The Self-Promotion Stakes

My university has recently run a consultation exercise for women from different parts of the university and across the different grades (with the exception of researchers, for whom a separate event will be held later).  Various key messages have come out, which will be mulled over by the appropriate bodies in the university. One that came out loud and clear is that many women disliked the apparent need to ‘self-promote’ in order to get on. Not just a message from the academics either, but across all the grades.

To take a specific example, the annual university promotion exercise requires individuals to put their names forward. This scheme was introduced a good many years ago to replace what was seen as an old-fashioned and distinctly untransparent (and undoubtedly, upon occasion, unfair) system, in which you could only be considered for promotion if your head of department put you forward. This was obviously very unsatisfactory because it meant (too) much power rested with the head, who may not have always exercised that power appropriately. Any system that enables ‘old boy’ cronyism to be perpetuated has to be regarded as a somewhat dubious process.

The idea of a self-nomination process was meant to be much fairer, leaving the decision to apply or not in the hands of the potential applicant. However, the downside of this is that the applicant then has to try to judge when they are ‘ripe’. In some cases, they may feel they don’t know when that right moment is and feel awkward either about asking for advice or doing it cold. Some may even feel they have to wait for that magical tap on the shoulder from someone higher up the ladder, encouraging them to throw their hat into the ring. Undoubtedly sometimes that tap will come from a mentor or senior colleague who has your interests at heart, but – and almost certainly more often for someone who might be classified as a minority, be it by gender, race or sub-discipline – very often you can wait for ever and no one thinks to give you a nod. Thus, this more transparent system may still disadvantage those without a combination of strong self-confidence, mentors and/or a thoughtful head of department.  This, it would appear, may well still mean women unintentionally get held back.

In order to try to help people in this position, this year the University has rolled out a ‘CV mentoring’ scheme, so that people can get an objective view of how strong their case is before they decide whether or not to apply. This scheme has been run for the past few years in a more informal way by our Women in Science, Engineering and Technology Initiative (WiSETI) – and so was limited to women in STEM – but has been seen as so constructive that it is now, in the jargon, ‘mainstreamed’ for all disciplines in an official way.  It operates by women letting the centre know they would like advice, and the centre then matching them up with a mentor, usually in a related discipline. By running this scheme for women, we had hoped to get beyond the need for self-promotion, but (as one woman apparently put it to the person she went to for mentoring), ‘you need balls to approach someone for this advice’; even this step appears to be challenging for some. We’d hoped to get round this by issuing the instruction to the mentor that they should make contact and not wait for the mentee to pluck up courage to ring up someone they may regard as liable to be too senior to want to spend time with them. The mentee who made this remark, clearly did have balls enough to get the help she wanted; maybe we are still failing others.

The ideal solution would be for heads of department, or their nominated deputies, proactively to discuss just how strong their case is each year with all those  – men and women – for whom an application might be a possibility.  This happens to be something that has been done in my department for many years,  by a succession of heads of department, but quite obviously it is far from universal. If the head of department approaches the individual, and if this is the expectation year on year, then the need for anyone to ‘self-promote’ would be removed, even if the ultimate decision to apply or not rested with them. Advice to all heads of departments to do this proactively is now being promulgated; this too may help the less assertive.

Self-promotion of course has the potential to turn up in many other instances beyond the formal promotion process. If men are – stereotypically, certainly not all men feel good about it either – more likely to ask for an invited talk from conference organisers, or more likely to ‘volunteer’ for some high profile committee (let us note research council committees now operate much more by self-nomination to sit on the higher committees than was the case in the past) or ask for a pay rise, or any of a host of other roles or rewards, differences between career progression for men and women will continue. The system still works on a ‘male-by-default’ pattern of behaviour which has the unintended consequence of rewarding people for a character trait that most certainly may not be in the organisation’s best interest. It most certainly will equally disadvantage a certain proportion of the men, who feel no more confident self-promoting than many of the women. Equally, those women who aren’t so bothered may thrive. These comments are all vast stereotyped generalisations by way of illustration.

I don’t have a simple answer to this. People are different and no system can be perfect. However, it is clear that we, in our organisation at least and probably throughout the sector, need to make sure that it is made clear to women that a bit of self-promotion may be healthy rather than immodest and to provide confidence-building and assertiveness training for women from early on in their careers. Indeed, I would say throughout their lives. Equally, we need to be sure that our processes don’t simply favour the loud-mouthed or well-networked. These statements are easy to make and much harder to accomplish in practice.

But – and there is always a but – there is an additional twist in this story for the women. Study after study (although not specifically related to academia) has shown that women who ask for a pay rise, or push in other ways, can actually suffer for this. They may even get the pay rise, but their card has been marked as someone who is ‘not nice’ to know and thereafter held back in other ways.  In that situation it would seem women can be damned if they do and damned if they don’t. I have heard Londa Schiebinger, an academic based at Stanford who is Director of the EU/US Gendered Innovations in Science, Health & Medicine, and Engineering Project, tell a worrying story of what happened a few years back at Stanford. Women were coached in negotiation to help them get a fair salary. The administration was entirely used to men behaving like this, but in many cases the negotiations broke down when women attempted to do just the same; the administrators had not themselves been trained to adjust to this superficially ‘unwomanly’ behaviour and so reacted badly.  Sociological and psychological studies by Madeleine Heilman have shown how

women are penalized for being successful in domains that are considered to be male, and are disliked and interpersonally derogated as a consequence.

The issue of whether individuals need to self-promote, and if they do attempt to do this what the consequences are, is clearly not only pervasive across many sectors, but also immensely complex. Academic self-promotion when it comes to applying to move up the career ladder is just one example.

Finally, it isn’t only in our formal careers these issues may come to the fore. The recently announced UK science blogging prize from the Good Thinking Society required self-nomination. Maybe the organisers should scrutinise the applicants this first year, and try to deduce if their own process has deterred an appropriately representative number of women from applying. If the organisers are seeking young as well as older bloggers to participate, the lack of self-confidence may be even more apparent by the absence of youthful self-nominations. It has certainly been a topic of concern amongst my own particular circle – although heartening to see women pushing other women to overcome their reluctance and enter the fray, to the extent of ghost-written nominations being proposed, although I don’t think carried out.

I would be interested to hear to what extent people from other organisations feel the issue of self-promotion is a substantive one. Maybe many readers will feel that Cambridge is inherently a culture more prone to arrogance and self-interest than their own friendly working environments. However, I think the problem is likely to be widespread, if for no other reason than that academia has become so competitive.


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21 Responses to The Self-Promotion Stakes

  1. Claire Warwick says:

    I totally agree with this. I hate to have to promote myself and have written about it on my own blog here
    I found not only deciding to apply for promotion hard, but also the whole process of self promotion that you have to go through when writing your case. At UCL we have to write a self-assessment relating our achievements to the promotion criteria, the process of which is dreadful, if you are female. Some kind people offered to read and critique it for me (almost all male and more senior than me) Every time I did the typical female thing of hedging and saying I thought I might be one of the leaders in X, or that my work may have helped advance knowledge in Y, I was told to boast more and take out the qualifiers. I duly did so, and got promoted but I found the text that I had to submit horribly unrepresentative of me, because it sounded so arrogant and boastful, and, quite frankly unrealistic. I was actually embarrassed to have to send it in like that, and apologised to the referees I had nominated for the tone of what they were about to read. They all said ‘Not to worry, we know you have to say such things to get on’. Still, I found it, quite frankly, rather a humiliating process: it felt like begging for favour, rather than just setting up a reasonable case which could then speak for itself. To be fair, I know some men find it equally hard to do, and cannot understand why we can’t all just submit a CV without all the attendant puff and big up.

    Then, just when you have gotten over the embarrassment of all that, if you have been given a chair, you have to do yet more self-promotion in the form of an inaugural lecture. Unlike in Cambridge, it is not optional to do one at UCL. I tried very hard to get the then Dean to understand why I didn’t want to do one, but kind and considerate as he was in other ways he just could not understand my reasons and insisted I gave one. He thought I was being excessively modest, I think. I do believe very strongly that my wish not to be in the limelight and self-promote in this way is again gender-related (which I actually discussed in the lecture itself, which is again on my blog). It would be interesting to know if other women agree, and whether there are any gender differences in the numbers of people who choose to do inaugurals at Cambridge. Not being compelled to do one would, at least in my view, be a big contribution to gender equality that other universities could make.

  2. Speaking as a male who detests self-promotion I completely sympathise with the post by Athene and comment by Claire. But I’m afraid it goes on in all types of organisation. In my case I am pretty sure it was considered a negative characteristic by my previous employers and it didn’t help that I could sometimes be scathing to colleagues about those who did clearly self-promote. I see little way of changing it if all our current role models are doing it. Success equates with keeping yourself in the limelight so that you can be appreciated by those higher up in the pecking order. This happens even in a mainly female environment. Only a very small minority of those at the top of the ladder disapprove of the process. I suspect the system resets itself every now and then by the net social effect of cumulative self-promotion leading to an inevitable collapse of some kind. This has happened to past organisations and societies and I doubt it will cease imminently.

  3. Laura says:

    “Dislike of self-promotion” seems like rather odd reasoning. Is there _any_ professional job where getting a promotion doesn’t require both hard work and self-promotion?

    It also seems rather odd to claim that women are not able to accurately assess their scientific accomplishments, when accurately assessing the quality of scientific results (both in absolute terms and in terms of where to submit, what to propose, who to collaborate with) is an inherent part of the job. I would perhaps argue that deciding to apply for promotion is part of being ready for promotion (my supervisor (partly) took this attitude to his PhD students, as well).

    Perhaps a much more structured system would be more fair: Pay and promotion is X papers of impact factor Y with at most Z co-authors, and T invited talks at venues of prestige P, and N committees of rank M , and K patents, and L research funds, and so forth — all defined in careful detail. It would eliminate all judgment or need for self-promotion, but I doubt it would have the desired effect.

    I once had a colleague (not from the UK) refuse to submit a paper that was n pages long; his institute didn’t recognize papers that were fewer than n+1 pages. That way lies madness….

  4. I have staunchly ignored people who’ve told me I’m not ready for promotion yet at various stages of my career and this has definitely paid off: I got the title Prof aged 38 less than a decade after my first permanent academic job. Even writing that first sentence, however, makes me feel embarrassed — I was brought up not to boast and to downplay my achievements in case it made others feel bad (I had a less academic sibling). And I know the world out there hates women who boast: when I once claimed expertise (that I genuinely have) on Twitter, I got trolled by people saying things like ‘self-praise is no recommendation’ (and worse).

    I have a slightly different problem with academic career progression at present, however, because of the crazily flat structure at my institution. The title of Prof that I got in 2010 was purely that — it came with no payrise (it didn’t move me onto the professorial pay spine), and I’m now stuck where I was appointed on the lecturer payscale, with my real pay decreasing year on year, for the rest of my career if I stay in post. I have found it impossible to negotiate a pay increase because I have to sell my achievements in person to the higher-ups. When I won a major international book prize and two internal teaching awards last year, I made an appointment with the Head of School to ask for a pay rise. However, I didn’t feel that I could mention these achievements in the actual conversation, so I just said that it seemed odd to be a Prof and not on the Prof pay spine. Of course I had no success; the Head of School felt my pain but said it was shared by nearly everyone else in the institution.

    Short of getting a job offer from elsewhere (any takers?!), I’m now unable to progress any further. Later I heard that another colleague had invented a job offer with a big salary for exactly the purpose of getting an increase in his pay, and that this ploy worked. But it seems that I’m too honest to lie about getting a job offer from elsewhere, but not honest enough to mention my (actual) achievements.

    In my view, all this is definitely gendered. Girls have been advised to hide their intellectual achievements since at least the 18thC. Although I’m aware of all this and try to act against it, it’s difficult because the world around us agrees.

  5. Clare says:

    I am compelled to leave a comment because I recently applied for promotion myself – I wasn’t successful by the way – didn’t even make the shortlist…

    We have one annual promotion round across the University and having had a thorough read of the criteria and having had some encouragement from a couple of senior male colleagues, I decided to apply. I was fairly comfortable with the fact that I met all of the essential criteria (for promotion from lecturer to reader) and overcame my natural modesty to write the inevitable cringe worthy personal statement and was rather annoyed to find that I didn’t get shortlisted for interview. The shortlisting was done by my male Head of School, and the shortlist contained 3 males. I was told by my Head of School that my application was “very good” but that he had to shortlist 2 of the 3 males because they had been shortlisted last year but hadn’t been promoted. As if that’s an acceptable reason?? I don’t begrudge anyone else being promoted but the whole thing has made me feel so undervalued and demotivated. I work harder than most and am often the ‘go-to’ person when things need doing. My research has been productive and I have independently won grant funding, albeit on a workload I discovered that (on paper) is 25% higher than the male colleague who was eventually promoted on Friday. I realise that I will need to learn how to self-promote because that seems to me to be the difference between myself (quiet and get’s things done) and others (do very little but shout loud about it).

    • BB says:

      May I be the first to day: Good grief! That is awful.

      I desperately hope my own University has a more rigorous promotions procedure than ‘wait your turn’. We seem to be part way through a process of actually writing down what is needed so the whole process is becoming more checklist oriented which I think will help avoid the loudness bias. But the very fact that writing down the promotion criteria is a new wacky idea (in 2012) is pretty depressing.

  6. Steve says:

    I have always found the process of promotion in Universities very divisive unless there is an approach where everyone is seen each year and their case is discussed in the dept/school/centre where they belong. Otherwise it can get a bit like “well if X got promoted, so can I” and a little over competitive, which I can see could be offputting on gender lines – although not across the board (in that sense I would agree with Laura). In my experience though you do have to self promote and sometimes it is up to men to come out and push aspiring female colleagues to “go for it” in the absence of anyone else doing so. I did this a few years ago when I went for SL and encouraged a female colleague of mine to go at the the same time. She did, and got promoted. She said she wouldn’t have gone unless I encouraged her to do so. I was just as delighted by her promotion as my own. After all, if people in your department are not getting promoted, there is something wrong. Something terribly wrong in fact and symptomatic of lack of collective progress. All to often, and I have to say this has often been in my experience something that happens to female academics, is that they get pushed back. If they push forward they get marked as “pushy” or “over-ambitious”. Their male counterparts so often do not get tagged like this. So, we should all make a point of looking at our colleagues cases seriously. As a Professor I feel this is my duty to bring along new people and it is vital for the vibrancy and health of a department.

  7. Richard Van Noorden says:

    I think this goes on in all organizations, not just universities.

  8. Steve says:

    Sorry, only just read Clare’s story. All I can say is that’s awful. Maybe we need some pointers now from people on ways in which they can self-promote. We desperately need people who are good at their job in this sector to get promoted and not get put off.

  9. Observer says:

    “In some cases, they may feel they don’t know when that right moment is and feel awkward either about asking for advice or doing it cold”

    If feeling “awkward” stops you, you are not ready.

    • Ken Rice says:

      I think your comment illustrates, to a certain extent, the problem. What you seem to be suggesting is that self-belief is a crucial aspect of one’s ability to do a more senior job and that feeling awkward about asking for advice (and hence being uncertain about whether or not one is ready) automatically means you are not ready for a promotion. I think that this attitude disadvantages those who may be very good at what they do but have the decency to be self-critical and to be then unsure of whether or not they are really in a position to be seriously considered for promotion. The supposed existence of the Dunning-Kruger effect possibly suggests that we should be more concerned about those who are not awkward, rather than those who are.

  10. kaythaney says:

    Interesting post, Athene. I think some of your points here can be applied even more broadly than academic promotion, as well. Though, and I hope I’m misreading this, I’m not sure CV mentoring for *just* women is as much of a help as it may seem. That to me seems rather patronising to women, as if they’re the only ones who need the help, and may actually exacerbate the problem, be it a disparity in confidence, level of self-aggrandizement, etc.

    I went to a work placement school (known as a “co-op” school) in the US, where such a module (including writing a compelling CV / cover letter, interviewing – even behavioral interviews, evaluating job opportunities, knowing your strengths and weaknesses) was mandatory for all students, both sexes, your first year at university. Now, it was expected that starting the end of that year / early the next you’d be applying to real-world jobs, as the crux of the program was 6-month full-time work (and no class) back to back with 6-month full-time class (no co-op, though many did extend). It evened the playing field – and with dedicated staff, everyone knew who to go to for help, that appointed person often running this class.

    Self-promotion is difficult, even beyond the walls of academia. As a women working in science and technology dealing with those in industry and government, it can be staggering – but it’s necessary to get ahead (and needs to be done appropriately). And it’s crushing at times to hear from male counterparts that you’re being too boastful (especially if it’s self-projection – god knows some of the worst culprits would never stand for someone saying they were promoting themselves too much ;)). But that, to me, isn’t enough of a reason to just cower in the corner. It’s more about knowing your strengths, knowing when to play that card, and not feeling defeated (and letting the often ridiculous criticisms and fears fall away) – at least in my personal experience.

  11. LL says:

    Firstly.. as a participant in the gender equality consultations mentioned by Athene, I have to say that it was wonderful to have a forum in which to discuss exactly these sorts of issues, and hopefully have our concerns heard by ‘those in charge’.

    As a brief addition to the discussion of promotions once in an academic position, it has been my experience that my female colleagues are far more cautious in their approach to getting onto the academic career ladder, and are less likely to chose to apply for career development fellowships and lecturer positions than the men. Whilst several of my male colleagues have applied for and been successful in obtaining these postions at an early stage in their career, when one might not have thought they had the requisite experience and track record, the women (myself included) are holding themselves back until they get just one more paper published or just a bit more experience in their field. In light of this phenomenon, it is possible that CV mentoring would be equally helpful to early career researchers but this still requires them to self-identify as being a candidate for promotion. Perhaps this is an area in which senior academics (i.e. research group leaders) could be more proactive, by identifying and encouraging talented women to apply for such positions, rather than waiting passively to be approached by them for letters of support.

    Finally, I think there is also a lot of work to be done amongst younger women, going right back to undergraduate and graduate level. I have met and worked with too many female students who are either unaware of their talents and achievements, or feel obliged to be excessively modest about them (I fear often it is the latter… a cultural problem that is difficult to overcome). They frequently underestimate the value of their contribution to their group’s research and their intellectualy capacity when compared to their male colleagues and as a consequence they do not readily volunteer to give talks, voice their opinions in seminars, take on riskier research projects or generally do anything that puts their head above the parapet. Their general lack of assertiveness means they can easily be ignored, meaning they are less able to access precious resources (including time with their PI) and consequently less able to progress in their careers.

  12. Sarah says:

    I wrote a brief post related to self-promotion when I first started my blog ( I would agree with commenters who suggest that this is not limited to academia, but proliferates in many professions.

    I’ve found that self-promotion is easier amongst colleagues not at my university. They actually celebrate my achievements as they do their own, which makes it feel less like promotion and more like a friendly party.

    At my own university, however, even reasonable self-promotion has backfired disastrously. My dept chair told me he had been warned about me, and that I was considered pushy and someone who would do anything to get what she wanted. Never mind that all of my male colleagues do it, and to a much greater extent. I was the only one of my female colleagues (only 3 of us in the dept) who would even marginally self-promote, and that behaviour was considered unacceptable.

    Unfortunately I think this response to women self-promoting is not something we can get at through education, but through changing socialization patterns of what is considered acceptable behaviour for females and males. And that starts much earlier than the undergrad years…

  13. Nick says:

    Very interesting blog and postings. I first came across women failing to put themselves forward when an undergrad at Cambridge. When it came to student elections, interested and capable women seemed much more reluctant to stand than their male counterparts. We dealt with this at the time by having the President specifically seek out women to stand.

    Later, I’ve had the tremendous privilege to sit on appointment committees for senior roles in the public, private and third sector. My anecdotal experience suggests, candidates of talent, are most likely to apply if they are given regular positive and realistic appraisals. One public sector organisation I work with, seems particularly good at encouraging people to consider seeking to rise up the organisation.

    My only recent involvement with the higher education sector is a little less positive. On the administrative side at least, I come across many very talented people who seem to be stuck in a role. Although they do their role extremely well, no one seems to be helping them to see if they can achieve more. To give just one example, someone with lots of experience interviewing in other roles but no experience in their current role wanted to go on the university interviewing course. The course was undersubscribed but they were still not permitted to go because the course was only for those whose jobs required them to interview. This doesn’t exactly encourage self-promotion.

  14. Clare
    Your comment about the shortlisting being done by your head of School is exactly why in Cambridge we moved away from nominations coming from heads of department to self-nomination. Unconscious bias may be as likely to underlie ranking, when done by a single individual, as any absolute excellence (if such a thing exists). I am surprised a single person and not a committee makes such important decisions though, particularly if it then just ends up as ‘Buggins turn’. Good luck next time around!

    I absolutely agree with Ken you have missed the point. Awkwardness has nothing to do with readiness, only to do with character. Unless you believe only the arrogant or bumptious should get promoted regardless of the quality of their research, awkwardness in asking for help as a criterion should be irrelevant. It may matter far more if you are applying to be a head of department or dean, because then the inner strength to deal with other people’s awkwardness and ignore one’s own may come into play.

  15. Prof KR says:

    Very interesting post. When I came to my institution, the promotions process was shrouded in mystery, and I was told by a senior colleague that one went forward for promotion when one received the ‘tap’ from the Head of Department. Not very satisfactory. But while far from perfect, my institution and department have made real strides, as a result of pressure from various directions. Every non-professorial member of staff is now required to submit their CV and a research and teaching statement in a standard format each year to the departmental promotions committee (the professoriate). Every candidate is then considered by level in alphabetical order. There is no sense in which people “apply” for promotion; all staff are considered every year irrespective of whether they think they should be promoted or not. My experience is that this is a much fairer way to operate, that it takes pressure off staff to know when is the ‘right’ time, and provides a good opportunity every year to assess whether certain individuals need more support, etc.

    • BW says:

      This sounds fair but in large departments, reviewing every member of staff is going to be very time consuming for the promotions committee (it really wouldn’t be viable where I work); AND if done in alphabetical order, it will always be the same people (with names at the start of the alphabet) who get the most attention and the same ones (with names at the end of the alphabet) who only get considered briefly as time and energy in the meeting runs out. Perhaps you can encourage the occasional use of reverse alphabetical or some other randomised order…?

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