In my somewhat lengthy experience on both sides of the career transition spectrum as a coach and head hunter, I do find that men and women struggle in equal measure with identifying their success stories and self-advocating. I have been baffled, bothered and bewildered by men and women alike, as I try to figure out exactly what they actually do or did.
However, once men “get it” and what they need to do, self-advocating comes more easily to them and they tend to make more rapid progress than women. Their language choice shifts almost imperceptibly into norms that are culturally associated with success.
Women’s stories on the other hand are peppered with apologies, self-deprecating humour, weak vocabulary (helped, worked with, involved in) ascribing the achievements to “team efforts,” others, or simply chance ( “I got lucky.”) They talk in terms of ” we” rather than “I” and use passive language ” My team was involved in the implementation of xxx” as though this project magically created and implemented itself and produced results. I talked to one very senior woman manager who recounted her career story for exactly 8 minutes and 30 seconds before she mentioned a personal success or achievement, using the first person singular pronoun.
Self-advocating was a foreign dialect to her.
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Worse still, when women talk even factually about their achievements, they are either judged harshly or ignored, especially by other women. Men have the distinct advantage of delivering their new messages to a receptive audience. This is where the proponents of cultural change interject and say that male qualities, values and methodologies are more acceptable in any organisation today and supports this male style communication. Women shouldn’t have to change.
But that let’s us women off too lightly.
I would go on to suggest that if you don’t know what you’re good at – how do you expect anyone else to know? Would we buy a product if we didn’t know how, and how successfully, it would meet our needs? No we wouldn’t. This is no different. Self -advocating is about self insight and being able to put our value into words. This is the very core of the modern buzz word “personal branding.” In today’s highly competitive professional market, men and women alike need to know where and how they add value.
I have spoken and worked with a number of women in the last two weeks who have all had issues with this process from the most junior to senior level. One manager told me she didn’t feel comfortable putting her name on any results, rather than ascribing the achievement to her team.
All good managers give their teams credit where it is due. But at some point they have to give themselves some credit too. If there is responsibility, it will most definitely be assigned and so the credit should also be acknowledged.
I posed the age-old litmus test of accountability. If the team made a serious mistake who would be held accountable? Presumably the manager has created and approved a policy and strategy, hired, trained and supervised the team. If something goes wrong, it is usually the manager who will be called “upstairs” and whose job would be at risk. She would possibly be fired, usually walking out of the door very alone, clutching her potted plant and cardboard box. Not her team.
Accountability and responsibility should give women permission to say “I” not “we”. This when there is most definitely an “I” in team.
Given the many situations that are beyond our professional control, defining and communicating our message is one area where we have definitely have the power to take charge. Failure or reluctance to do this, puts women at a disadvantage.