Stress to Impress: Why Women Still Struggle For Promotions

Being promoted at work depends on how well you perform, right? Wrong.

Promotion decisions are heavily influenced by supervisors’ subjective perceptions of an individual’s ‘promotability’, and these perceptions are heavily influenced by the way in which that individual behaves; specifically, on how well an individual self-promotes themselves.

The problem is that women face a frustrating paradox, and it’s a major reason why, despite decades of advocating for a greater representation of women in leadership positions, we’re still a long way from true equality of opportunities. The paradox goes like this:

(i) Self-promotion is necessary for vertical career advancement;

(ii) Women are often reluctant to engage in self-promotion;

(iii) Those who do are typically penalized for their efforts anyway.

Women in Leadership: still, a bleak context

As far back as 1973, studies have shown that women typically occupy lower job levels than men and therefore earn less than men overall. Further findings showed that females received lower initial job placements and were also less likely to be promoted than men with similar credentials.

“A woman is significantly less likely than a man to receive a promotion, other things being equal…unequal access to opportunities, rather than unequal returns, constitutes the principal source of male-female differences in employment outcomes” — Olson & Becker 1983

The growing education and economic independence among women has been a major breakthrough, and women are increasingly taking more active roles outside the home to pursue full-time careers. However, gender differences in pay, employment levels, and the types of activities that men and women perform in the labour market still differ significantly.

“The blunt truth is that men still run the world” — Sheryl Sandberg 2013

Whilst women comprise around 45% of the labour force across OECD countries, they continue to earn less than men on average and constitute an alarming minority among business leaders. In July 2020, women held just 6% of CEO positions in Fortune 500 Companies. On average, only 25.5% of the share of seats on the boards of the largest publicly listed companies in OECD countries are held by women, and whilst 8% of men on average across OECD countries attain managerial-level roles, the same is true for only 4.9% of women. Alarmingly, these figures have barely changed over the past decade; the women’s revolution has stalled and the promise of equality is not the same as true equality.

The question then becomes: what is it that prevents women from being promoted to top positions in the same numbers as men?”

Impression Management Behaviours

Career planning systems tend to be presented as rational, indicating that individuals should acquire appropriate skills, knowledge and experience if they want to enhance their chances of career success. Individuals who act in accordance with this belief are therefore confused when they fail to obtain the promotion they anticipated, having met the required criteria.

The reason is that they may have failed to use a powerful tool that could help them advance their career; namely, Impression Management, the process whereby individuals seek to influence the perception that others have of their image.

Promotion decisions are heavily influenced by supervisors’ subjective perceptions of an individual’s ‘promotability’. In fact, a 2000 study titled ‘Political skill at work’ identified a growing trend among organizations who are implicitly using political skills as selection criteria, focusing on employees’ self-monitoring, tacit knowledge, practical intelligence, social intelligence, emotional intelligence, ego resiliency and social self-efficacy.

The principal reason why employees should manage the impressions they create is that through the construction of “desirable” social identities, their social selves approach their ideal selves. Ultimately, the aim is to influence the way in which they are perceived by others and therefore, the way they will be treated by others. Engaging in Impression Management can thereby help both men and women to construct their desired identity for further promotion.

However, it is especially women who appear to be uncomfortable with engaging in Impression Management Behaviours. Women are reluctant to play the male-constructed ‘organizational game’ and prefer to trust in system fairness and good management for just rewards. They rely on extra high performance and commitment for visibility to their managers in contrast to the networking, self-promotion and ingratiation strategies that are popular among males.

In particular, self-promotion is the impression-managing behaviour which has proved to be paramount for hiring and promotion decisions due to its association with qualities considered to be prerequisites for many occupations, such as competence, confidence, and ambition. It is a primary form of impression management, which entails pointing with pride to one’s accomplishments, speaking directly about one’s strengths and talents, and making internal rather than external attributions for achievements.

Employees who want to pursue their goals and move up the ranks need to emphasize their strengths and project a confident image by engaging in self-promotion. Failing to exercise this ability to sell oneself, individuals risk falling behind their self-promoting peers and this is especially apparent among women, who have a tendency to downplay their achievements and abilities. Men typically display a self-enhancing bias, whereas women are more likely to be self-effacing; relative to men, women are likely to be more modest about their success.

Despite the fact that women have typically entered university with better achievement records than men, female students nevertheless set lower educational and vocational goals for themselves. Prior research has shown that women do not feel as entitled to financial rewards as men, and that only 7% of female professional-school graduates, in contrast to 57% of their male classmates made any attempt to negotiate their first salary offer.

“clearly, college men are more likely than college women to expect to do well, and to judge their own performance favourably once they have completed their work”. — Feldman-Summers & Kiesler

A Balancing Act

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the proportion of male to females in leadership positions plays a major role in determining which traits and characteristics are perceived to be positive and negative within an organisation. For example, where most leadership positions are occupied by men, it’s stereotypically male characteristics that tend to be viewed positively for the purpose of promotions. But it’s not the case that these will be perceived positively when they’re upheld by women.

Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, Dr Robin Ely highlights the balancing act between the two gender roles that women employed in male-dominated firms must play in order to achieve success: women have to be careful not to be too feminine on the one hand, nor too mannish on the other.

Her research showed that in firms where few women held positions of power, sex roles were more stereotypical and more problematic. Women in male-dominated firms evaluated feminine attributes less favourably in relation to their firm’s requirement for success. In sex-integrated firms (balanced, or near-balanced representation of male-female leadership), participants’ characteristics of women, while often stereotypical, were nonetheless positive. Her work showed that gender distributions of leadership positions can influence women’s behaviour given their identification with their own gender group.

Other studies have found that men report using tactics that are more consistent with the masculine gender role, whilst women reported using tactics consistent with the feminine gender role. Men generally reported using IM tactics such as self-promotion, favour-rendering, acclaiming, basking in reflected glory, sandbagging, self-handicapping, blasting and intimidation. The behaviours employed by men were more assertive and dominant tactics than those favoured by women, which included modesty, opinion conformity, hedges, apologies, excuses and supplication. The majority of tactics used by women are not only stereotypically feminine, but are also submissive or passive, contrary to those employed by men.

Men and women at the same level in an organization act differently, and men portray images of greater power, and use a wider range of impression management tactics than do women, which impairs women’s visibility and the perceptions of their suitability for promotion (Ref).

The Ultimate Paradox

According to social role theory, men and women behave differently given the different skills and beliefs they learn for the roles they play in society. For example, men are expected to be more agentic and women more communal. Accordingly, men and women are expected to behave differently in their organizations.

Historically, the labour force was predominantly male; leadership roles were thereby likewise occupied by men. In turn, attributes characteristic of successful managers, such as being assertive and decisive, are stereotypically male qualities, meaning that the female gender doesn’t “fit” with the idea of leadership positions. Consequently, when women compete against men for leadership positions, they need to engage in behaviours that are counter-stereotypical of their gender group and act ‘more like men’.

However, whilst assertiveness in a man may be viewed as appropriate and even desirable, studies have shown that this characteristic decreased women’s likeability. Therefore, women are faced with an important paradox. On the one hand, feminine impression management tactics, successfully used in social settings may prove detrimental to women in an organizational setting, where traditionally male-typed behaviours are rewarded. However, when these women engage in the requisite male behaviours, contrary to their intentions, they will often hinder their chances of promotion.

Professor Laurie Rudman termed this situation the backlash effect, highlighting the difficulty that women face given that, in following their ambition, they may violate normative expectations and diminish their likelihood of success in terms of salary and promotion. Whilst this gender-role constraint also applies to men, it is especially problematic for women in the organizational setting, since men’s social roles overlap with those required for organizational leadership, whilst those of women do not.

For example, similar studies found that successful female managers were perceived by others to be hostile, selfish, quarrelsome and devious in comparison to their male counterparts.

The paradox is thus prominent among women. Although they must present themselves as self-confident, competitive and assertive to be perceived as competent for leadership roles, in so doing, they are perceived as socially deficient and unlikeable by both males and females, making them unfavourable candidates when it comes to promotions. 

So What’s the Problem?

So long as the majority of organizations continue to be dominated by men, self-promotion will remain an indispensable impression management behaviour for career advancement. Few women will attempt to self-promote, and those who do will face the back-lash effect, as their efforts to do so will be negatively perceived. Essentially, whether women do or don’t self-promote, they will be doing themselves a disfavour.

Food for Thought — A Few Practical Suggestions

Importantly, it would be naive to ignore the normative argument that self-promotion should not necessarily be considered a favourable behaviour for career advancement. There is evidence to suggest that successful managers, defined as those who are promoted quickly, are often not the most effective managers, those who (i) get the job done through high quantity and quality standards of performance, and (ii) get the job done through people, which requires their satisfaction and commitment. ‘Successful’ managers that are quick to be promoted may be astute politicians, but they may be the ones who do not actually take care of people or get high performance from their units — is this really what a company wants?

Management Professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Dr. Fred Luthans identifies ‘combination’ managers as those who engage in a balance of activities that make them both successful and effective. When considering employees for promotions, managers should therefore consider a spectrum of different behaviours and not be so easily swayed by a candidate’s ability to portray themselves as competent for the role.

Until that is achieved, however, the first step is to change perceptions of women who self-promote, since leadership positions in most organizations remain male-dominated, and self-promotion is thereby likely to be a valued behaviour for promotions. In this context, women should be encouraged to self-promote.

In parallel, gender-group norms have to favour the organization, in such a way that identifying strongly to women at work and behaving in a stereotypically female manner will not be perceived unfavourably for promotions. This can be achieved through gradual organizational policy changes, and initiatives as simple as redrafting managerial role descriptions to emphasize feminine-typed qualities that are needed to excel in that position.

Both males and females need to reject the view that self-promotion is a typically male behaviour, and additionally, come to the realization that it is not necessarily the most important criteria on which to base promotion decisions anyway.

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