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Leadership & Professional Development: Dis-Missed: Cultural and Gender Barriers to Graceful Self-Promotion

Written by: Cristina R Fernández, Nancy D Spector
Published on: Apr 27, 2022

confident female doctor in front of team
Photo credit: Flamingo Images/Adobe Stock

“The world accommodates you for fitting in, but only rewards you for standing out.”
—Matshona Dhliwayo

Graceful self-promotion—a way of speaking diplomatically and strategically about yourself and your accomplishments—is a key behavior to achieve professional success in medicine. However, some of us are uncomfortable with promoting ourselves in the workplace because of concerns about receiving negative backlash for bragging. These concerns may have roots in our cultural and gender backgrounds, norms that strongly influence our social behaviors. Cultures that emphasize collectivism (eg, East Asia, Scandinavia, Latin America), which is associated with modesty and a focus on “we,” may not approve of self-promotion in contrast to cultures that emphasize individualism (eg, United States, Canada, and parts of Western Europe).1 Additionally, societal gender roles across different cultures focus on women conforming to a “modesty norm,” by which they are socialized to “be nice” and “not too demanding.” Female physicians practicing self-promotion for career advancement may experience a backlash with social penalties and career repercussions.2

One's avoiding self-promotion may lead others to prematurely dismiss a physician's capability, competence, ambition, and qualifications for leadership and other opportunities. These oversights may be a contributing factor in the existing inequities in physician compensation, faculty promotions, leadership roles, speaking engagements, journal editorial boards, and more. Women make up over 50% of all US medical students, yet only 18% are hospital CEOs, 16% are deans and department chairs, and 7% are editors-in-chief of high-impact medical journals.3

So how do you get started overcoming cultural and gender barriers and embrace graceful self-promotion? Start small!

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