Why are women so bad at self-promotion? Louise Voss considers how to get the balance right…
I’ve been a novelist for more than twenty years. When my first book came out in 2001, my publishers had to send me for media training because the thought of having to go on radio and TV to talk about myself made me feel physically ill. Since then, social media has ramped up the pressure, as have vastly increased numbers of published books and fewer mainstream publicity opportunities. These days I can do it without feeling sick – albeit often in a self-effacing and apologetic way.
Why do I and so many women find it difficult to push ourselves forwards? This hit home when I read a tweet by a male author: ‘My new book is out,’ he crowed. ‘You need to buy it because, honestly, it’s the best thing I’ve ever written.’ Wow. I could never say that about anything I published, even if I believed it. It just seems so… boasty. It makes me wonder how much my reticence has affected my sales, compared to those of more self-confident authors. I see tweets like that all the time, and they are almost always from men.
It would be a generalisation to say men are better than women at blowing their own trumpets. But women don’t self-promote as much or as easily as men, in all aspects of business. In 2020, a /Harvard Business Review/ study concluded female workers’ discomfort about broadcasting their skills and experience added to the gender pay gap.
I suspect that, for Gen-Xs like me, the reasons for this hark back to childhood: being told it is ‘unbecoming’ for a girl to push herself into any sort of limelight, whether academic or creative. ‘Women and girls have been told we don’t belong in the classroom, boardroom, or any room where big decisions are being made,’ Michelle Obama told /Vogue/. ‘So when we do manage to get into the room, we are still second-guessing ourselves, unsure if we really deserve our seat at the table. We doubt our own judgment, our own abilities, and our own reasons for being where we are. Even when we know better, it can still lead to us playing it small and not standing in our full power.’
This is so true, and so sad. If I’d known that being a success depended not only on my writing prowess but also on my ability and willingness to declare how great my books are – and, ergo, how great I am – I’m not sure I’d have gone into it.
Even successful females struggle with bigging themselves up. Author, screenwriter, columnist and podcaster Dolly Alderton was interviewed about her new TV series. ‘Is it any good?’ she was asked. Her reply was an embarrassed, ‘You can’t ask me that! I’m a woman – of course I’m going to say it’s rubbish!’ I found this heartbreaking.
So what can we do to overcome an apparently deep-rooted obstacle? The Center for Creative Leadership (ccl.org) points out: ‘When self-promotion is done well – matching style with substance – it’s usually interpreted as effective communication, managing up, networking, information-sharing, or relationship-building – all of which are very positive and respected skills.’
Sounds entirely reasonable, when you put it like that. And influential women in particular have an obligation to lead by example. If they encourage others to assertively call attention to their performance, it will eventually become expected, rewarded and normalised, rather than dismissed as pushy – as so often happens when a woman dares to put herself forward.
I’m finally learning that it’s possible and acceptable to be open and honest about your strengths and achievements, without bragging. I have a new book out in October and I’m determined to acknowledge positives. If I get a great review, I’ll have no qualms in sharing it by thanking the reviewer in a tweet. I will memorise elevator-pitch-type summaries of my work. And I already know about networking, possibly the most effective tool on social media. The more generous you are about others’ work, the more likely they are to reciprocate.
Hopefully, if we are all mindful about encouraging ourselves out of our comfort zones, we will benefit, in a thoughtful and creative way. And we will pave the way for generations of women to tell the world about their achievements too.