Running Fairygodboss, I hear a lot of opinions about what women should do in order to be successful. Most of it is amazingly helpful and thoughtful. But sometimes, I hear things that are well-intentioned but worrisome (and potentially misleading) in their simplicity. The one piece of well-meaning advice that bothers me the most? “Just work hard.”
I hear this advice everywhere from panels on leadership to articles about how to advance your career. Former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer gave an interview in which she said:
“My husband [the venture capital investor Zachary Bogue] runs a co-working office in San Francisco. He runs his company out of there and other startups cycle through. And if you go in on a Saturday afternoon, I can tell you which startups will succeed, without even knowing what they do. Being there on the weekend is a huge indicator of success, mostly because these companies just don’t happen. They happen because of really hard work.”
Commitment and dedication are important to achieving goals and working hard is obviously a key success factor for many professionals. The problem is focusing exclusively on hard work — because while research shows that hard work is correlated with success, the jury’s out on whether it’s sufficient.
There’s an overwhelming amount of evidence that others’ assumptions and unconscious bias affect us in the workplace. And so does gender inequality. A recent MIT study found that women were 14% less likely to be promoted at one company — and that “a major factor preventing women from being promoted is that they are consistently judged as having lower leadership potential than men.”
Managers at the company used the common “nine-box” grid to rate their employees on both their performance and potential for growth. Women were actually more likely to receive higher ratings on their performance but rated lower on the potential for growth. “Potential for growth” is a deciding factor for who gets promoted — but its abstract nature also leaves room for gendered bias.
“What is commonly talked about in terms of management and potential are characteristics such as assertiveness, execution skills, charisma, leadership, ambition,” Professor Kelly Shue, who led the research, says. “These are, I believe, real traits. They’re also highly subjective and stereotypically associated with male leaders. And what we saw in the data is a pretty strong bias against women in assessments of potential.”
Women’s hard work is being accounted for in the present — but they’re facing bias against their futures.
Women are good at working hard. If that was really the answer, full stop, wouldn’t there be more women in leadership, making equal pay? Working hard for your success means more than putting your head down and putting in a great deal of effort; it also means taking control of your brand making sure that others know you are working hard and it means asking for the rewards.
Case in point: We may be unduly influenced by swagger (also known as self-promotion — something research has shown men to do more without inhibition) and therefore under-value those who toil away earnestly but more quietly.
Indeed, one study concluded that “Of all the strategies used by women, making their achievements known—by ensuring their manager was aware of their accomplishments, seeking feedback and credit as appropriate, and asking for a promotion when they felt it was deserved—was the only one associated with compensation growth.”
Self-promotional behavior — including asking for what you want/have earned — matters. Yet research shows that women, even the most senior ones, still struggle with it. Even if we recognize women for their achievements, women need to voice their skills and show they’re ready to take the next step if they really want to land that promotion.
The bottom line is this: Don’t buy into the career advice that it’s enough to work hard. Working hard is only one part of the puzzle. If you want that promotion or raise, use your swagger and ask for it.
This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of Fairygodboss.
Georgene Huang is the CEO and Co-founder of Fairygodboss.