I Won’t Dumb Down My Accomplishments Because I’m a Woman-And You Don’t Need To Either

Ever feel pressure to dumb down your accomplishments? If you’re a man, likely not. People ask you about your work, are impressed with your position or income, and look to you for leadership. If you get a degree, start a company, or get a promotion you’re the talk of the family dinner or barbecue with friends.

But if you’re a woman, your response is likely different.

At those same dinners and barbecues, you’re asked how the kids are doing instead of about your work. If you’re interviewed about your accomplishments you’re expected to give credit to others. Your accomplishments should become “our” accomplishments, even though no man would talk about “our career”, “our promotion” or “our degree”. And at work, rather than being praised and admired for your intelligence and confidence, you’re admonished for being intimidating.

Whether you’re a man or a woman, it’s important you be aware of this social difference and work to change it.

Why Women Feel Uncomfortable With Our Own Success

Men who make high incomes, have successful careers, and start multi million dollar businesses are admired. Women, on the other hand, feel pressure to not discuss their success-either to stay silent on the topic, or downplay their own role in their accomplishments.

Is this just my own opinion? No. Check out this Cosmopolitan article where interviewers noticed the same pattern when interviewing successful women. Even in Lean In circles, where women are working together to become more successful, you see the same pattern.

When women do own their accomplishments – they’re admonished for bragging, told they shouldn’t take credit for them, and basically they’re made to feel as if there’s something wrong with them.

Why? Societal pressure. Men have been the successful ones for many years, while women earned “pin money” or basically worked only in the family. Women’s roles were to support their spouse, kids, and maybe earn a bit of fun money. But only if her husband allowed.

A woman “bringing home the bacon” was freakish and shameful. Even those of us who are now adults grew up with this mentality thrust upon us. It gets ingrained deep into your psyche, and the constant reinforcement from friends, family, coworkers and strangers on the internet doesn’t help.

Asking Constantly About Kids At Work

Yes I love my three boys. And I don’t mind talking about them at an obviously applicable setting, like their school. But at work, or when meeting new people, it’s the first thing people focus on. And it drives me crazy.

I have three kids, an MBA, a successful career, have a stay at home spouse, and run this website for fun. If I were “Larry” rather than “Liz”, there would be nothing surprising at all about that sentence. Larry would be praised and admired for his skills. People would seek his advice, and the first question people asked him would not be:

– How are the kids?

– How many kids do you have?

– Wow, how do you manage a career and kids?

– You travel for work? How do you do that with kids at home?

Really, how ridiculous would that be?

People who just meet my husband and I will ask him about his work, and me about the kids. Which is hilarious and sad at the same time.

I don’t talk about my kids at work unless I’m directly asked about them. Spoiler alert-I’m asked about them a lot more than my male coworkers.

Why not? Because at work I’m there to do a job. We all are. I’m not a mom there, I’m a project manager. Frankly, constant kid talk annoys people without kids. They really don’t want to hear about Johnny’s role in the drama club or Jane’s new piano lessons. They want to know when you’re getting them the information they need to proceed with their project.

Also, for women struggling with infertility, kid talk is painful. Sometimes people unfortunately forget that. Lets not forget about that when talking about our kids at work.

No Human-Man Or Woman-Succeeded By Themselves. Let’s Not Put This Burden On Women

No human is an island unto themselves.

None of us succeeded without the help and support of others. It could be friends, family, coworkers, bosses, teachers, mentors, or anyone else.

But it’s women who are made to feel like they can’t take credit for their own success. They feel constant pressure to downplay their own role and give credit to others.

Why? Sometimes it’s imposter syndrome, where women feel like they’re not worthy of having accomplished so much. Other times, they’ve been told that they should be certain to give credit to others. Women are very much socialized this way.

None of the things I’ve accomplished have been done totally by myself. I have a whole post about how I “do it all” and – spoiler alert-the answer is that I don’t. My husband does most of what we think of as “second shift” women’s work.

– I wouldn’t be able to travel for work, or work long hours, if my husband wasn’t watching the boys. It’s because I don’t make “private nanny” level income.

– I couldn’t have gotten my MBA without my husband watching the kids in the evening, and when I traveled to China and France.

– When my husband was ill, we would have had a very tough time making it through without family there to help.

– My parents and grandparents started me off on my twenty year long investing journey. And my husband trusted me enough to manage all the money.

If we’re sitting down for a long conversation I’m happy to talk about how support is key, and the types of support that have been part of my own success. It also couldn’t be possible without my own very hard work.

– No one else sat in those classes for hours after working a ten or twelve hour day, and did homework all weekend long.

– My own hard work, determination, drive and research led me to be able to increase my income from $22k to six figures.

– I was the one who sat by my husbands side when he was on the ventilator. I supported him and our kids through his very long recovery, took care of child care arrangements for when the crisis was over and the long recovery had begun, I did EVERYTHING at home when he couldn’t, all while still working full time and working on my MBA.

**Bonus point-I would never expect him to give me credit for the hard work he did to recover from septic shock. He was the one who got through the ICU, worked hard at rehab, and continued to work hard for a very long time to get back to near normal. I didn’t do that for him-and I couldn’t do that for him. He had to do that for himself.

I don’t feel the need to caveat my every success with information about how I didn’t do it myself. Of course I didn’t! No one does, man or woman.

Men Can-And Should-Help Here

How can you help? By treating women, and conversations with them, like you would anyone else. It’s simple, really.

– Do you open up your conversations with men asking about their kids? If not, don’t do that with women.

– Do you criticize men for not giving enough credit for their success to others? If not, don’t do that with women.

– Do you act surprised that a male coworker traveling for work has kids? Don’t be surprised if a woman travels. She’s likely not leaving her kids alone and uncared for, so it’s not a good idea to surprisingly ask her how she does that.

– Are you shocked by a high earning man with a stay at home spouse? If not, why is it shocking if it’s a woman?

Be conscious and mindful of your conversations and perceptions. Were genders reversed, would you have the same reaction? And if not, change your perspective.

As I said, it’s pretty simple.

Don’t Apologize or Downplay. Be Proud

Let’s stop apologizing for our success, downplaying our accomplishments. Let’s not accept that we need to act dumb/unsure of ourselves to make others feel better about themselves.

We can stand tall, be proud, and take credit where credits due.

If someone tries to shame you for doing so, they’re not worth your time.

13 thoughts on “I Won’t Dumb Down My Accomplishments Because I’m a Woman-And You Don’t Need To Either”

  1. Really eye opening, it has become so common place that we don’t even notice when we do these things.Also at times I do wonder are things really that bad! Women have been successful at work for years now, most men can’t claim to run the family by their own and still if women have to fight for all this, it is shameful! I have successful women at my workplace who i really look up to for the knowledge, dignity they carry themselves with.

    Point taken mam, atleast I am never gonna ask a female colleague about kids anymore ( I did just today at the coffee machine ;))

  2. Appreciate the thoughts on owning accomplishments and that showing pride in them is not the same as being a braggart. However you lost me on the kid discussion, it isn’t always meant to marginalize the female, and can be used as a benefit in many situations. In a recent conversation with a fellow female VP at a competing engineering firm she was complaining that she needed a Project Manager who could do all the things that are labeled taboo above (so called soft skills) because that was a key to her client’s happiness with her firm. While I agree the vast disparity of how are your kid/s questions come from men to women I would suggest that women need to do the same back to the men, you would be surprised how many men want to share about their kids too. The challenge for women isn’t to avoid talk about their family but to keep it brief. This time of year my typical ” how are your kids” response is “My kids are doing great, getting ready for X grade this year. How are your kid/kids?” This response levels the field quickly and allows for a smooth transition back to work topics.

    1. chiefmomofficer

      I’m surprised a VP would consider talking about people’s kids a soft skill. Everything I’ve ever learned about soft skills at work is more around things like communication skills, work ethic, decision making, listening, teamwork, empathy, etc. More like what’s in this article: https://www.thebalancecareers.com/what-are-soft-skills-2060852.

      Frankly, I just wish it was not the default question. And in my experience, it’s almost always used to minimize/ignore/not learn about ones professional accomplishments. Of course, my experience is not everyone’s experience.

      1. I’m an accomplished SVP at a large investment firm dominated by males and I do not think that asking about my kids is diminishing. True, that conversation should be kept short and men should make an effort to know more about me (professional accomplishments and other personal hobbies/interests) and not automatically default to children conversations. However, I see it as having small talk, just as if I was to ask a male about the football season if I knew he was into football.
        While women still need to fight for equal rights and the ability to be seen as capable of doing as well as men, their feminity and uniqueness (maternal instincts for example) ought to be celebrated as well. Diversity is meant to add on or supplement and not erase or replace. I enjoy talking about my kids and any other personal topic I feel like sharing. It does not take away from me my accomplishments as long as the tone is right and not being dumbed down. It all depends on the interlocutor’s intentions I think.

  3. Great commentary on society perceptions and treatment differences between men and women. I also know that there are wrong societal perceptions of the male in a stay at home dad type situation with implications that somehow he is not good and can’t get a job or must not have marketable skills.

  4. I’ve always been glad that I work where I do. Our principal for the last 9 years has been a woman, and many of the top roles are also held by women.
    But then again, teaching has always been heavily weighted towards females.

  5. I’m sure it must happen because it has happened to you but I’ve never approached conversations with female engineers or executives any differently than males? I did notice that when I early retired from running a chemical complex and was replaced by a female VP that some of my male acquaintances tried to make that out as some sort of insult to me, “you were replaced by a girl !” I thought that was totally asinine, what difference did my replacement’s gender make? Actually I was proud of my company for not showing a male preference for the position since it was in a traditionally male dominated industry, like so many others.

  6. UGH!

    I already said this to you on Twitter but this is really inspiring me to write my own post on this topic with reference to yours. I once heard someone on a podcast mention you shouldn’t list all your accomplishments on a dating profile because it intimidates men and makes them think you’re out of their league. I literally almost fell out of my chair.

    FIRST OF ALL, NO. Second of all, how the hell are you supposed to hide those, especially if you get serious? “Yeah, sorry, I lied about having three degrees?” If a man is intimidated about your success, that is their issue and not yours. I apologize for a lot of men not having caught up with the times. My partner was so stinking proud of me when I graduated from college with my second degree and continues to be proud of me. I wouldn’t trade that for anything in the world.

  7. Interdimensional_Refugee

    I sometimes wonder if it’s possible for a woman to disregard the socialization process you’ve so eloquently laid out above, point-by-point. It’s probably the same as OCD: intellectual awareness of the socialization process gives way to inculcated beliefs.

  8. I have been following your blog regularly and have been looking for a new post everyday for the last few weeks. Liz, is everything alright? Its unusual not to see a blog from you for so long…


    1. Hi Asha-No worries! Things have just been crazy here at CMO central with back to school. I’ll be back on the site on Friday! Thanks for checking in-it’s nice to hear that people look forward to my posts 😊

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