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Why You Didn’t Get That Promotion

Six ways women hold themselves back in the workplace

didn't get promotionIf you’re eying that next level up the ladder, you might be wondering the best approach to get there. But in addition to doing the right things to ascend in your career, it’s important to be aware of what might stall your career. To keep you from wondering why you didn’t get that promotion.

To that end, career-intelligence polled a wide range of workplace thought leaders to explore common obstacles that may hold women back when they want to move forward. Here is a roundup of their top-line advice about what to avoid.

Going Overboard with Self-Sacrifice

Landing a promotion often requires saying that you’re better suited for the job than someone else. Yet according to Kate Kimpel, partner at Sanford Wittels & Heisler, women are socialized to cultivate the attribute of self-sacrifice.

“Self-sacrifice, when measured up against the self-promotion men are socialized to prize, means that women who should be promoted aren’t always pushing to get themselves to the front of the line,” says Kimpel. “It also means that when women do try to self-promote, there can be a backlash for failing to conform with the self-sacrifice that’s otherwise expected.”

Beverly D. Flaxington, author of Make the Shift: The Proven Five-Step Plan to Success for Corporate Teams, agrees that having too strong of a focus on others—for example protecting staff members, spending excessive time mentoring and coaching employees, and taking care of family members—without the balance of focus on self and career advancement, can keep women from moving on up.

“Bearing the responsibility for everyone is not easy to fix, especially when you are a ‘helper’ type of person,” admits Flaxington. She recommends writing out your personal desired outcome to determine where you want to go, and what success looks like to you. “Make the time for yourself in the midst of caring for everyone else so that you continue to move your career forward!” she says.

Kimpel recommends that women be more vocal and assertive about wanting promotions, developmental opportunities, and growth within the company. “Speak early, speak often, and always include it in any written mid-year or end-of-year reviews,” says Kimpel. “Don’t be shy about seeking promotions and don’t be overly generous to your competitors; if you’re doing a better job at work than other employees, remind your superiors of that fact during your promotion discussions.”

Treating Business Relationships as Friendships

“Women engage in office gossip and love to talk,” says career coach and entrepreneur Beate Chelette. “As long as you do that you will continue to mix the issues of work and personal likes and dislikes. This type of error in your judgment can be fatal to your career.”

Chelette suggests that work relationships should be based on respect and collaboration, not on friendship and personal likes. “Who cares if you like her or him or not?” she asks. “You are there to work and need to treat it like that.”

To improve the situation, Chelette recommends taking a hard look at your leadership skills. “Can people expect a consistent behavior from you?” she asks. “If you are still engaging in gossip, office talk, or lunch cliques, you need to change if you want to move ahead. The boss and your colleagues are not your best friends.”

Being Out of the Loop

Amanda Augustine, job search expert for TheLadders, says that women may be less likely to hear about potential openings if their professional networks aren’t solid. “Women, while typically considered to be better networkers, often have weaker networks compared to their male counterparts,” explains Augustine. “People naturally gravitate towards the same gender during networking.”

She points out that according to an International Business Report by Grant Thornton, 80 percent of senior management positions in American companies are held by men. As a result, a woman’s network is less likely to help her learn about new openings in the company or other strategic transitions that could result in an opportunity to move up.

To strengthen your network, Augustine suggests taking some time to examine it. “If you’re looking to be promoted within your company, identify who in your group has influence over those decisions or would be the first to know of any openings in the more senior ranks,” she says. “Make a point to become better acquainted with these people. Be more active in the company’s professional network and look for opportunities to ‘pay it forward.’”

Failing to Self-Promote

Some women believe that their hard work will speak for itself and the rewards will follow. Because of this, Augustine says that women are less likely to ask for a promotion. “We constantly walk this fine line between being perceived as either too assertive or not assertive enough,” explains Augustine. “We worry that promoting our achievements will be considered bragging, and that asking for the promotion or raise will be considered too aggressive. As a result, we are less likely to receive the spotlight for our accomplishments and might be looked over as a candidate for a more senior-level position.”

Lynne Sarikas, director of Northeastern University’s MBA Career Center, has noticed this behavior when working with students and alumni as well. “I’ve observed that some women are less aggressive or even assertive when it comes to their careers,” says Sarikas. “They are not pushing for additional responsibilities and visibility, they are not asking about the next promotion, etc.”

To avoid this problem, you have to get yourself noticed. “Typically women need to sell themselves better internally so management knows their capabilities and they need to be more assertive in taking control of their careers,” says Sarikas.

Augustine suggests that just as in a job search, being a contender for the higher ranks requires a personal branding strategy. “You can’t be considered for the role if you (and your accomplishments) are unknown to the decision makers,” says Augustine. Specifically, Augustine recommends that women volunteer to present to other groups in the company, actively participate in meetings when they can add value, and attend seminars and in-house training events.

Failing to be Positioned for Senior Management

Author and career, lifestyle, and etiquette expert Sandra Lamb says that many women in the workplace are still perceived as “hobby” employees. “The belief is that they do their job to fill vacant hours while their kids are in school, etc.,” says Lamb. “The proof, employers say, is the fact that they are the employees who must have time off for kid events, must leave the office at 5:00 p.m. sharp, and are never available on weekends.”

Sarikas notes that not all women dream of being in senior management. “For some it is more important to do work they love and/or work that has meaning and impact,” she says. But because of this, Sarikas points out that some women are making career decisions along the way that are not positioning them for senior management roles. “Some women will make career decisions that give them more predictable schedules, some flexibility in their schedules, reduced travel etc. to balance their work life responsibilities and to minimize their stress.”

This huge issue was recently thrust back onto center stage by Anne-Marie Slaughter’s cover story in The Atlantic called Why Women Still Can’t Have It All. Women who want to prioritize professional promotion opportunities frequently must make family sacrifices to make the pieces fit together at work—sometimes to the detriment of their home lives. “Often senior management roles require exposure to different divisions, product lines, and geographies,” says Sarikas. “Often women with family responsibilities do not transfer for career advancement.”

Focusing on What Other People Think

“We are fearful of not being liked if we shine and/or excel,” says Janice Brown, founder and senior partner in the Brown Law Group in San Diego. Brown says that women need to embrace success, not try to excuse it or complain about it to make others feel more comfortable. She suggests steering clear of those with a mindset of “Sure she is successful, but she doesn’t…” “Stay away from those kind of people, even when we are bored,” says Brown.

Career and executive coach Laurie Battaglia suggests that some women may need to change their mindset in order to get where they want to go. “Women often hold themselves back from promotion without even knowing it,” says Battaglia. “We each have a gremlin, that little voice over your shoulder that tells you you’re not good enough, smart enough, and are somehow an imposter in your life. To be successful in life and career, you need to be able to see yourself as that successful person.”

About Robin Madell

Robin Madell has spent over two decades as a corporate writer, journalist, and communications consultant on business, leadership, career, health, finance, technology, and public-interest issues. She is a contributing writer to U.S. News & World Report and serves as a copywriter, speechwriter, and ghostwriter for executives and entrepreneurs across diverse industries. She has served on the Board of Directors of the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association in New York and San Francisco. Robin is the author of Surviving Your Thirties: Americans Talk About Life After 30 and co-author of The Strong Principles: Career Success.


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