Women and the Claim of Visibility

This fall I spent time in San Francisco with one of my favorite clients, Leadership California.Every year, LCA brings together 50 high potential women in business, government, the non-profit sector and academia for four sessions intensive three-day sessions. The goal is to help them build and strengthen their networks, expand their understanding of the opportunities in their glorious state, and fast-forward their leadership skills. It’s a high powered and high energy group, and the sessions are superb.

This year, the group really resonated with my research about the challenge many women face in claiming visibility and getting acknowledgement for their contributions. So I thought I would share some of what we talked about in my blog.

In my years of studying women leaders, I have come to recognize that women with extraordinary skills are sometimes uncomfortable articulating their strengths. I first got a picture of how much this was true when I worked on a study of women partners in professional service firms, such as law, accounting, investment banking and consulting.

When I asked the women partners about the strengths of younger women in their firms, most of them said that the younger women did outstanding work. “Meticulous.” “Totally dependable.” “A-plus quality.” These were the comments that I frequently heard.

When I asked the women partners what the younger women were worst at, their response was almost universal. “They are worst at letting people know about the quality of the work they do.” That was clearly the consensus view.

So I asked the younger women if they thought they were good about letting people know about the quality of the work they did. Almost every one of them said she was not. So I asked why not.

What do you think they said?

They had mostly two responses. The first was some variation on “I don’t want to be an obnoxious blowhard.” This was sometimes expressed more strongly, as in: “If I have to act like that jerk down the hall to get attention, no thanks.”

The second response was, “My work should speak for itself.” That is, they felt that if they did superior work, people should notice without their having to point it out.”

How effective a strategy do you think that is? Any thoughts you’d like to share with me?

In my next posting, I’ll share with you some of the strategies we worked out in San Francisco– ways that women can claim attention in a way that is comfortable for them. What we concluded at our session is that it is not either/ or– that is, you don’t need to make a choice between being obnoxious and simply hoping that people notice your great work!