful. We discussed what I'd done, and how I could improve my skills. But then came the part that made me wince: discussing my future. I quietly blushed and looked at my fingernails while my boss made suggestions about how I could get ahead in my career.

I find it really hard to talk about personal advancement in the workforce, and the idea of putting myself forward for promotion makes me deeply uncomfortable. It's not just because thinking of myself at a time when people are being made redundant in droves seems crass. And it's not just that, as a feminist, I'm only too aware of the feminisation of poverty - that a great many women don't have the basics, let alone the luxury of worrying about career plans. And it's not that I can't be assertive in the workforce, or that I lack self-confidence - I happily take on leadership roles quite often.

Buried deep inside my psyche, there's a part of me that feels very uneasy about putting myself first, and competing with workmates to do so. The stereotype of the cold, ambitious career woman must be lurking somewhere in my subconscious. Some research I did on female academics suggests they feel the same. Women are more likely to wait quietly until someone suggests they apply for promotion, whereas guys will generally just go for it, whether or not they believe they'll succeed. I don't think that competitive behaviour is particularly desirable at work - but if women don't engage, we end up with little or no female representation in our decision-making bodies.

Is this a gender thing, a 'me' thing, or a bit of both? Are there any other shrinking violets out there?


Mary-Lou said...

Put it this way, feminists complain that they don't get treated equally in the workplace - that men are chosen ahead of them in management/promotions etc.

However you feely admit that you feel uncomfortable about pushing yourself into this position, even when given the opportunity to do so (as a good employee I imagine).

So how does that match up? If women are like you, and feel uncomfortable about going for a job that is rightly theirs, what choice do you give employers who will choose the go-getter male who will say YES?

Go for the promotion or you simply cannot argue that men get all the good jobs - you're GIVING them to them. If you don't ask you don't get.

Trouble said...

Hello - feminists question the degree to which not putting yourself forward is a feeling generated by a sexist society. In the employee, the employer, co-workers, ya de ya. Same as the conditions which make women feel like they need to put their family before their career, another factor that contributes to pay inequality. There's a wider societal issue that impacts on all these individual choices.

It's a bit more bloody sophisticated than playing hunt the meanie sexist boss.

Anonymous said...

I think there's an element to which work (in many workplaces) is a male-defined game/culture, and I'm not interested in the stakes or the rules, or putting that much energy into getting ahead at it. I want to be able to work well, earn a living, leave work at work and enjoy the rest of my life, things that are more important to me.

I've had opportunities that I've passed up for lack of "ambition", and I'm not sure what it would have taken to make those opportunities attractive to me. I don't think it's solely a gender thing -- obviously there are many women that enjoy positions of responsibility and not all men care about career success, and there are workplaces that aren't so traditional -- but I do get the impression that the further up the ladder you go, the more you have to deal with company politics and so on. And I'm just not convinced it's worth it.

A Nonny Moose said...

One thing I am learning about feminism is that it's not always black and white about issues. You're right, it's not always about sexism in the workplace, there's a large degree of the individual personality in the process as well.

I don't actively go looking for sexism at work, and I've been lucky that it hasn't been a factor in my career. If it was, I'd fight it, of course. I've also actively chosen to avoid jobs/workplaces where I knew politics/old boys clubs were rife - I'd rather be happy than powerful.

Strangely enough, even though it's taken me longer than I thought it would, I've recently been promoted. I felt I deserved it for my dedication to the job, but there were feelings of guilt because of it happening during the recession, AND I've started earning more than my husband. Thankfully, the guilt didn't last beyond my first new paycheck ;)

I guess I have a mix of grr, guy and girl in me when it comes to work. Sexism is what you make of it in the workplace - my advice would always be to fight it.

Anna said...

In my ideal workplace, it would be OK to show leadership without having to do the potentially aggressive, competitive stuff.

To me, as a feminist, leadership is not an individualistic enterprise - something that you do to feel important or get a bigger paycheck. It's about producing the 'output', but in a way that includes people, lets them use their abilities, is mindful of people's pastoral care and work-life balance needs, etc.

I think the culture of workplaces ought to change to reward a different kind of leadership, and discourage the more ego-driven self-advancement stuff.

A Nonny Moose said...

I think the culture of workplaces ought to change to reward a different kind of leadership, and discourage the more ego-driven self-advancement stuff.Good thinking 99. Of course, that's a very "girl brain" ideal, which requires female leaders to implement ;)

I'll add it to my learning list of "how to be a good manager".

Old Sheila said...

You're expecting perhaps kudos for showing modesty?
Not in this life, love.

When will women learn that you have to be in the driving seat to change the car's direction?

My generation thought they would be rewarded for being "good". Let's hope your generation is tough enough to learn from this mistake.

Anna said...

I see where you're coming from, Sheila, but I don't see it as being 'good' - I see it as being ethical. I think the competitive thing is potentially damaging - it rewards those who can work longest and most slavishly, and put all their domestic responsibilities onto their partner. By buying into that culture, I actually think I'd be contributing to making things worse for my colleagues with kids. Also, when it comes to principles I'm hellishly obstinate. ;-)

Cactus Kate said...

What you need Anna is a good dose of what we call "harden the f**k up".

If you don't want a payrise or promotion someone else will take it and very likely eventually your job. Yes, even those nice people with children.

I don't think feminism has anything to do with your sudden shrinking violetness. It's not a man's fault, or that of other women.

It's all about you.

Hence put yourself forward to be considered to be better than just another "workplace b***ch" (and I don't mean that in an insulting way - but how you will be treated by others) for some man in a cheap Hallensteins suit.

Mary-Lou said...

Hear Hear Cactus Kate.

As I said before, if you don't ask - you don't get.

Anna said...

Kate, I think in your over-excitement you haven't actually read what I said. I'm entirely comfortable showing leadership in the workforce. As it happens, I've always been offered promotions, without having to ask or brown-nose, which I think is a bit undignified. It's quite possible for a workplace to have a culture that doesn't reward self-aggrandisement, and I think that's a useful goal for feminists (an in fact anyone who values merit over ego) to strive for.

What I don't like is going on at length about how great I am - something you are perhaps more comfortable with. What you call being 'hard' just looks childish and aggressive to me - and while it may get you a promotion, it can also earn you a pretty lonely life. The size of your pay packet doesn't help you much if you're a great big no-mates, and if you can't treat the people around you ethically you're a waste of space.

If thinking principles are more important than your ego makes me a softcock, then I'm guilty as charged. The best bosses I've had were very principled people, and the worst ones were egotists who got well paid and enjoyed absolutely no respect from the people around them.

Cactus Kate said...

Well I haven't. You are upset/posting this issue because you feel some divine right to being rewarded for what you are worth. In theory you are right but in practice there is nothing better for an employer than a lackey who doesn't know their market worth. If you don't ask you simply don't get. I don't see any mention of leadership at all in your post as even if you are in these positions by proxy you don't seem to be promoted or paid as if you are.

Statistics don't lie and they should form the basis of your performance review so it's very easy to then ask for recognition of this.

"It's quite possible for a workplace to have a culture that doesn't reward self-aggrandisement, and I think that's a useful goal for feminists (an in fact anyone who values merit over ego) to strive for".

Oh dear...what world do you live in? You are now telling feminists what goals they should have?

What right do you have to judge merit? Or ego?

This isn't about feminism. It's about individual employment negotiations. you appear not to be very good at individual employment negotiation and more suited to a Union model.

My performance reviews are very short. Money in. Money out. Resulting payrise and promotion. Simple. I've never had to beg and plead for payrises in fact I find it demeaning as the easiest reaction is to find a job where you are paid what you think you are worth if you are actually worth that.

"The size of your pay packet doesn't help you much if you're a great big no-mates, and if you can't treat the people around you ethically you're a waste of space".

So automatically you are deeming fiscally successful people to be unethical and unpopular? Lovely.

Lets be brutal here, your fellow employees can never be your friends. You work together. It is a professional relationship. Never cared much what other employees think of me but I have never been unethical to get ahead and you are now judging those who have got ahead to automatically be unethical and have no friends.

Given this argument, what was the purpose of this post? Do you think promotion should come without any self promotion?

For if so then that is nuts. Every competitive employment opportunity in the private sector comes with the ability to sell to clients/customers and generate statistics of your worth. If you can't sell your worth to your employer then you deserve minimum wage for life.

Nothing to do with feminism.

katy said...

I agree with Anna that men to seem to do better than women out of these structures, especially when it comes to putting themselves forward. However, I have to say that I have never felt I could rely on my employer to treat me fairly, that they had my best interests at heart and that I didn't need to advocate for myself. It doesn't mean that I do always stick up for myself, just that I can see that things would be different if I did.

Anna said...

I've been the boss in two of my previous jobs, so I don't consider that I'm particularly oppressed. I wasn't a perfect boss, but I learned a lot from both experiences, and it became very clear to me that people work better in an environment in which they feel like their work is valued. The less time they have to spend self-promoting, the more time they'll spend working, and if they don't feel they're competing with one another, they'll be more inclined to collaborate to get the work done to the best standard.

In my current job, I'm not the boss (yet). The easiest way for me to get ahead would be to 'muscle out' my workmates from the most important projects by exploiting the fact that they have more rigid family commitments than I do, and can't stay late, etc. But I won't do that, because it would make me an unethical dickhead. This looks a lot like a feminist issue to me.

Anonymous said...

"Statistics don't lie and they should form the basis of your performance review..."


There are few industries in which this is true. Attempting to apply such approaches in project management or IT development (fields I know well) have generally been disasterous.

One exception, of course, is in the area of Sales.

" Every competitive employment opportunity in the private sector comes with the ability to sell to clients/customers and generate statistics of your worth"

And here we see where you're coming from. Most of us aren't in that situation. We build things, or fix things, or help with things, rather than selling things. And some of us are rather highly paid for it, thanks. Microsoft's Bill Gates was a salesman, but Microsoft's Paul Allen and Charles Smyloni weren't and they too are billionaires.

If you want to play in that environment, then I've no criticism of that choice. But please don't think your ultra-competitive sales-statistics-based environment in which "your fellow employees can never be your friends" is typical, or is the only type of career worth having.

Anna said...

Anon, I agree. In my work, quality matters more than quantity, and it's reasonably easy to recognise by much harder to measure for the purposes of a promotion bid. In my job, too, the ability to lead groups in collaborative work is crucial. Again, you can see this in people, but it's pretty difficult to measure and compare the collaborative abilities of two people who may be seeking the same senior's position. I also tend to be suspicious of people who have time to promote themselves when others are working.

Julie said...

I too am a bit backwards when it comes to being forwards about myself and my achievements. I recently went for a promotion and found the interview quite uncomfortable, as I was putting myself up for some stuff I didn't have experience doing, but I knew I could do it. I don't think I communicated that very well because I felt so awfward about expressing confidence in myself. It's not cool to think highly of yourself and your abilities, particularly in NZ's culture imho.

And I do think there's a gender element to it as well. For example I don't imagine male applicants for job interviews are as screened by appearance - as long as they are tidy and clean they pass that test, whereas for women there will often be the tricky question of the appropriateness of your outfit - too dressed up and you look like you are trying to sell yourself on your looks/taking it too seriously/not going to fit in; too casual and you are not taking it seriously/not appealing enough/don't get the culture of the company. Don't even start me on the difficulties of hem lengths.

Lets be brutal here, your fellow employees can never be your friends. You work together. It is a professional relationship. Never cared much what other employees think of me but I have never been unethical to get ahead and you are now judging those who have got ahead to automatically be unethical and have no friends.I found this a pretty depressing idea. I'd hate to work somewhere there was no one I could be friends with. Sure you might not be life long buddies, more a Facebook friend level of acquaintance ;-), but having a level of personal relationship is often helpful to working together. Recently I worked on a difficult case with a workmate who I have known for some years and get on really well with. Because we knew each other so well we were able to conduct a very useful meeting with the employer together, even though we hadn't worked together like that before.

I don't think Anna is saying only people who act unethically get ahead, and in fact she's talked about her own experience as a leader (presumably this counts as someone who has got ahead?).

Anna said...

I don't think you necessarily have to be unethical to get ahead (I'd like to think I haven't been), but you can often get further ahead, more quickly, by being unethical. My way is slower, but I'm much more comfortable with it. What people consider unethical differs, of course - I personally wouldn't want to do or condone anything anti-worker to rise through the ranks quicker. Most of us have seen people who'll draw attention to any deficiencies in their colleague's work to make themselves look better. I personally feel I have an ethical responsibility to support my colleagues to do good work (and vice versa), not wait for them to trip up so I can gain from it.

Sarah said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sarah said...

In my experience with being recognised - I think it is important that I push it as otherwise I become dissatisfied, don't work to the best of my ability and end up leaving. Perhaps you could think of it as a responsibility rather than competitive?

That is not to say that I am overly promoting but just know that recognition is an important part of my motivation. There are times where it hasn't happened and I have had to battle to get it, but rather than seeing it as competitive with others, more about seeing that my work is acknowledged.

But there have been times when it doesn't work - recently stuck in a big project under an old boy who couldn't make a decision - management was more comfortable dealing with an old bloke than a youngish woman. Arrrgh! Drove me nuts.

Anna said...

Sarah, I agree with you - I think recognition is important. Without it you tend to feel unappreciated or even a bit used by your employer, and like you, I find it harder to get the motivation going in that situation. I just don't like the idea of having to compete or draw attention to myself to be regarded as having done a good job.

The best bosses I've had have taken an active interest in my work, so I've felt like I haven't had to be a showpony. I quite like the weekly meeting I had with my previous boss - we planned the week's work, checked in about ongoing stuff, and she obviously kept an eye on what I was doing so I didn't have to draw it to her attention.

Sarah said...

Anna - completely agree with you. If you have a boss like that, you are lucky. Unfortunately that isn't always the way it happens, more's the pity. I am sure we have all been managed badly (what in NZ?) and those are the situations I was talking about. I'm afraid I get a bit righteous about it (in my mind not in my attitude otherwise no doubt I would be the shrew) - I deserve to be recognised god dammit - and that pushes me to push them. Nothing like a bit of indignation to push me on!

BTW new here and really liking it!

Anna said...

Hey Sarah - glad you like THM and great to have you here! I don't think you sounded righteous at all, and I definitely have moments of feeling under-appreciated. In my more bitter moments, I tend to get annoyed at colleagues who have got ahead by being the 'squeakiest wheel'. But I figure there's not much that can be done except supporting a change to the culture of your workplace by behaving differently and bringing different values to your work. Not exactly a quick fix! ;-)

Anonymous said...

I have an overdue libary book lying on the floor of my room, "Why Women Don't Ask", which I very strongly recommend. It is written by 2 women who have done research on women & negotiating in the workforce. They acknowledge that there are two issues contributing to women earning less than men for the same work. One issue is simply that women are raised to "not ask" (we are raised to be 'nice', non-demanding, caring, maintaining relationships/friendships - even with our bosses).

The other reason is the sterotypes that people have mean that even when women "do ask" they are disadvantaged more than men who ask are.

The book sites many interesting studies. In one study participants were paired up with each other, but couldn't see each other. The only thing they knew was the gender of the other person. One of pair had to divide $10 between the two of them by making an offer of some of that $10 to the other person. The other person could either accept what was offered - or refuse it and both of them would go home with nothing. On average men offered women significantly less than they offered other men. This study shows that there is an expectation that we have in society, based on gender alone, that women are used to receiving substantially less money than men & that women are happy with that.

Another study that surprised me in the book showed that men were hired as orchestra members much more frequently than women were hired. This continued until a standard screen was introduced into the auditioning procedure - after which men and women have been hired into orchestras at about the same rate as each other. There was a stereotype that men were better musicians that women could only overcome through a gender blind audition.