Not keen on big­ging your­self up? You might want to re­think that-self-pro­mo­tion is the key to ca­reer success and mental well­be­ing. So why do those who are less than hum­ble get a bad rap?


Be­cause not blow­ing your own trum­pet is get­ting you nowhere

There’s noth­ing quite like a quick scroll through In­sta­gram to fuel your con­tempt for other peo­ple. It’s the evening com­mute and you’re avoid­ing eye con­tact with strangers by star­ing at your feed, which con­sists of other peo­ple’s cats, other peo­ple’s ba­bies and other peo­ple’s din­ners. Then you stum­ble across a per­fectly fil­tered selfie of some­one you prob­a­bly used to work with but can’t quite re­mem­ber with the cap­tion: ‘Can’t wait for you guys to check out my new blog post!’

Now, an­swer hon­estly: what’s your reaction? Be­cause if it’s one of eye-rolling judge­ment, roll those eyes over this news: while most of us ex­pect cor­po­rate brands to ad­ver­tise, ap­par­ently the same can’t be said for in­di­vid­u­als like you or me. ‘Some peo­ple are put off by the com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of self,’ ex­plains Dr Janelle Ward, as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at Eras­mus Univer­sity Rot­ter­dam’s de­part­ment of me­dia and com­mu­ni­ca­tion. ‘Be­cause some of us are per­haps not used to see­ing ex­plicit self-pro­mo­tion on­line, it doesn’t sit right with us.’

And it seems those neg­a­tive re­ac­tions are am­pli­fied when the per­son do­ing said pro­mot­ing hap­pens to be a woman. Re­search from Rut­gers Univer­sity in New Jer­sey found that women who self-pro­mote were viewed as less like­able (and thus less em­ploy­able) than their male coun­ter­parts. And while we’re of­ten told to be more as­sertive in the work­place, a study by Stan­ford Busi­ness School sug­gests that it’s avoid­ing this trait, rather than chan­nelling it, that will help you scale the greasy pole. Re­searchers found that when women pos­sessed the abil­ity to turn off traits that are tra­di­tion­ally seen as be­ing more mas­cu­line – think ag­gres­sion and all-out con­fi­dence – they were more likely to get

pro­moted. There’s even a phrase for the re­sponse the pro­fes­sional world seems to have to as­sertive women: the back­lash ef­fect. It’s vex­ing – as women who ac­tively self-pro­mote can at­test to. ‘I use In­sta­gram like a mod­ern ver­sion of a showreel for pro­duc­ers who might give me work,’ says pre­sen­ter and body-pos­i­tiv­ity in­flu­encer Chessie King. ‘It’s al­lowed me to spread my mes­sage and show peo­ple what I’m about. Plus, I like to cel­e­brate my success with the peo­ple who fol­low me. But I’ve re­ceived hun­dreds of neg­a­tive com­ments, about 70% of which I would say come from women. While men tend to leave deroga­tory or sex­u­alised com­ments, women are a lot more per­sonal. It used to make me think twice about what I posted so I would hold back on shar­ing, but now I re­mind my­self who I’m do­ing it for – and it isn’t the haters.’


It’s es­ti­mated that in 80% of all so­cial me­dia posts, we’re talk­ing about our­selves, ar­guably turn­ing these plat­forms into an end­less stream of self-pro­mo­tion. But if the vast ma­jor­ity of us are do­ing it, why do we judge each other so harshly? ‘There is a widely ac­cepted stereo­type that women have to be hum­ble,’ says Dr Sharon Coen, a se­nior lec­turer in me­dia psy­chol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Sal­ford. ‘The very sec­ond you’re not – when you dis­play your com­pe­tence and empowerment – that con­tra­dicts the ex­pec­ta­tions of a woman. That con­tra­dic­tion is at the root of the neg­a­tive reaction from others.’ And it seems this stereo­type runs deep – so deep that it has the power to in­flu­ence your own be­hav­iour through­out your life. ‘From the out­set, girls are so­cialised not to be as­sertive as it con­tra­venes those gen­der stereo­types,’ adds Dr Joan Har­vey, a se­nior lec­turer at New­cas­tle Univer­sity and char­tered psy­chol­o­gist. And as women get older, Dr Har­vey ex­plains, they’re also en­cour­aged to present them­selves as ac­cu­rately as pos­si­ble, while men are en­cour­aged to over­state their achieve­ments. It means that while we’re just as ca­pa­ble of blow­ing our own trum­pets from time to time, we’ve been con­di­tioned to leave them in a drawer to gather dust.


It’s worth re­mem­ber­ing that self-pro­mo­tion isn’t just lim­ited to so­cial me­dia; you’re much more en­gaged with it than you might think. ‘You do it all the time, whether you re­alise it or not,’ adds Dr Har­vey. ‘It’s not a spe­cial skill that you switch on and off. When you dress nicely for a party, put on make-up to hide a blem­ish or write your dat­ing pro­file, you are pre­sent­ing a ver­sion of your­self.’

Per­haps one of the most im­por­tant places to self-pro­mote is in the work­place. Sue Un­er­man is chief trans­for­ma­tion of­fi­cer at UK me­dia agency Me­di­a­com and au­thor of The Glass Wall (£9.99, Pro­file Books), in which she ar­gues that what is hold­ing women back isn’t a ceil­ing, but their in­abil­ity to speak the same work­ing lan­guage as men. While writ­ing the book, she in­ter­viewed hun­dreds of men and women, as well as the peo­ple who hire and fire them. ‘What we saw time and again is that women think that do­ing a job well is all they need to do. It isn’t. You have to let your boss know that you’ve done a great job – not just so they know, but be­cause your male col­leagues are do­ing it,’ she ex­plains. And it isn’t just about climb­ing the lad­der. Un­er­man be­lieves the ret­i­cence women feel when it comes to shout­ing about their suc­cesses is lead­ing them to un­der­value them­selves. ‘What be­came clear [dur­ing the in­ter­views] is that women don’t ask for enough pro­mo­tions or pay rises and, even if they do, a “no” will make them go away,’ she adds. ‘One re­cruiter I spoke to told me he reg­u­larly deals with roles with six-fig­ure salaries. When he of­fers a woman £100k she will say thank you very much and ac­cept. When he of­fers a man £100k he will say thanks, but I need £150k.’ Not only does this in­flu­ence the gen­der pay gap, ac­cord­ing to the Fawcett So­ci­ety – a women’s equal­ity char­ity – it also in­flu­ences the gen­der bonus gap, which of­ten re­lies on ne­go­ti­a­tion.

This need to self-pro­mote be­comes even more vi­tal when you work in­de­pen­dently, such as run­ning your own busi­ness or work­ing free­lance. A new re­port by Kingston Univer­sity found that the num­ber of moth­ers who are free­lanc­ing has dou­bled over the past 10 years. ‘Free­lanc­ing is a way of es­cap­ing a mas­cu­line cul­ture within an or­gan­i­sa­tion,’ ex­plains gen­der equal­ity cam­paigner Polly Trenow. ‘It al­lows women to opt out of hav­ing to present them­selves in a cer­tain way to get recog­ni­tion.’ De­spite this free­dom, many women who work as ‘slash­ers’ – those who jug­gle sev­eral ca­reers si­mul­ta­ne­ously, like a make-up artist slash blog­ger slash PT – still claim they’re re­luc­tant to self-pro­mote for fear of look­ing pushy or boast­ful. But by go­ing ahead and do­ing it, you could gain vi­tal self-re­flec­tion, ex­plains Dr Coen. ‘Post­ing a selfie or reread­ing con­tent you’ve put out there about your­self is a way of mak­ing sense of who you are,’ says Dr Coen. ‘It can help you to un­der­stand and elab­o­rate on your iden­tity.’


It means that dusty trum­pet could see you miss out on ca­reer pro­gres­sion and money, as well as main­tain­ing your mental well­be­ing. So, when it come to self-pro­mo­tion, what are we so afraid of ? Well, big­ging your­self up is a gamble. ‘The prob­lem with self-pro­mo­tion is you’re not in con­trol of how other peo­ple view it,’ ex­plains Dr Har­vey. ‘You might frame a selfie or a boast as some­thing that’ll im­press and in­crease your so­cial sta­tus, but others might per­ceive it as boast­ing or self­cen­tred­ness.’ This fear of be­ing judged, it seems, is suf­fi­cient to stop you from do­ing it.

Case in point: the selfie. Mod­ern Mar­mite it might be, but we’d haz­ard a guess that while you eye-roll-and-scroll past other peo­ple’s self­ies, you let your­self off the hook should the desire to point and shoot strike. A re­cent study from Lud­wig Max­i­m­il­ian Univer­sity of Mu­nich con­firmed as much. De­spite 77% of the 238 par­tic­i­pants be­ing reg­u­lar selfie-tak­ers, they tended to


at­tribute greater self-pro­mo­tion mo­tives and less au­then­tic­ity to other peo­ple’s self­ies, while be­liev­ing their own to be more au­then­tic and ironic. This aura of au­then­tic­ity is par­tic­u­larly key when you’re pro­mot­ing your­self on­line, ex­plains Dr Ward. ‘We crave au­then­tic­ity in all our in­ter­ac­tions and re­la­tion­ships,’ she says. ‘But on­line profiles can be par­tic­u­larly tricky as you’re deal­ing with care­fully crafted bios without the help of nor­mal so­cial aids, such as non-ver­bal cues or fa­cial ex­pres­sions.’


So while you might spend hours de­lib­er­at­ing over whether or not to post that care­ful­ly­cu­rated trum­pet-blow – a pro­mo­tion at work, an award or some feed­back that caused your fea­tures to fall into #proud­face – the fact is you still have zero con­trol over how it will be per­ceived once it’s out there in the world. So is there such a thing as suc­cess­ful self­pro­mo­tion? Let’s talk about the humblebrag – an out-and-out boast mas­querad­ing as mod­esty, eg, ‘Ooh, your NHS glasses are way cooler than my Cé­line frames.’ De­spite its in­ten­tion to make peo­ple like you by cloak­ing a clear brag with a hint of hu­mil­ity, it ac­tu­ally has the op­po­site ef­fect. A 2017 study by Har­vard Busi­ness School found that the humblebrag is less ef­fec­tive than an overt boast be­cause it over­looks one crit­i­cal fac­tor: sin­cer­ity. While the hum­ble­brag­ger re­ceives the pos­i­tive feel­ing of not ex­plic­itly brag­ging, the re­cip­i­ent re­acts neg­a­tively to both the self-pro­mo­tion and the at­tempt to mask it.

The up­shot? If your in­ten­tions are sin­cere, it will trans­late. ‘Brag­ging in­volves an el­e­ment of in­ap­pro­pri­ate­ness, whereas it is per­fectly ap­pro­pri­ate to en­sure that you’re op­er­at­ing in a fair and equal work en­vi­ron­ment,’ says Dr Mar­i­lyn David­son, emerita pro­fes­sor of work psy­chol­ogy at Manch­ester Busi­ness School. ‘Don’t be afraid to speak out. It’s not about boast­ing, it’s about ca­reer op­por­tu­nity and equal­ity.’ Women’s Health Dig­i­tal Editor Amy Hop­kin­son agrees. ‘Self-pro­mo­tion is the best way to con­nect the dots so others can see what you’ve done and how you’ve done it,’ she says – some­thing she has learnt from jug­gling her role of well­ness in­flu­encer and am­bas­sador for ac­tivewear brand Lu­l­ule­mon along­side her day job.

‘Yes, some­times I cringe as I post a self-cel­e­bra­tory im­age, but the truth is that I’m no al­mond crois­sant: I’m never go­ing to make ev­ery­one happy. Now

I’ve ac­cepted that, self-pro­mo­tion has be­come a lit­tle eas­ier.’

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