“Broad City,” the brilliant new Comedy Central series starring Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, is — among other things — a glorious example of women supporting each other as a team in every possible sense. In their world, “we” is the existential gospel of their life. In one episode, Abbi’s crush Jeremy stops by in the middle of a hurricane, just as she is experiencing some inconvenient gastrointestinal distress. Ilana, her BFF, swoops in to rescue her, first trying to convince Abbi that this is somehow a “sexy” situation, then creatively remedying the situation. "I know what we will do. I know what we'll do," Abbi says to Ilana later in the episode. As ludicrous as the scenario might be, it’s accurately symbolic of female relationships. And it’s also symbolic of the sensibility that many women bring to the workplace — yes, I would aid a co-worker in gastrointestinal distress if she asked me. It's part of the reason we walk into a meeting and say, “We did a great job,” instead of, “I did a great job.”
Sure, this might also be because “I did a great job” is an obnoxious way to start a meeting. But for years, research has pointed out that women and girls aren’t so good at taking credit for their accomplishments. Last month, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman attempted to connect the dots as to why bragging rights can work for men, but not so much for women. Kay and Shipman’s theory focused on a lack of confidence; they deconstruct it in their new book “The Confidence Code,” as well as an Atlantic Monthly piece, suggesting (with a host of studies to back it up) that women are simply less self-assured than men. Kay, despite being the anchor of BBC World News America, wrote that her success is attributed to her “English accent.” Shipman, despite being a reporter for ABC News, wrote that she “had a habit of telling people she was ‘just lucky.’” One might call these women keenly self-deprecating, but underconfident feels like a stretch.
Yes, women and girls, as research has long found, tend to underrate their own performances, but it has little to do with confidence. Social science tells us that women aren’t as good at predicting their ratings as men are and that women are more modest than men, which explains why we’re not as comfortable bragging. (In Kay’s case, maybe it’s why she leans on the “English accent” line.) In her lectures, Shelley Correll, a professor of sociology at Stanford University, explains that women judge themselves by a harsher standard than men; it’s a culturally embedded practice from centuries of hearing that boys are stronger or that emotions are weak or that your toys are relegated to the pink aisle. As one corporate friend put it, women would rather “spread the love,” instead of take all the kudos. Yet, it was her confidence, my friend says, that allowed her to give her employees so much credit. “I always thought I could talk them up because I wasn’t insecure.”
Peggy Klaus, an executive coach in Berkeley, California, explained that when you get down to it, this is a basic self-promotion problem. It’s the culture of “we.” Nice girls don’t toot their own horn. “Men are much more accepting of that,” Klaus told me. Klaus, who counsels hundreds of companies and universities including American Express, Goldman Sachs and Stanford University, says this is extremely common, especially in quarterly or annual reviews. Klaus puts it to me like this: Your boss just called you in to debrief him (or her) on the project you’re managing in your team. Would you leave anyone out of that debrief? Of course not. So then why would you leave yourself out? “Of course it’s obnoxious to say ‘I’ incessantly,” she says. But here’s the problem: “Either we’re worried about being obnoxious kind of male-ish bores, or we go to the other extreme of being humbly ineffectual.” As Klaus — who calls herself “evangelical” about this topic — said, “If we don’t find a middle ground as women, we’re derailing our careers.”
When I asked my corporate America friends about their ability to self-promote, they admitted to being guilty of over-crediting their co-workers — sometimes to a fault. One friend, a V.P. at an international company, said self-promotion was less of a problem than asking for help was. She lied to her boss for a year about a co-worker — “We’re doing fine,” she’d say — until she finally told her boss she needed help. Another friend who spent most of her career in the nonprofit arts world and academia told me, “I actually feel uncomfortable taking all of the credit for myself, even if I know I deserve it. I know that is messed up but it is true.” There’s a balance somewhere between lack of confidence and not giving yourself the credit you deserve.
Randall White, who in 1994 co-wrote the book "Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Can Women Reach the Top of America's Largest Corporations?" (in 1990, 2.5 percent of Fortune 500 companies’ chief officers were women. By 2012, that number only reached 3.6 percent), also insists that this is more of a self-promotion issue. “Women are socialized to play the helpmate role and I think women, once they realize that they have to compete, the helpmate role is the only way to do it,” he told me. Meaning: If you don’t play the ‘helpmate’ role, then you’re seen as the other label. The bitch. “The women I meet who are successful are struggling with balancing the perspective that they’ve grown up with, but then [they realize], ‘If I don’t stand up for myself who is going to do it?’ I think that’s different than lacking self confidence,” White says.
There are exceptions, of course, like J.Crew president and executive creative director Jenna Lyons. “You have to look her in the eye and say, ‘I messed this up,’ and she will always say, 'OK, we’ll fix it,’” wrote Ann Friedman, about Lyons' leadership skills. Is this what it looks like to be a “we” boss and self-promote — the kind of balance that Klaus was talking about? There’s an element of empathy Lyons seems to lead with, which is exactly what Melissa Adler, a former design director at New York & Co., told me about her management skills: “I would never not give someone credit because I know it would hurt them.” Studies reaching back from the 1990s have shown that women’s brains are hard-wired to signal greater empathetic abilities than men, starting from the age of 14. We relate all over the place this way, with each other, with our families, with friends. We’re positively defined by these empathetic abilities, our support systems, our humble qualities, none of which we should abandon. As Slate’s Amanda Hess wrote last week, women are now being told to “ape the poisoning personality quirks” of overconfident men who during the financial crisis were “a danger to themselves and their country.”
Maybe "we" all need to be a little bit more like Abbi and Ilana. Or like Stephen Colbert, who said (or was it “Stephen Colbert”?) in his last appearance on “The Daily Show” recently: “Almost nine years ago I promised to change the world and together, I did it.”