Visible Women

8 women tell us how they learned to big themselves up in the workplace

Posted by
Clare Considine
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Women have shied away from our own successes for too long. But unleashing your ego is the way ahead.

“Some call it arrogant / I call it confident,” sang Beyoncé on her song Ego from the album I am… Sasha Fierce. We love songs where women shout out, we love singing them loud and trying on their power. I’m every woman, it’s all in me. Sisters are doing
it for themselves. I am a champion and you’re going to hear me roar. But when the music stops, we’re not so hot at selling our greatness. Even Beyoncé developed the character of Sasha Fierce for when she needed to be pushy and loud and out there.

As women, vocally acknowledging our skills and generally blowing our own trumpets is toe-curlingly hard. But men, on the whole, have fewer problems with self-promotion. And they’re getting ahead because of it.

Statistics show that men are more likely to be given a promotion, pitch a successful start-up and earn more in almost every professional field than women. While we’re hiding our abilities under a bushel, men are happily shrouded in a warm blanket of self-belief. It starts early. Young girls are praised for being good and working hard. It’s actually easier for girls at primary school as they develop longer attention spans and more advanced verbal and fine motor skills earlier. Great in Year One, but it means girls absorb the lesson that being quiet, neat and working hard will earn them praise.

And the working world doesn’t function like that. We’re conditioned to be less brash than men. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie put it in her book We Should All Be Feminists, “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller.” In the workplace, this manifests as a reluctance to shout about our successes, an unwillingness to assert why we’re the best person for the job, or to demand that we are worthy of a promotion or raise.

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie put it: “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller” 

Recently, some have argued that women are going to need to start boasting about their achievements in order to close the pay gap. Could we actually level the playing field if we learnt how to embrace our own egos?

It’s no surprise that we dumb down our achievements and counter each compliment with an, “Oh thanks, it was nothing,” or speak of our accomplishments as team successes. A recent study by Arizona State University found men will usually estimate themselves to be cleverer than two thirds of the people around them, whereas women place themselves directly in the middle. We have an unspoken aversion to position ourselves above others. On top of this, we face hurdles in how we’re perceived.

“If a woman speaks her mind, she often gets negative evaluations because of it,” says Dr Sylvia Shaw, a senior lecturer in language and linguistics at Westminster University. “It’s seen as ‘too strong’, ‘too much’. But if a man speaks with a stereotypically female style – in a caring way, for example – then that’s applauded.”

But here’s the thing: sometimes, it really is all about you. Sometimes you are the best person for the job, sometimes what you have achieved is, frankly, stupendous and deserves to be yelled about. So embrace your whopping inner ego. There’s no need for shame.

Below, we asked eight straight-talking women how they bigged themselves up and got ahead. 

Anna Tobias, Head Chef at Rochelle Canteen, 31     

That time I didn’t big-up myself: Kitchens are
a team environment, so it’s hard to say, “Yes! That was all me!” Margot Henderson [the owner of Rochelle Canteen] once ate a lunch that I’d cooked and said to me, “Anna, that was amazing.” I was like, “Oh no, it was all of us”. And she reminded me, “When it goes badly, you get the blame, so when it goes well you can take the credit”.

And the time I did… There was a moment in my career when I realised that people were enjoying my food and I was getting noticed. I taught myself to own that a bit more. I stopped hiding behind the Rochelle Canteen name, started doing press interviews and getting more active on social media. Now I’m in a position to open my own restaurant.

My tips:

  1. As a younger chef I claimed my place in the kitchen by lifting things that were probably too heavy for me to prove I could. Now I’m happy for someone to give me a hand.
  2. Speaking up can change the work culture by having certain conversations.
I tell co-workers I’ve got period pains; I explain why it’s important we’re referred to as women and not girls.
  3. I only work in places where I feel there won’t be discrimination. Make sure that you feel comfortable with the environment you’re going to spend a lot of time in. 

Jess Phillips, Member of Parliament (Labour for Birmingham Yardley), 36 

That time I didn’t big-up myself: It happens a lot. I turn down media appearances every day, sometimes because of schedule problems but a lot of the time it’s just because of a lack of confidence or concerns about the fallout I’ll face. Often, when I then tune in to the thing that I said no to, there’s a bloke talking about it, who definitely is no better informed than me.

And the time I did… When I put myself forward for my seat, I had to fight a lot of feelings that I wasn’t ready, that it would have a negative effect on my kids and my family, but also that I simply wasn’t good enough. I had definitely decided that I wanted to be an MP and I made that decision with very little trepidation. But when it came to the moment to actually put myself forward for my seat I was considerably more nervous. I decided to be brave, though, and go for it and in 2013 I won the selection to represent Birmingham Yardley with 95% of the votes.

My tips:

  1. Think about how you’ll feel if you don’t put yourself forward for a position when it’s given to someone who is a bit meh.
  2. Find yourself an ally – a friend, a relative or a colleague to tell you that you’re being ridiculous and daft when you enter into
that almost inevitable period of self-loathing and doubt.
  3. Take five minutes to study some of the men with top jobs in politics. They ain’t all that, so why on earth do you think that you can’t do it if they’ve managed it?

Everywoman by Jess Phillips (£8.99, Windmill Books) is out now.

Luisa Omielan, stand-up comedian and writer, 35

That time I didn’t big-up myself: There have been plenty of social occasions where I haven’t had the confidence to speak out about what I do. I have always loved encouraging and supporting my friends instead, introducing them to others with their accolades and achievements, Bridget Jones- style. It’s easier to big everyone else up.

And the time I did… It’s worth remembering that others share the same anxieties as you. I’d been wanting to do Live At The Apollo forever and when I finally got the call, my mum had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. She died seven weeks later and made me promise that I would do it. Six weeks after mum died I was asked to film the gig. It was my first one back and I felt pure fear, but I told the audience about my promise and the love I received was overwhelming.

I have had so many beautiful messages from other people. It takes so much effort and energy to do anything good, so to be able to look at something and say boldly, ‘I made that happen!’ should be encouraged.

My tips:

  1. Imagine you’re a guy. Would he be shy to say what he has done? No, so get your alter-ego man out (who is actually your alter-ego woman; you just haven’t woken her up yet).
  2. Be honest and matter of fact: ‘I got this’. Yeah, you do. You are stating the facts.
  3. Be proud of it. Take a moment to revel
in your achievements. You have worked so hard for them, so use that moment to share them with others.

Luisa’s show Politics For Bitches is on from 3-27 August at Edinburgh Fringe,

Fatima Benkhaled, undergraduate studying electrical engineering at King’s College London

That time I didn’t big-up myself: I’m the first person in my family to go to university. In my first year there was a programme allowing students to complete a week-long work-shadowing placement at a corporate firm. I underestimated my abilities, worried about my lack of connections, undermined myself and didn’t apply. I promised myself I’d never do that again.

And the time I did… I got myself an incredible mentor at Amazon who advised me to take control. I started speaking up in class – where I’m regularly the only girl –
 and volunteering to present projects. I now speak to students, in particular young women, with an interest in STEM related degrees, highlighting the perks of what I’m doing. If you’d asked me a couple of years back if I would be as bold as I am today,
I’d have probably said you were speaking to the wrong person – but now I embrace every opportunity that comes my way.

My tips:

  1. If you’re not naturally confident, that’s fine. Just learn the art of being a chameleon and emulate someone you think is awesome. For me, it’s Michelle Obama. I love her presence, confidence and ability to make you feel like you’re the change needed in the world.
  2. Stop worrying about what others think. Own it, and go for it.
  3. Be assertive. You’re an equal to everyone around you. Sometimes you forget that the person you idolise is just a regular person. You’ll be surprised how far you can get by just being you. 

Radha Medar, A&R at Universal Records and co-founder of Metallic Music Management, 32 

That time I didn’t big-up myself: I moved to London when I was 19 because I wanted to work in music but getting my foot in the door wasn’t easy. Recently, I re-read my emails from that time and saw hundreds of jobs I’d applied for and never got a response. So I was bold and took matters into my own hands: went to clubs, parties and exhibitions to network; started DJing because I wasn’t hearing the music I wanted to hear. That’s when I started finding out about opportunities.

And the time I did… Things changed when I started to believe in myself and trust my gut. I’d worked at Atlantic Records for five years but when you’re in a big
company, it’s easy to hide behind people. So I started managing artists independently with my friend Grace Ladoja [music mogul and manager of Skepta]. She pushed me to quit my job and go it alone with her. She said, “You can do whatever you want, you’re great at your job, you just need to know it.”

My tips:

  1. You’ve got to have a level of self-respect and then people will respect you in return. Self-doubt is a bitch. If you don’t go for it, someone else will.
  2. Persevere. The worst that somebody can say is no. Then you just try again.
  3. Be the best at what you do and you’ll get to wherever you want to go. 

Jessie Ware, singer-songwriter, 33

That time I didn’t big-up myself: I used to be incredibly shy and nervous in the studio. I didn’t think my ideas were good enough to warrant talking over the other writers in the room. But sometimes I didn’t think their ideas were right either. The more I was in the studio the more I realised whoever speaks the loudest is heard, but theirs is not necessarily the best idea.

And the time I did… My attitude to writing for the third record, once my daughter arrived, was extremely focused. I set my working hours between 10am-3pm so I could have mornings with her and be there to feed and put her to bed. I made this clear and the producers and writers respected it. I felt proud of myself for doing it and seeing such positive results. It can be easy to say yes to everything, out of fear that you won’t work again if you disagree, but that isn’t the case.

My tips:

  1. Try new things. My podcast [Table Manners] has been a real triumph for me and my confidence. I had an idea, seized it and feel like it’s getting better and better.
  2. Don’t pit yourself against female peers. They may seem like competition because the men around you tell you that, but they aren’t. The more sense of sisterhood the better.
  3. Listen to people’s opinions but trust your own gut. I once got told to wear “more colour and more skirts”. Just laugh. 

Danielle Newnham, co-founder of F Equals and Female Innovators At Work author, 40 

That time I didn’t big-up myself: I remember letting another child take credit for my idea when I was younger. He was labelled a genius and I thought, “This feels rubbish.” Fast forward 20 years, and I was the only female on a team of older men. I’d let them take charge even when I knew I could do better. I vowed never to let that happen again.

And the time I did… During maternity leave, I was having a hard time as a new mum. To keep my mind occupied, I decided to write a book telling the stories of tech founders. I’d never written a book before, I didn’t know how to get a publishing deal and had to work on it between feeds. I ended up signing then terminating a publishing contract because I didn’t believe in the direction they were taking the book. I ignored the naysayers and self-published. Now I’m a successful author working on my third book.

My tips:

  1. Use Twitter and Instagram. On social media you can talk about your work and receive recognition in a much faster way.
  2. Find your tribe. Surround yourself with like-minded people. Not people who think the same as you but people with drive. Future Girl Corp, All Bright and The Wing are groups that will champion you, and celebrate with you.
  3. Fake it till you make it. Ignore imposter syndrome and find the voice that works for you, by giving talks, mentoring or writing. 

Ash Sarkar, political broadcaster and senior editor at Novara Media, 25 

That time I didn’t big-up myself: I left uni with a distinction at master’s level, but didn’t know what I wanted to do. I felt directionless and had a wilderness period just working in pubs. Looking back, it was an important time in which to say yes to lots of things. I gained a political sense of what was going on that’s become integral to what I do now.

And the time I did… I have to speak up every single day. It doesn’t matter how supportive my male co-workers are, people always assume they’re in charge even though we’re equals in the company.

My tips:

  1. Steer clear of those who don’t help you. Recently I was put forward for a column
at a newspaper. Their response was, “We already have a woman of colour.” This editor could only ever consider me for a token role.
  2. Let others underestimate you – it’s fun to prove them wrong and people respond to authenticity. Where I grew up, I knew women with long nails and hoop earrings who had the most robust political insights.
  3. Through collective response we can start making changes. It’s not about my pay cheque, it’s about all our pay cheques. Sometimes it’s only through antagonising the people in power that you get somewhere. 

We’ve launched a new regular online column, Big Yourself Up, exploring ways women can get better at self-promotion and resist being sidelined in the workplace. Read the first column here.

Stylist’s Visible Women campaign is dedicated to celebrating women’s success and empowering future generations to follow their lead. See more from Visible Women here.  

Images: Getty Images / Simon Buck / BBC Newsnight