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To achieve gender equality, women need to tell our own stories

9 min
A woman sits in a room surrounded by others holding a microphone to ask a question
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When it comes to women’s aversion to talking about ourselves, I have a front row seat, coaching women in their 20s and in their 70s, across industries such as media, technology, the arts, nonprofits, and beyond. Whether I’m talking to a CEO or to someone just starting out, I hear the same anxieties: That to talk about their accomplishments will be seen as bragging, which will be a turn-off, and will, in fact, undercut, rather than elevate, their power.

We all have stories to tell—but as women, we’re often too afraid to tell them. The #metoo movement has shown us the power of overcoming this fear. When we share our stories of trauma, we build our collective strength and can hold abusers to account. What might happen if we began sharing stories, too, of our talents and triumphs? What might that movement look like, and what might it make possible?

When women speak out, it can spark everything from disdain to death threats, so our fear is understandable. But it’s also an insidious tool that the patriarchy uses to keep us down. We have no alternative: We must make it our business to overcome our fear of expressing ourselves, and to hold accountable those who punish us for that expression.
But first, you have to be willing to take up space yourself.
This article is a call to action to every woman who feels squeamish about telling the story of what she’s up to in the world, and yet, is passionately committed to gender equality: If you have internet access, I call upon you to begin sharing your voice in intentional and powerful ways online. Publishers call this deliberate cultivation of an online following “building a platform”; your platform might include social media activity, a personal website, maybe even a newsletter. Once you have a platform, you can use it to lift up other women’s voices. But first, you have to be willing to take up space yourself.

Self-promotion as a form of storytelling

The kind of stories I’m calling on more women to share constitute what some people might call “self-promotion,” a term that, let’s face it, causes many women heartburn (right up there with “bragging”). I deliberately use the term “storytelling,” not only because it’s more palatable, but also, because it emphasizes that talking about our accomplishments is most effective when those accomplishments are framed as part of the larger story of our lives. Of course it makes women self-conscious to think about promoting themselves, when too often, we equate self-promotion with simply reciting our credentials; lists of titles, places worked, and degrees obtained are boring for our audience, and we know it, because they bore us, too. Lists also don’t feel like authentic representations of who we are—and how are we expected to enthusiastically share something that feels inauthentic? What's more, stories are what get people’s attention in this distracted, hypermediated world. Stories are what honor our professional contributions not as disembodied wins, but expressions of our talents and commitments — of who we are.

Speaking up in a world that conditions us to be quiet

It’s important to note that women’s aversion to self-promotion is no accident. As Cynthia Pong, Embrace Change founder and author of Don’t Stay in Your Lane: The Career Change Guide for Women of Color, observes, women “have been socialized not to draw attention to ourselves.” We live in a world where advertising and other media—as well as so many other aspects of our culture—condition us to speak only in ways that please men, and to take up less space, often literally (my 8-year-old daughter recently told me that designing a memoji version of herself on my phone made her feel fat, because of the body shapes available).

What’s more, as Cambridge University classicist and author Mary Beard notes in her aptly named book, Women and Power: A Manifesto, “When it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of years of practice.” So, if you hate talking about yourself, you’re not alone, and you’re not to blame—this aversion isn’t about personal weakness. However, that doesn’t mean complacency is an acceptable strategy. What progress have we ever made in this world by accepting the status quo?

Data about women’s fear of self-promotion

I want to make it clear just how insidious the pressure is for women to make themselves small. In a 2019 study I helped design called The Self-Promotion Gap, we found that the majority (83 percent) of women value hearing about each other’s accomplishments; no big surprise there. What’s more surprising is that a majority (69 percent) of women would rather downplay their own accomplishments than talk about them. Think about that: We would rather seem like less than we are.

Women’s relationship to self-promotion appears to vary by age and race: Women over the age of 55, for example, are a lot more likely to downplay their strengths and abilities (66 percent) than women under 55 (53 percent). Think of the inspiration that could be getting passed down from one generation to another, but isn’t. When it comes to race, African American (44 percent) and Hispanic (47 percent) women are far less likely to downplay their strengths and abilities than white (60 percent) women.
A graph showing that 49% of black women, 31% of hispanic women, and 33% of white women are comfortable talking about accomplishments to family and friends
Graphic credit: Katie Commodore
And yet, as the aggregate numbers I shared above make clear, women as a whole are more comfortable downplaying their accomplishments than they are mentioning them at all. Consider this: When it comes to talking about our accomplishments in front of a room full of strangers, many women would much rather run errands in the rain (47 percent), quit social media for a week (43 percent), or clean the bathroom (42 percent).

Let me say that again: 42 percent of women would rather scrub the toilet than talk about themselves.

This data is depressing, but when you consider it alongside data about the state of gender equality in this country, it becomes downright tragic. According to the World Economic Forum, if we continue apace, we aren’t likely to achieve gender equality in the U.S. for over 200 years. Is this ok with you? It’s not ok with me. Not at all.

The good news is, we’re far from powerless—but we need to start using our power. It’s time to get off the sidelines and into the spotlight, for our own sake and that of other women.

Powering the path to equality

My arguments rely on the assumption that when women gain power, we get closer to gender equality. But this raises the question: What, exactly, is power? Is it money? Is it the ability to influence decisions at the grandest scale? Is it simply having some sort of authority over other people? Or could these be intrinsically male definitions of power, and might female power look different?

The author Mary Beard once again offers insight:

“You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure. That means thinking about power differently. It means decoupling it from public prestige. It means thinking collaboratively, about the power of followers not just of leaders. It means, above all, thinking about power as an attribute or even a verb (‘to power’), not as a possession.”

Melinda Gates, has observed that women “don’t always have equal access to formal authority—not yet—so we exercise power through the communities we create.” Lifelong advocate for women and girls, Pat Mitchell, whose resume includes co-founding and hosting TEDWomen and penning the book, Becoming a Dangerous Woman, writes, “Advocating for each other is how we change the power paradigm.”

These assertions suggest, and I believe, that women coming together, advocating for each other, and amplifying each other’s voices, are all paths to building women’s power. The internet lets us do all of these things at a scale that’s much harder to achieve in an analog way. I’m reminded of how the women in Barack Obama’s White House made a point of repeating each other’s ideas in meetings:

“...Female staffers adopted a meeting strategy they called ‘amplification’: When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution—and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.”

Now imagine a meeting with the exponential, worldwide reach of the internet.

How to create a strong online platform on purpose

You may be thinking, “How could anything I share with my small number of followers possibly make a difference?” To you, I say: It’s time to grow your platform, on purpose. In the fight for equality, we owe it to each other to increase our power and influence so we have more to share with others who need it. Or, as Cynthia Pong, the career coach to women of color that I mentioned earlier, tells her clients, “We need to hear more voices that have historically been marginalized. Sharing your story gives other people permission to feel like they can be seen and heard.”

Let’s say you’re ready to create a stronger online presence. Where to start? Here are a few tips:
  1. Give yourself permission to write the way you actually talk. Let go of business jargon and tell me about yourself and your work the way you would in a conversation with a human being around whom you feel unjudged and at ease.

  2. Also give yourself permission to follow people on social media who actually interest you. If you work in healthcare and the “top” healthcare accounts on Twitter leave you cold, then instead follow the economist whose posts you find thought-provoking and/or the poet whose posts move you. Trust that engaging with content that compels you will inspire you to share your own compelling content, in turn.

  3. Pick a social network that makes you feel most at ease. Some of my clients feel completely stilted on Twitter but free-and-easy on Instagram; others take immediately to LinkedIn. Don’t try to be everywhere, certainly not at first. Yes, take into account which social network is most relevant for your industry, but above all, pick a place to be where you actually want to spend time—this will enable your best and most powerful self to come through.

  4. Consider launching a website at yourname.com. Feminist entrepreneur and force of nature Cindy Gallop (her tagline: “I like to blow shit up. I am the Michael Bay of business.”) recommends this strategy in a video that I highly recommend watching; she notes that yourname.com is likely to come up high in the search results for your name, thus giving you a chance to influence the information people first see when they look you up. (I should note that Gallop uses the term “personal brand,” and I firmly believe brands are for companies and products; people, on the other hand, don’t have brands, they have stories. But her advice is still brilliant.)

  5. Look for hashtags and other social media campaigns that offer an opportunity to amplify other women’s voices. A great example of using social media to lift each other up is the #WomentoFollow Twitter campaign started by journalist Rose Horowitz; as its name suggests, #WomentoFollow highlights women’s accounts on Twitter that other women recommend following. Another hashtag of note stems from the #SharetheMicNow campaign, where white women with large followings handed over the keys to their accounts to Black women for the day; this effort continues with #KeepSharingtheMic.

The words we use and the stories we tell shape our world. As Netflix’s Bozoma Saint John told Forbes magazine, “None of us will have any impact or influence if we are quiet. So don’t be quiet. Be loud as hell.”

See you online.