The working world would be just perfect if it were a meritocracy, wouldn’t it? Those who do their jobs really well would steadily climb the ladder with ever-bigger paychecks, ever-greater recognition and the perks that go with it. But a lot of women reading this sentence are still waiting for the right things to happen in the wake of all their hard work, and noticing a whole lot of nothing is going on. So here’s the reality check, and some steps you can take right now to get what you want given that, no, life isn’t fair.
You can be very good at your job, maybe even the best of all your peers, but if you think the boss is showing up with good news solely based on your excellent performance, you could be waiting a very long time for the pay increase you deserve, or the promotion you think is a cinch. That mindset means you’ll keep watching others get that new title. And have more of those sickening moments of catching the whispered news that Bob, the guy with way less experience and none of your brilliant people skills, is now making way more than you.
While there are everyday injustices you can’t do much about, there’s something you can do that will make a dramatic difference to your career progress. Namely, make your excellence more visible—to your boss, your clients, and your industry.
People who cling to the belief that their great performance should be all it takes to advance tend to put little to no effort into assuring they have visibility. Maybe you’re one of them. You’re probably spread thin, especially if you’re a parent with those two full-time jobs. Yet, like it or not, visibility is one of the most fundamental ways to be perceived as highly valuable.
Here’s an everyday example of invisibility in action. If a bolder colleague—let’s call him Joe—is always the one presenting the thinking in a meeting, here’s what your clients, and maybe even your boss, can be thinking:
- She probably had less to do with the thinking
- She has no point of view
- She’s less confident than he is
- Joe's the leader
- She’s not that smart
- What’s her name again?
Your lack of contribution isn’t likely to be interpreted in your favor because much of the time, people fill in blanks with negatives. Whether you’re quietly relieved Joe is always taking the mic, or furious about it, you need to know how much this is working against you and start taking your turn.
Many women are uncomfortable speaking up in a meeting unless they’re 100% sure of what they have to say. So they hold back, assuming that’s the smart move. Guys operate differently. They just roll with it. If they’re reasonably sure, they’ll state an opinion. And if they’re wrong, well, people make mistakes. They can always correct themselves later, and move on. Men learned that when they were wrong, penalty was rare. They still advanced. Meanwhile the quiet women who thoughtfully erred on the side of caution wound up losing out. Women, we’ve got to get good with "maybe I’m wrong, and that’s okay."
One of women’s best opportunities for building a well understood personal brand is to participate in a panel, do an on-air interview or give a speech, yet women routinely turn down these types of invitations. A universal complaint from chronically frustrated event organizers: "The women always say no." Many of them are criticized later for not having enough women represented at the podium. "I don’t have time" is the most common explanation. But that suggests women don’t get that this should be seen as crucial to advancement, not just a nice to-do that ranks low on the priority list while juggling too much work and the demands at home. That’s how I saw it, for many years. While it’s always a trick to find enough hours in the day, the insight here is to prioritize what may look unimportant and pull out all the stops to do it. See these moments as opportunities to set yourself up for greater success and influence. New York-based entrepreneur Cindy Gallop sees a bigger opportunity for all women to benefit when we’re seen by larger audiences as role models. She puts her feelings bluntly: "Women, stop turning down invitations to speak and making us all look bad." She sees these occasions as perfectly designed for you to be known for your stake in the ground, for your point of view. And in the process make strides for our gender.
Ultimately, there’s another big reason women aren’t showing up, stepping into the spotlight, aren’t grabbing the mic. And that’s stage fright. Studies show most of us (men and women) suffer from some version of it, from mild to paralyzing. From leading the meeting to speaking on a stage—the thought of being a deer in the headlights may be what’s stopping you. This has been at play for me ever since junior high school. If I was joyfully belting out my solo in the lead role of the school play at age eight, I was shaking like a leaf buried in the chorus by "The Boyfriend" in ninth grade. Even though I’m an extrovert who made it to a C-level job, I still have stage fright in waves all these years later.
Today when performance anxiety rears up, I have some tricks to use before I walk into the room that really make a difference. These tools have been the difference between saying yes or no to that all-important shot at greater visibility. I see the first one as mandatory, the rest can be used a la carte. If you’re really sweating it, use the whole shebang.
It’s a step that should be obvious but most of us fall well short of having really thought through what we’re going to say in that high pressure moment. Write it out. Say it out loud. Boil it down to bullet points. Speak with your notes several times. Grab a trusted co-worker to listen before you deliver it. Refine again. Now you’re ready and you will be much calmer for having put the effort into it. You may not even need your notes when you’ve given your brain the chance to retain the main points. (There’s also no shame in using notes, BTW. No one cares.)
Which is to say, take social psychologist Amy Cuddy’s advice and release good chemicals in your brain that make you calm. By striking the Wonder Woman pose, or slightly less crazy looking runner’s stance crossing the finish line in victory (arms up, head thrown back, big grin), you’ll feel the black cloud of anxiety lift. It’s not like you have to do it in the middle of a crowded room. The ladies room stall is just fine.
Thanks to the nightmare experience of choking at Olympic soccer trials as a teen, cognitive scientist Sian Beilock devoted her career to understanding and defeating what’s made most of us blow it in the spotlight at some point in our lives. Her research revealed a way to fake-out the brain in times of high stress, for people prone to choking. Simply by taking 10 minutes before the event to journal about what you’re most afraid of happening, and what you most want to happen, you’ll relax and perform better.
Taking improv classes, or acting classes, may sound like the scariest possible experience for anyone with performance anxiety. But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and all. In fact, for me, both experiences in a weekend workshop made me feel more confident, better on my feet and less self-conscious. That’s translated to looking and feeling more relaxed.
Or your friend who cannot wait to get his turn in the spotlight. In my case it’s a former Unilever client. Rob is virtually dying to get on the stage. And when he does he’s so enviably relaxed and genuine, he always has the group eating out of his hand. Many times when I’m walking onto the stage or into the big meeting I’m silently repeating this mantra: "I am Rob. I am Rob. I can’t WAIT to speak." There are brain scientists who can explain why this works. I’ll just leave it at: it really helps.
Stage fright or any other barrier to the kind of visibility that means the advancement you deserve can be tackled today. Step one is knowing that life’s not fair. Let’s all get over it, and get what we want.
Janet Kestin and Nancy Vonk are the cofounders of Swim, a creative leadership training lab that works with people in advertising, marketing, technology, and beyond to create fearless leaders. Their latest book, Darling, You Can't Do Both, (And Other Noise To Ignore On Your Way Up) (Harper Collins), which inspired this column, is a career guide for women in any industry and at every level. Vonk and Kestin were previously the co-chief creative officers of Ogilvy Toronto, the agency behind Dove "Evolution" and other famous work for Shreddies, Maxwell House, and others.