Women are going to have to start bragging if they want to close the pay gap

Be loud.
Be loud.
Image: Reuters/Mark Blinch
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You’d think that simply performing well at work and helping others would be enough to get you the recognition you deserve. But as a woman you might as well shoot yourself in the foot. Not only will you be less likely to get that pat on the back, you might as well kiss goodbye (or will at least struggle to get) that overdue pay raise or promotion.

If you want to move up the ladder, you need to be your own personal cheerleader because people are less likely to do it for you. You need to brag. You need to wave your arms and point to specific results you’ve produced or accolades you’ve earned.

There are probably several reasons this idea makes you nervous. For one, you may fear you’ll actually get penalized for bragging (in which case you wouldn’t be entirely off base; we’ll cover that in just a minute). More likely, you’re simply worried that it won’t feel right to brag. After all, “your work should speak for itself”—only it doesn’t if you’re a woman. You don’t have the luxury to fail upward like the average white male, and you certainly don’t have the benefit of the doubt from those around you that you’re as accomplished as your male peers.

Still the second sex

Back in 1949, Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Second Sex about how “the woman must ceaselessly earn a confidence not initially granted to her: at the outset she is suspect; she has to prove herself. If she is any good, she will, people say. But worth is not a given essence: it is the result of a favourable development.”

Almost a half-century later, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, found that little had changed. Her 1995 book Beyond the Double Bind: Women and Leadership cited multiple studies showing how women still were not given the benefit of the doubt for their achievements. “A man’s competence is more likely to be presupposed, a woman’s questioned,” she wrote. For example, in a survey of Massachusetts lawyers, 63% of women said they had been asked by court workers whether they were attorneys—double the percentage of men who were asked the same thing.

Our insistence that women provide ample proof of their skill before we trust that they know what they’re talking about, combined with the presupposition that men belong and are capable until proven otherwise, has given rise to behaviors like ”he-peating“—which is the act of a woman saying one thing, and a man then repeating the idea, at which point it’s accepted with authority, perhaps seen as brilliant, and almost certainly remembered as being his idea in the first place. The dichotomy in how we view women and men around the table also might explain why women are interrupted more by both genders—it’s not just men who are skeptical of their female peers.

Even taking human interaction out of the equation doesn’t help. In 2016, a study in the American Sociological Review (paywall) showed that when two identical lawyer résumés were sent out with traditional male and female names on them, the male candidate was three times more likely to be called into an interview.

How does all that skepticism play out for women in the workplace? For some it might be motivating, but for others it might be dangerously self-reinforcing. As de Beauvoir wrote in The Second Sex, “Feeling a negative judgment weighing on one rarely helps tone to overcome it.”

Faith in the system?

Of course women with accomplishments worth crowing about shouldn’t have to brag. No one should, which is the point Microsoft’s Satya Nadella clumsily tried to make a few years ago when he suggested that negotiating for higher pay wasn’t the optimal route to success at an organization. “It’s not really about asking for a raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will give you the right raise,” he said. The fact that he was speaking to an audience of women, at the annual Grace Hopper Celebration for Women In Computing, made his remark all the more controversial.

Iconic female leaders like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, through her Lean In book and subsequent movement, have been pushing for women to speak out stronger and louder than ever before. At this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Shelley Zalis, founder of gender-equality advocacy group The Female Quotient, told me women have “no chance” of getting the promotions they deserve if they don’t brag about themselves more.

But yes, there can be a backlash when women trumpet their accomplishments and ask for a promotion or a raise. As with most everything else at work, women contemplating the choice to brag can expect more inherently negative variables to how an employer or colleague, male or female, would view them. To wit, there’s the oft-cited truth that where strong-willed men are seen as authoritative or assertive, a woman can be seen (pdf) as “bossy,” “boastful,” “bitchy,” or “aggressive.” (It’s not just men that see it that way; women perceive other women like that, too.)

Women already earn less on average, and not just because of the plain old sexism in doing the same job for less money. They are more likely than men to do unpaid work (including volunteering more) and more prevalent in lower-paying industries; they are still economically punished for being the only sex that can bear children, and are woefully disparate in representation in senior roles, all of which helps create a wage gap so huge that the World Economic Forum can’t see it disappearing for another 200 years.

In a sense, there’s not much for women to lose by asking for more. But of course there is, because studies show (pdf) women are penalized more than men when asking for a salary increase.

That’s why Sandberg somewhat sheepishly advises that women be careful to frame their achievements in terms of the collective benefit of the organization. It’s why she also argues that women not only need to be more vocal about their credentials and achievements—they need to also get a seat at the table to negotiate their futures.

This story is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work. Read more stories here.