April 5, 2016

You spend months pouring time and energy into a big project. Requirements change, plans become more ambitious and you take on extra responsibilities to keep everything on track. Despite the challenges, you meet deadlines, appease coworkers and the team keeps humming along, thanks to your efforts.

The project is released and earns industry accolades. Your boss is quoted in coverage. Your hotshot colleague is invited to speak on a panel. Your contributions largely go unnoticed.

If you’re a woman working in digital media, there’s a good chance this scenario feels familiar.

It’s a situation that I’ve been through many times, in part because of my work style. I strive to meet organizational deadlines and promises, and I’m most comfortable in a team setting, preferably when I can focus my efforts on coaching and helping others to shine.

As a manager at CNN, I spent the majority of my time running team meetings (where we collectively focused on how to improve), organizing one-on-one check-ins, coaching and editing colleagues and sharing team accomplishments whenever I could.

It wasn’t until I came to Poynter and joined the faculty — less of a team and more of a group of smart people teaching and working on individual projects — that I realized how much I relied on that comfort zone. I could no longer hide behind a group and found myself struggling to put a spotlight on my own achievements.

I’m not alone in feeling this way. Women often fill supporting roles, helping others to be their best. It’s part of what makes working with women so great. It’s also a quality that might hold us back.

Being comfortable taking ownership for work, especially in team settings, is crucial for women. A 2015 study found that women don’t get their fair share of credit for group work, especially when working with men. This is something I often observed at CNN; I’d watch hard-working women get passed up for promotions while male colleagues, more accustomed to taking credit for work, would reap rewards. In conversations with friends, I’ve learned that’s the norm in many workplaces.

I was reminded of this as I pored over more than 400 applications for this year’s ONA-Poynter Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media. Again and again, one thing was clear: Brilliant women aren’t great at describing themselves as brilliant women.

Most of the hedging occurred when taking ownership for work. Applicants were asked to submit a bio, a description of a digital project they produced and a letter of recommendation. In many cases, it wasn’t clear until the letter of recommendation how much these women really stood out in the workplace.

This was especially true for applicants working on teams (which, in the journalism world, is more common than not). Of the 28 finalists, 24 mentioned in their digital project description that they worked on a team. Only half of those 24 specified that they led that team, even when, after further digging, it was clear they played that role.

“It felt like a recurring theme that I didn’t realize just how badass these women were until I read reference letters — so many women undersold themselves in comparison to what their peers/bosses had to say about them,” one of the judges said after reviewing applicants. “I feel like most of us still don’t really know how to say, ‘I did this thing and it’s awesome,’ instead of, ‘I was part of a team that helped make this thing and it’s maybe a good thing, perhaps.’”

I know it sucks to hear, once again, that women are somehow at fault when this is part of a larger systemic issue. As with most career advice for women, it’s important to acknowledge that the workplace is a significant part of the problem. It’s necessary for leaders to establish systems that value equality and reward overall teamwork as much as individual ownership. This shouldn’t rest solely on our shoulders.

As with any new job, I stumbled for a few months before hitting my stride at Poynter. Without a team to lean on, I had to learn to take credit more often for my accomplishments. No one else was going to do that.

A year in, I feel much more confident in celebrating my achievements. Here are a few things that have worked for me:

  • Document contributions and share them widely. Whether in team or solo projects, work that’s done to improve content quality or streamline workflows often goes unseen and unacknowledged. Take time to document the steps and share them with a wider group once the project is completed. This shines a spotlight on your behind-the-scenes work, and also makes replicating those steps easier next time. And whenever possible, include metrics to prove your success. It’s hard to argue with data.
  • Hold postmortems. Meetings can be the worst, I know. But there’s so much value in a well-run debrief focused on two key questions: What went well? What could we do better next time? Bringing colleagues together to review a project after it’s completed allows the team to acknowledge everyone’s individual contributions (and identify who didn’t carry their weight).
  • Set clear expectations. At the onset of a big group project or during individual review periods, ask for clear guidance on your role and responsibilities. If those responsibilities change, you’ll be able to pinpoint the times you went above and beyond. Once you’ve completed a project, be deliberate in sharing your contributions. Identify when to say “I” versus “we” to describe who did what.
  • Build a cohort. If you’re struggling to remind yourself how awesome you are, find people who will. Set up a private Facebook group, monthly Skype calls or in-person get-togethers with trusted, like-minded women. And if you need an emergency dose of confidence, The Pep Talk Generator is my favorite resource.

I’m not suggesting that women should focus on solo work and shy away from teamwork. Collaborating with others is a necessity — and a source of fulfillment — in most workplaces today.

We shouldn’t stop spotlighting our colleagues’ contributions, either. Women’s tendency to acknowledge group work is fantastic, and I think workplaces would be better, happier places if more people adopted that approach.

We should speak up more often and more loudly about our own accomplishments. Document your contributions in every project. Be bold when describing how you pushed for a stronger final product or kept things on deadline. And the next time you submit an application, don’t be shy about bragging about how incredibly amazing you really are.

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Katie Hawkins-Gaar was Poynter's digital innovation faculty member. She ran the Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media and was one half of the duo…
Katie Hawkins-Gaar

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