As a professor of management, I study negotiations, executive decision making, and women in leadership. There’s a trend in what the research on negotiation says about how attitudes toward promotions vary between sexes: Women typically see promotions and other opportunities for advancement as a reward for doing a good job. As a result, they tend to wait to be rewarded instead of actively negotiating with their bosses for new positions. In addition, women tend to believe they have to “check off” every qualification on the list before they can put themselves forward as a candidate for advancement. Men, on the other hand, are far more comfortable seeking promotions even if they only meet some of the criteria for a new role. As a result, far more men than women are comfortable giving a job opportunity a shot, even if it’s a stretch for them.
Clearly, women need to become more comfortable in pursuing promotions when they have some, but not all, the qualifications. But, importantly, it’s not a matter of them being unable or unwilling to ask. Women, research establishes, ask all the time, negotiating boldly and effectively on behalf of their teams, their companies, and even their families. But when it comes to asking for themselves, women are often more hesitant.
Considering these differences in how women and men approach promotions, I believe women can improve the outcomes for themselves with three steps:
Ask and advocate for themselves. Women need to more actively advocate for themselves, asking for opportunities and negotiating for themselves at critical junctures in their careers. (I define them as on the way in, on the way up, and on the way out.) On the way up, women should do more to target and seek out development opportunities, including assignments and promotions that increase their visibility and expand their skills and competencies.
Stop being too modest about capabilities. Women tend to be modest and often downplay what they are capable of and, therefore, what they could (and should) ask for in terms of promotion. A recent Korn Ferry/Rockefeller Foundation study of women leaders, for example, found that many didn’t realize they wanted to be CEO until the job was offered to them. They were confident in their abilities, but most did not envision themselves in that leadership role earlier in their careers.
Negotiate and build relationships. Women are often reluctant to ask for themselves because they fear damaging relationships. But it is possible to negotiate well and build relationships. One way is for women to take the lead, putting the issues on the table and framing the rationale for what is being asked for. Speaking first is the relationship-enhancing position, instead of countering an offer which is potentially relationship damaging.
Greater comfort in asking for themselves will open more promotion opportunities for women as individuals, while contributing to greater gender diversity in management and senior leadership positions. Women are significantly underrepresented in the talent pipeline, particularly at the highest levels. While organizations have to do their part in championing and developing more high-potential female talent, women can become better self-advocates by asking more for themselves.
Victoria Medvec is a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and executive director of the Center for Executive Women.