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How Women Leaders Can Tell Their Story of Success – and Advance in Their Career

May 25, 2023 Deana LaFauci

Raising your hand for big projects. Asking for feedback from your manager and applying it. Identifying new ways to cut costs and increase productivity on your team. Innovating and inspiring tremendous outcomes at a time of great instability. And yet, well-deserved promotions and opportunities for advancement don’t seem to materialize.

For many women leaders, this is reality—and this pattern is validated by the data. In 2022, a study from MIT Sloan associate professor Danielle Li found that female employees are less likely to be promoted by their male counterparts, despite outperforming them.

The study identified that, on average, women received higher performance ratings than male employees, but received 8.3% lower ratings for “potential” than men. The result? Female employees on average were 14% less likely to be promoted than their male colleagues.

What’s going on? The study points to consistent inequities in the talent systems organizations rely on to identify top talent and promote their employees and points to the bias that enters the promotion process and impacts a woman’s ability to advance, despite excellent performance.

Organizations have an obligation to address these inequities, remove bias from the promotion process and ensure a fair and equal opportunity for women to advance.

But, beyond these organizational factors, are there additional, individual behaviors that may be inhibiting a woman’s ability to advance? And if so, what can women leaders do to mitigate the impact of bias and inequality by adjusting their own leadership style or behaviors?

One of the most important competencies on the pathway to advancement is the ability to understand the value we bring to our organization and our teams—and to actively promote that value to our peers, stakeholders and managers. In order to advance, it’s critical that others recognize our confidence, too, and see us as confident leaders.

But how do we gain this “Recognized Confidence”? One action we can take is to showcase our superpowers through self-promotion.

In a recent Linkage survey, only 13% of women respondents reported that they promoted their success to their leaders and peers. Our research also shows that a majority of women (83%) have been inspired by hearing women talk about their successes and accomplishments, but 7 in 10 women (69%) would rather minimize their successes than tell people about them.

Self-promotion is not easy. It’s uncomfortable, and it doesn’t feel natural, for a lot of reasons—our Inner Critic and internalized bias weigh in, as well as our tendency to keep our heads down and get the work done without talking about our accomplishments.

Why is it so important for women to self-promote?

The data shows that simply doing your job well doesn’t automatically lead to promotion, and the pathway to advancement for women is especially mired in roadblocks.

“Women leaders need to actively communicate our superpowers and our unique value, competency and expertise to others,” said Katharine Panessidi, AVP of the Advancing Women Leaders Practice at Linkage, a SHRM Company. “Communicating your accomplishments and talents to others can’t be a once- or twice-a-year performance review task. We need to do this strategically and continuously.”

Self-promotion is like a muscle—and it can be uncomfortable to stretch at first. If you do it enough, though, it gets easier, and can become second nature. But you can’t get there unless you practice.

Putting Practice into Action: Bake a Multilayer Cake to Self-Promote

Here’s one approach to how women leaders can successfully self-promote. Every time you go to share out your accomplishments, think of it as building a multilayer cake. Each layer serves as a helpful guide to constructing the perfect self-promotional story.

Step 1: Establish the Foundational Accomplishment

First, build the foundational layer of your cake—what have you accomplished, and how can you communicate that accomplishment clearly and succinctly?

“Here is where many women leaders naturally choose to generously credit their accomplishment to others, especially those on their team,” said Panessidi. “You will have plenty of opportunities to raise up your team members and shine a light on their accomplishments. This is an opportunity for you to definitively showcase your accomplishment—and actively position it that way for your stakeholders.”

Instead of using passive language like, “My team achieved…,” reframe your language to put emphasis on your ownership of the initiative: “I led my team to achieve [outcome] by doing [concept].”

Step 2: Identify How You Made the Difference

In the second layer of the cake, explain the specific role you played and how you made the difference. Why were your unique strengths and skills crucial to success in this accomplishment? How did you uniquely add value in this situation? Share one or two key strengths you leveraged during the process.

Step 3: Describe the Impact on Your Organization—and Back It Up with Data

In the third layer of the cake, describe how your accomplishment positively impacted your organization and include the data to support the impact. Sharing data—qualitative or quantitative—makes your self-promotion less subjective and is a good way to ground your accomplishments.

“We know that there is still documented bias that exists in the workplace which impacts how women are perceived. This is why it is so important to tell a compelling story that relies on data to illustrate the impact you have on the organization,” said Panessidi. “Remove any question about your strategic role or value by serving up data points that support your story of success and empower your stakeholders to ask active questions and engage with your story.”

Step 4: Add a Strategic Lens and Drive Energy

In the final layer of the cake, clearly communicate why you are thrilled about the accomplishment by tying the accomplishment to a broader strategic initiative or opportunity. What doors does it open for both you and the organization? What’s the next step that you are excited about?

“Your role as a leader is to manage a team expertly to get the work done, but it’s also about opening doors for greater opportunity for your team and your organization,” said Panessidi. “Women leaders must embrace presenting their accomplishments as a job well done but also as a broader, strategic opportunity for future wins. Consider what the larger impact of your accomplishment is—and clearly communicate that to your stakeholders.”

Time for Cake!

Once you’ve “baked the cake,” it’s important to decide who you are sharing your accomplishment with. Make sure you are self-promoting to the right people, including people with more seniority and power than you. Identify and realize a variety of opportunities for self-promotion, spanning from an email to your manager, to a formalized report during your annual review, or even prompting a meeting with a senior leader.

Women leaders will experience hurdles on their road to advancement, including external bias and organizational barriers, but they also have the opportunity to tap into the power of their leadership to promote their stories of success. These stories we tell about our accomplishments in turn empower others to champion our leadership and chart a path forward for our advancement.

Linkage, a SHRM company, empowers women to scale the hurdles to advancement and realize their full potential, and partners with leading organizations to equip their leaders with the insights and skills they need to drive impact.


Dark haired woman watches from audience of conference event

Women in Leadership Institute

NOV. 13–16, 2023 | Orlando, Florida, or Virtual
A 4-day immersive learning experience designed to equip women leaders with actionable strategies to overcome the hurdles women often face in the workplace.

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Advancing Women Leaders

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