I’ve had a lot of difficulty viewing myself as smart—or, at least, as smart as my peers.
Some of those feelings are rooted in my family history, but there’s also an aspect which is due to the misguided notion that it’s not okay to acknowledge your own strengths or you’ll be seen as conceited.
A few months ago, I was thinking about applying for an internal job change for a more advanced technical role, but I was extremely hesitant to apply. I had been preparing for this shift for months, and I routinely got feedback that I was doing well, but I couldn’t internalize that feedback. Every time I received praise about my performance, I dismissed it—in my outward response, but also internally.
Surely, I couldn’t be worthy of that praise, could I? And how would I be treated differently if I broadcasted my talents in a job application? I wanted to get the job, but I also wanted to be seen as a team player without assuming I was better or deserved this job more than anyone else. Positioning myself as “not smart enough” felt more comfortable, even if unpleasant and at odds with my ultimate goal.
How should women present their achievements at work?
This norm can be present for everyone, but it’s especially strong for women in the workplace. Helen Paterson, Professor of Sociology at Örebro University, found that women tend to be praised at work for traits like empathy, sensitivity, and helpfulness, while for men, it’s deemed “appropriate” to be self-interested and technically self-confident.
For Black women, there is a unique set of constraints based in racism that further narrow the perception of what is acceptable. Writer and editor Maura Cheeks notes that this systemic racism makes it so “many people feel as though they can’t be their true selves in the workplace at the risk of seeming unprofessional.” In other cases, Black women are even seen as threatening when they climb the professional ladder.
The social norms on what is considered appropriate workplace behavior place women, and especially Black women, in a difficult position. To conform to the ideal, they must display attentiveness to other people’s needs above all else. Even if that means devaluing themselves in the process.
We see this play out all the time when giving and receiving compliments. The script usually goes something like this:
“Wow, I love the way you did X.”
“Oh, it’s nothing. I could have done XYZ better. So-and-so is much better than me.”
The value we’ve collectively placed on being humble, and especially on women being humble, is a way to enforce a power differential.
According to the dominant social norms, women are caretakers, focusing on others. Men are leaders with the ability to take charge. When women self-deprecate, it reinforces this perspective. Some women may actually feel less confident, but it’s also a strategy.
But does this strategy actually serve us? Or are we limiting our possibilities by accepting the social norms that are prescribed for us?
My colleague Justin and I recently had a conversation about this (asynchronously—via the power of excellent remote working tools and processes). He has had a very different experience with self-deprecation.
“I’ve never worked in marketing before coming to Zapier. I’ve noticed people assume that I know things, then not extend the same assumption to team members with more marketing experience. Sometimes people address me as though I run the blog and/or content, even after I state that I do not. I don’t think it’s a coincidence this happens to me, the only male on an otherwise all-female team.
This kind of privilege—this assumption of competence—is, on some level, why I not only get away with, but benefit from, my level of self-deprecation. No matter how many times I say otherwise, people assume that I know what I’m doing. The joke works because people assume it’s not true…even when it is.”
For Justin, a white male, self-deprecation reads as a quirky personality trait because he is already assumed to be great. The truth is, he is great—but that’s irrelevant. Statistically, Justin is likely to be afforded more access and opportunity at work—and therefore more power—than I am as a white woman, more than women of color would be, and significantly more than Black women in particular.
Because of this, it’s a revolutionary act when women actively flip the script.
When women balk social norms
In an interview last year, Simone Biles declared herself the best gymnast there is.
“It’s not out of cockiness. I’ve won five world titles and if I say, ‘I’m the best gymnast there is,’ (the reaction is) ‘Oh, she’s cocky. Look at her now.’ No, the facts are literally on the paper.”
She’s right, and it’s not her responsibility to diminish herself professionally so others may feel better about themselves.
Lately, I’ve felt myself starting to change the script too. In another article, I wrote, “I’m also really smart (paint nails emoji), and my opinions are valuable.” I said this nonchalantly, but I was scared to declare that publicly. It took guts.
I’ve been practicing accepting compliments at work as well—retraining myself not to deflect, but to accept the praise that I’m given. When a colleague thanks me for helping them resolve a tricky issue, my first instinct is to chalk it up to luck or downplay my efforts. Instead, I’m working on acknowledging their gratitude and respecting my own skill set with a simple, “I’m so glad I could help!”
I paint too, and I’ve rarely shown my work. When I have, it was always accidentally, or with a lot of disclaimers. Recently I posted one of my paintings on Instagram and unabashedly proclaimed, “I am a great artist.” It feels scary to make these declarations. I still have the thoughts: “Will people think I’m full of myself? Does this make me unlikable?” but it also feels powerful and strong.
Celebrating my strengths does not diminish my ability to keep learning, growing, and being open to feedback and ways to improve. Instead, it gives me a sense of ownership and value.
Celebrating your own strengths as a woman should not be threatening to others, but in reality, it is.
Declaring myself smart and an excellent painter is powerful. It challenges the status quo. But it’s not enough.
How can we change things in the workplace?
The root problem lies in the gendered norms that we’ve chosen to accept as a society, and so a real solution can’t be attained by an individual’s behavior at work. Psychiatrist Prudy Gourguechon, referring to an article in The Atlantic by Stéphanie Thomson, argues it’s the employer’s responsibility.
“The onus to change is on the workplace. Rather than exhorting women to up their confidence game, each workplace must make deliberate efforts to track and acknowledge everyone’s work contributions and develop “specific policies and collective structural changes, [which] would do far more to help women get their work recognized than any pep talks aimed at boosting their personal confidence.”
I’m lucky enough to work somewhere that has already taken on this responsibility. Here are some of the ways we’re working on this:
Performance reviews structured to reduce bias. This is done by requiring evidence-based comments, a common framework where managers practice reducing individual tendencies by comparing employees with set standards, constrained prompts to limit gendered feedback imbalances, manager accountability for their judgments, and awareness and unconscious bias training.
Funding employee resource groups (ERGs). Katie Dunlap, from YourCause, defines ERGs as “groups of employees with shared interests who come together to support each other and learn from one another. ERGs typically align around demographics or life circumstances. ERGs are often a place where professional and personal development, support, information sharing, community outreach, networking, recruiting, and shared experiences are found. These groups are a safe space for those who self-identify to find support, but they are also a place where allies of that group can show and find support as well.” We currently have two ERGs, Out at Zapier and Womxn of Zapier, and we’re working on adding more.
Host allyship training. Most recently, we had a roundtable discussion on “Shifting from ally to accomplice.”
These steps are a great start, and I feel especially hopeful because I know our team is working on much more to come.
It’s great that I’ve been able to shift my focus from downplaying my success to reveling in it. What’s more revolutionary is that I’ve felt supported in doing so.
I am smart and I am an excellent painter, and that’s because I’ve worked really hard, I’ve had exceptional teachers, and I have a great support system. With the encouragement of my manager, I did apply for that job—and I got it.
I look forward to a time when making these declarations is not out of the ordinary, but I won’t be shy about my successes in the meantime. Neither should you.