Big Yourself Up

How to stop others taking credit for your work

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Moya Crockett
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Big Yourself Up is a regular column exploring the ways women can boost their self-confidence, get better at self-promotion and resist being sidelined in the workplace. Want to know how to make sure you get credit where credit is due? Read on… 

Picture the scene. You’ve successfully pulled off a major task at work (nailing an important presentation, soothing an angry client, filing a complicated report), and you’re feeling all the feelings: relieved, exhausted, proud. Your boss approaches your desk, and you sit up a little straighter, ready to receive the praise that is surely inevitable. Then: “Good work, Paul!” they say, winking at the guy who sits across from you. Wait – what?

Unfortunately, it’s not unusual to feel like your contributions are invisible in the workplace. Whether it’s the colleague who repeats exactly the same points as you in meetings to widespread nods of approval (when your comments are greeted with blank stares), or the co-worker who barely contributes to team projects but somehow still gets all the glory, credit is frequently not given where credit is due.

For women, this phenomenon is often gendered. History is littered with examples of women whose ideas and achievements were attributed to men, from British chemist Rosalind Franklin – who conducted vital research into DNA in the Fifties but who was left out of discussions on the subject for years – to American biologist Nettie Stevens, whose discovery that sex is determined by chromosomes in male sperm is often ascribed to male scholars.

The problem persists in the 21st century. Research shows that men are much more likely than women to get a positive response when they pitch ideas in a team setting, and women who work on joint professional tasks with men are routinely seen as playing a less influential role in the project’s success (their male counterparts, in contrast, are frequently presumed to have taken on leadership roles). To complicate matters, it’s not just external observers who assume men are doing the lion’s share of the work: one study found that women tend to undervalue their own contributions in collaborative contexts, and overestimate the importance of their male colleagues’ work.

But there are ways to make sure that you’re properly recognised for your achievements and ideas. Scroll down for five strategies for how to stop other people taking credit for your work. 

Don’t be afraid to highlight your achievements 

Shout about your successes whenever they occur 

“Women tend to be more reluctant to attribute work to ourselves,” says Alice Olins, co-founder of the Step Up Club. “Men have it easier – it seems more masculine to big yourself up, whereas there are more complicated feelings around women ‘showing off’.”

But while the stigma around ‘arrogant’ women is real, it’s mighty difficult for someone else to accept praise on your behalf if others already know what you’ve been doing.

When working on a project, don’t keep your head down and hope your boss will simply notice your efforts; instead, keep them updated on how you’re getting on. Circulate an email to relevant people after you’ve had a breakthrough, tell a funny anecdote that highlights how you’ve been dealing with a client, or simply bring up your progress in the kitchen while you wait for the kettle to boil (“Oh, Sue, I just wanted to let you know that the project Dave and I are working on has been going really well – I’ve been handling X side of things, and he’s been doing Y”). Think of it as groundwork to ensure your work isn’t attributed elsewhere after the fact.

“Women need to make sure their work is visible,” says Mariam Jimoh, founder and director of the Women in the City Afro-Caribbean Network (WCAN). “Make sure there is evidence of what you’ve been doing – people can’t say someone else did the work if they’ve seen you doing it from beginning to end.”

Use ‘I’ not ‘we’

“See this? This was all me”

While we’re on the subject of how to talk about your work, we need to discuss that word: ‘we’. It can be tempting to wave everything off as a team effort, but it’s important to be honest if you did most or all of the legwork.

“Speaking in the ‘I’ form obviously means you’re attributing the work completely to yourself, but it also sounds much stronger,” says Olins. 

She points out that your boss might not be as oblivious to your contributions as you think – and if they see you regularly claiming that everyone chipped in when they didn’t, they might start to think you lack confidence. “You have to be really careful and make sure you have your own back.” 

Speak out in the moment 

“I can’t believe he thinks this was all his idea”

If someone compliments a colleague on something you’ve worked hard on, you might be so taken aback (or angry) that you’re rendered temporarily speechless. But it’s important to act decisively in these moments to ensure your contributions aren’t glossed over.

Confidence and career impact coach Jo Painter recommends using the reflection technique, where you agree with what’s been said before flipping the focus back onto yourself.

“Going into conflict is a bad idea and will only make you look defensive,” she says. “Instead of saying, ‘Why are you telling him he’s done well when it’s my work?’, respectfully acknowledge what’s been said, then bring the conversation back to your work.”

She suggests using the following loose format: “‘I agree, John’s work has been great. I was particularly proud of these aspects…’ Pull the attention back to you, and be specific about what you’ve done.”

Reflection can also be useful if someone claims ownership of one of your ideas in a meeting by ‘hepeating’ it (the term coined by US academic Nicole Gugliucci to describe the moment “when a woman suggests an idea and it’s ignored, but then a guy says [the] same thing and everyone loves it”).

“Say something like ‘Great, I’m so pleased you all agree with the point I was making before so-and-so carried it on’,” says Painter. “You’re not calling them out, but you are bringing it back to you.”

Follow up quickly 

Make a point of correcting someone quickly if they mistakenly attribute your work to someone else 

It won’t always feel appropriate to speak out immediately if someone else has been praised for your work. In these situations, Olins recommends sticking to the five-minute rule.

“If you can’t bring yourself in the moment to say, ‘Actually, it wasn’t Steve who did that work’, you’ve got five minutes to correct the problem,” she says. 

Follow up with whoever made the comment, preferably in person, and say politely: “I’m sure you didn’t mean to make that mistake, but I just wanted to reiterate that it was actually me who ran that project. I’d really appreciate it if you spoke about it in those terms going forward.” 

Tackle the issue head-on if it becomes a problem 

Mariam Jimoh recommends setting up a meeting with someone who frequently takes credit for your work 

If you find that a particular colleague regularly takes credit for your work, you need to take action.

“If it’s happening over and over again, I would put some time in the diary with them and say, ‘It’s looking like I’m doing this work and you’re putting your name on it. You probably don’t know you’re doing it, but this is what I’ve noticed,’” says Jimoh. Even if you suspect they are aware of what they’re doing, she says, it’s best not to come across as confrontational. 

“If it continues after you’ve spoken to them, I would take the issue to someone more senior. You could try and be sneaky and play workplace politics – but realistically, the best way to tackle a problem is to nip it in the bud.”

The Big Yourself Up column is part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, a year-long initiative to celebrate women’s success and inspire others to follow their lead. See more Visible Women stories here.

Images: Getty Images