How To Win That Promotion Without Feeling Like ‘You Need to Act Like A Man’

Ever wondered if it was possible to go about getting promoted in a way that feels natural to who you are? Then this is for you. 

6 min read

 Photograph: Women In Tech

 Photograph: Women In Tech

Are you in a new job and think you deserve a promotion? Or have you been working at the same place for a while, watching your peers get promoted before you? Do you have a performance review coming up and are not sure what you could be doing better, or how you can Lean In more?

Even if you haven’t read Sheryl Sandberg’s philosophies of women needing to become more confident, assertive, and outgoing to receive promotions or entrepreneurial success, you probably have heard something from friends or co-workers along the lines of “speak up more” or even “act like a man.” Or you’ve taken business classes, heard TED talks or read an absurd manifesto by a former Google employee that imply the gender wage gap is a result of inherent psychological differences between genders.

As of recently, there have been new studies arguing that in male-dominated fields, femininity; care and charisma are what put you on a track towards higher success. Whether it be acting ‘like a man’ or exuding femininity, feminism - the full advocacy of equality between all genders - speaks a different story. You should be getting that promotion or receiving that investment because you do amazing work, not because you changed your entire workplace personality to suit someone else’s preferences.  

Yes, I understand that we do not live in the perfect world where every manager notices incredible work of employees on their own and promotes based on merit rather than on how charismatic someone’s negotiating tactics are. But while we wait for every manager to get up to speed on equality in the workplace, we can make a few changes ourselves without jeopardizing our personality over it.

Below I’ve outlined a few tips on how to get yourself that promotion while still being the wonderful YOU.

  1. To start, get a mentor. This could be a professor from school, an old boss, a co-worker's mom’s friend from preschool who does VR research, whoever you look up to career-wise. You can even have multiple mentors if you’d like! Ask them out for coffee or a skype phone call to chat, or create an email chain where you can check in with them every few weeks. These mentors will be your allies, your inspiration, your advocates, your network, and more. Don’t know any mentors? Graphics engineer and entrepreneur Stephanie Hurlburt asked her followers to let her know if they wanted to be a mentor! Hundreds replied and she collected lists of those who responded here. Reach out to them!

  2. Never undervalue yourself.

    • Are you suffering from imposter syndrome at your workplace where you feel like you don’t belong in the field you’re in, or everyone there is better or smarter than you? You are most definitely not alone.  Security engineer Scott Roberts explains here how he works to overcome it every day.

    • Do you ever look at a job description, see you don’t have experience with some of the skills listed, and decide not to reply? An internal report from Hewlett Packard cited that “Men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them,” so you’re definitely not alone here either. Try thinking of a job description differently: the ‘requirements’ or ‘preferred experience’ lists they include are the company telling you what their stack consists of and what their engineers know. Instead of comparing what you know against these, compare what potential you have to learn them. You’ve never used React before but you’re familiar with Ember? Then you can most definitely sell yourself as able to learn React either on the job, before the start date, or before the promotion.

    • And most importantly, never use language that undervalues you. For example, instead of “I wrote a small thing,” say “I wrote a technical tutorial on how to get started with kubernetes.” Or instead of telling your boss “I worked on this but it’s pretty rough,” sell it as “I’ve done research and developed a prototype for this feature and have 100% unit test coverage, so I’m confident it works as intended on a small scale.” You should be proud of the work you’ve done so use language that reflects that too!

  3. Set short and long term career goals for yourself. Do you want to be a senior developer, tech lead, manager, VP, project manager, etc? Analyze how the company tends to promote to these roles and if there’s a ladder to get there so you can set steps for yourself to achieve them. Then, write them down somewhere, even if it’s messy notes jotted down on a post-it. Then as you make small and large accomplishments while you work, you can write those down next to your goals. If you record what you’ve done and succeeded at - like a new product feature, fixing a critical production bug, leading a project team, etc -, you can bring this information to your boss during one-on-ones or when performance review time comes around. If your company only does performance reviews once or twice a year, writing these down is essential to ensuring that your boss sees the whole picture of you when assessing your skills and achievements!

  4. Make your boss, manager, or company mentor your ally.

    • Advocate for yourself from the start by telling them how you best act and communicate. Let them know that you’re quieter but when you do speak, it’s always effective and important. Or let them know that you don’t care for company outings or beer after work, not because you dislike your anyone, but because you like to spend more time with your family. This way, they appreciate certain actions that could be misunderstood as a flaw.

    • You don’t have to be outgoing and assertive to go into a one-on-one with your boss and outline what your long and short term career goals are. Tell them early on if you’re interested in becoming a senior developer within x years, learn a new skill or framework in the first y months, or become a project manager within z. Ask them to give you feedback on where your strengths and weaknesses are for the months leading up to those future dates so you can work on them and be ready for when promotions are headed your way. If you want to be a tech lead on a new project, tell your boss that you’re interested as soon as it’s announced and ask what extra work or research you can do to be prepared for it. Open communication with your manager is the best and easiest way for understanding promotion processes.

  5. When promotion time comes around, or there’s a new opening they’re hiring for, take note of what the typical process is like. Do they hire from within first? Do the people typically hired usually have something in common - like having been project leads before or have a certain skill set? Do people usually get a promotion in 6 months or 1 year, and if so, did you too? Ask coworkers that you’re comfortable asking when they typically got promotions and a ballpark estimate of how much. Knowing a kind and quantity of promotion to expect can help you when you hear your offers. Is the promotion you’re offered a lot lower than what you’ve heard of in the company? If you’re confident, you’ll feel more comfortable negotiating for a greater amount.

  6. Mentor others. Unless you’re the brand new intern with zero experience, there’s definitely someone newer or less experienced than you at the company. Feel free to reach out and offer mentorship yourself since, as described above, mentorship is incredibly valuable. Becoming a mentor will be fun; you’ll have a new friend, you can learn some things yourself, you’ll build your network, and you’ll be exemplifying your leadership abilities in the workplace! :)

  7. Be YOURSELF. Yes, obviously, act professional and be loud and confident during a presentation. But when it comes to your day-to-day personality, be who you are. Take your strengths and adapt them towards your work. Are you shy but funny? Don’t be afraid to show your humor to coworkers or clients when appropriate since this will gain you likability and gain their trust! Are you soft-spoken but a great writer? Write down what you consider your strengths and refer back to those when you need to advocate for yourself in a code review or a performance evaluation. You are the best version of you there is, so when it comes to acting a certain way to get a promotion? Be yourself!

Following these tips can and should help you get the promotion you want and deserve. Although the industry still has a long way to go when it comes to promoting based on merit and skill rather than favoritism or sexism, we can promote a more positive and equal atmosphere by representing ourselves in this way and when we become the ones giving promotions, making sure we promote equally and fairly too.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Patty Jenkins, the director of the recent Wonder Woman film, in response to a critic:

“Strong women are great... But if women have to always be hard, tough and trouble to be strong, and we aren't free to be multidimensional or celebrate an icon of women everywhere because [Wonder Woman] is attractive and loving, then we haven't come very far have we. I believe women can and should be EVERYTHING... There is no right and wrong kind of powerful woman.”

So remember, when going in for that new promotion, the right kind of powerful woman for the job is YOU.


Follow Kim:  LinkedIn  |  Github

Follow Kim: LinkedIn | Github

Hi friends, I'm Kim Whitney! I'm a fourth year (of five!) computer engineering and computer science student at Northeastern University in Boston. I've worked four full-time software developer internships (or as we call them at NU, co-ops) so far at EMC, Apple, Starry, and now Turo! I also enjoy art and design, rock climbing, swimming in lakes, and doppler radar - though my passions lately have mainly revolved around diversifying the tech workplace. Please don't hesitate to send me a message; I'd love to chat!