In planning a group trip to an exhibit that my friend curated, I sent her a draft email describing her as “the superstar curator who hand-selected each piece.”
Let's call this call this curator friend Cynthia. Cynthia wrote back, “Two other curators worked with me on this (and may join us!), so I can’t take full credit.” She asked that I instead reference her with the significantly less exciting descriptor, “one of the curators of this exhibition." She was understandably hesitant to get all the credit and wanted to make clear that there were other people involved with the exhibition. While accurate, the new version was far less descriptive and complimentary than what I’d suggested.
Feel familiar? The balancing act women navigate surrounding self-promotion can be exhausting.
We can end up so focused on sharing credit and avoiding bragging that we dilute our actual impact. And it’s not an unreasonable instinct. Women can face negative consequences when they’re perceived to be boasting.
We’ve all heard confident women described as selfish, difficult to work with, or competitive. Too often, we talk about the confidence gap (that women are less confident than men) without acknowledging the bias and repercussions women can face when they’re “too confident”.
Here are three good workarounds to avoid triggering the gender bias while owning your accomplishments:
1) Find ways to share the credit without minimizing your role
It may be appropriate (and a nice thing to do) to note your colleagues' role, but it doesn't have to come at the expense of acknowledging your own work. I ultimately changed Cynthia’s description to, "one of the superstar curators who hand-selected each piece.” It allowed me to send some praise her way, acknowledge her impact, and subtly reference that there were others involved.
Rather than saying you “supported” or “helped with” a project, you could say you were “jointly responsible.”
If you’re leading teams, don’t forget that it’s ok to say so. It was only in writing this article months later that I learned Cynthia was the lead curator for the exhibition.
2) Attribute feedback and responsibilities
In my bio, I use the phrase, “Lelia is highly regarded for…” In business development calls, I say things like, “Some of the feedback I’ve received from clients is that…” Referencing clients’ perspectives allows me to substantiate the claim I’m making about my work and helps me avoid triggering the gender bias – the clients are singing my praises, not me.
Similarly I could have written in my bio that I work with both NGOs and businesses, but instead I write, “Various for profit and not-for-profit entities have commissioned Lelia…” By making the client the subject, I’m demonstrating that I’m sought after without explicitly saying so.
I find it frustrating to constantly adjust language to avoid the gender bias, so it helps me to remember that these are also just effective marketing strategies for anyone.
3) Ask for help
Around the same time Cynthia and I were workshopping her mini bio, her best friend had given her similar feedback. Typically, Cynthia would tell people where she worked without sharing her role. She said “[My best friend] kindly pointed out that I tend to downplay my career when I talk to people. She said, ‘You do a lot there, you have an interesting job and you should tell people what do you!' ”
Between our conversation and her best friend’s feedback, Cynthia’s perspective shifted. She’s more conscious of telling people what she does professionally and owning it. As she said, “Sometimes you just need permission to own your strengths.” Consider who in your life can help you acknowledge and share your accomplishments.
Cynthia recently told me, “I'm trying to embrace my superstar curator status.”