Modest moves towards better self-promotion

In a recent taped workshop, an executive at PwC, the professional services firm, shares that she’s uneasy revealing the brand-name organisations she’s advised for fear of “bragging”. Another says she’s hesitant to say the names of chief executives she’s worked with directly, lest it looks like she’s “name-dropping”.

These are common sentiments among female executives, according to Katie Orenstein, founder and director of the OpEd Project, an initiative to increase the profile and leadership potential of women experts in all fields. Orenstein ran the workshop at PwC for female directors and partners as part of the company’s professional development efforts for women and minorities.

I spoke with Jennifer Allyn, managing director of PwC’s office of diversity, who hired Orenstein for the workshop. She told me:

“Women are reluctant to claim their expertise in the same way as men … Modesty is a strong feminine virtue. We have a strong belief that good work should speak for itself. But in the workplace some degree of self-promotion is necessary. So, how you do it in an authentic, evidence-based way?”

The goal of the OpEd workshop is to help women learn how to make a case for their ideas. These can range from persuading clients to hire the firm, to convincing a new recruit to take a job there, to pleading a personal case for a promotion.

“OpEd is a metaphor for building an argument around your expertise. Nobody becomes ‘more expert’ as a result of the workshop, but they do have a better relationship with their expertise.”

Credentials count, she says.

“Your title is important, where you went to school is important. Let’s not be coy about this.”

Additionally, she says, women must learn to shift their mindset in terms of the ways in which they promote the causes and agenda they care about.

“It’s less about you, and more about your values. It doesn’t have to be narcissistic. It’s ‘I have a point of view that matters; my expertise will help make a difference’.”

PwC has 30,000 employees in the US, half of whom are women. At the leadership level, work still needs to be done to achieve greater equality, but there has been a small amount of progress. Today, 17 per cent of PwC’s partners are women, up from 12 per cent in 2002.

Allyn notes that female leadership in the corporate world seems to be hovering at 12-18 per cent.

“The question is: what’s going to be the breakthrough? Hopefully this is one piece of the puzzle.”

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Liz Bolshaw

Liz Bolshaw is a business journalist and editor. She has been a successful book publisher, online editor, magazine editor and publisher.

She was launch editor of the Europe-wide online community Entrepreneur Country, has published magazines for PwC, 3i, dunhill and Bafta, and launched The Sharp Edge, a magazine for and about entrepreneurs, with Duncan Bannatyne. She is a regular contributor to Thomson Reuters’ Venture Capital Journal.

Her last project for the Financial Times was as editor of the paper’s Business Education magazine.

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Andrew Hill is an associate editor and the management editor of the FT. He was City editor of the FT and editor of the daily Lombard column on British business and finance from September 2006 to December 2010.

He was the FT’s financial editor from June 2005 to September 2006, with overall responsibility for coverage of companies and markets. Before becoming financial editor, he was the FT’s comment & analysis editor, in charge of the paper’s opinion and features pages.

From 1999 to 2003, he was the FT’s New York bureau chief. He joined the FT in 1988 and has also worked as foreign news editor, UK companies reporter and correspondent in Brussels and Milan.

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Pino Bethencourt is a professor and leadership expert at IE Business School in Madrid. She is also an author and executive coach.

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Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School.

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Linda Tarr-Whelan, former ambassador to the UN commission on the status of women, is a Demos distinguished senior fellow.