It’s no surprise Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In movement includes small, women-only support groups: The minor acts of aggression and self-promotion that are required to earn a seat on the private jet are terrifying to undertake. But what Sandberg’s manifesto neglects to fully acknowledge is that leaning in is no longer restricted to semi-private conference rooms and power lunches. Owing to the tandem rise of the freelance economy and part-personal, part-professional social-networking sites — thanks, Sandberg — workers are in annual review mode 24/7, in public.
“It’s getting harder to tell people you can separate your personal and professional lives,” says Dan Schawbel, the 29-year-old author of Promote Yourself: The New Rules for Career Success. If Schawbel and the TED Talk–ing class are to be believed, all industries now require workers to present themselves online as a competent and collegial staffer-at-large, as if the Internet were one big dating site — employee seeking employer with benefits. In fact, when asked how a person should go about boosting her personal-professional brand, Schawbel takes on the infuriating Zen of a romantic self-help guru. “What you put up is what you’re going to attract,” he says.
In practice, it’s more harried. Will your colleagues be charmed by your witty party aperçu? Or will they question its late-night time stamp? Will friends and potential dates applaud your professional successes? Or will they tire of your blasts and brags? When Twitter and Facebook are your résumé, references, and rec room, you don’t need children to feel the strain of work-life balance. And if the old work-life balance weighed more heavily on women, thanks to biology, the new one does so thanks to social norms. Women have spent decades trying to reconcile traditionally “feminine” and “masculine” spheres in their daily schedules, but now this balancing act plays out all the time online, where there’s no office wall separating the person you want to be in your off-hours and the one you want to be at work.
There’s overwhelming evidence that women lowball their own expertise, relative to men, and even their IQ scores, making them less eager to insert themselves in the debate du jour. Regardless of a woman’s empirical ability, it is only rational for her to play it down, lest she exhibit “gender incongruent” traits — confidence, self-assurance, forcefulness — and be punished socially and economically. Asking women to play like the boys in a male-dominated workplace is one thing. But must we also lean in all over social media? The strategies that have traditionally worked best for women socially — flattery, humility, collaboration — are the antithesis of self-promotion.
In journalism and publishing — where I and many of my friends work — this push-and-pull is conveniently transparent. Many workers are freelancers and the medium (Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn) befits their wares (ideas, wordplay, and links). So in trying to sort out my own online identity, I found myself cataloging the ways my peers (mostly women, but also some humblebragging men) evade the social repercussions risked by requisite self-promotion.
The most common is the faux-bashful undersell. A hundred years ago, child laborers in newsboy caps shouted "Extra!"; my female colleagues tweet, “Here’s this little thing I made,” with a link to an article months in the making. Others are more willing to retweet the praise or approval of a boss, colleague, or respected competitor than be their own cheerleaders. The Gchat status — unobtrusive yet intimate — is a safe place to display a link to favorable coverage indefinitely without spamming. For the truly savvy, the personal and professional brands intersect in the industry-party photos everyone else looks at while they ought to be working. Regrammed or tagged, they reveal who rubbed elbows with whom and at which conference — not to mention, how they looked doing it. Then there are those who Instagram thank-you notes from boldface names or screenshot fan e-mail. If praise falls in a private mailbox, I less-than-charitably wonder, did it even happen?
That’s not to say there aren’t many expertly self-branded and gratifyingly successful women. Nor that I find naked, relentless professional posturing appealing in men. I wasn’t charmed by Bustle founder Bryan Goldberg’s ability — revealed in a now-notorious self-interview — to raise $6M for a women’s site without bothering to learn the difference between concealer, eyeliner, and mascara. I just expect it from men. At the same time, I roll my eyes at the coded ways women self-promote on social media, writing them off as Jenna Maroney–style backdoor braggarts. On the one hand, I recognize this reaction as the internalized misogyny of the grade-grubbing good girl, who waited for the professor to call on her instead of raising her hand. But on the other hand, wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t reward the self-appointed experts — whatever their gender — who claim undeserved authority? Like, say, the reproduction-illiterate men who are the legislative arbiters of women’s health care?
Self-promotion has long been considered a Women’s Issue. Democratic fund-raising group EMILY’s List was founded in 1985 to recruit and support qualified female candidates who might hesitate to put themselves forward. (The GOP now has its own version, Project GROW.) Years before Gawker realized its readers were often better informed than its writers — and built them a traffic-driving blogging platform, Groupthink — feminist blogs carved out spaces for commenters to advertise their own writing. One was Feministe’s “Shameless Self-Promotion Sundays,” which editor Jill Filipovic cribbed from another feminist blog, Shakesville. “In my mind, it is very in line with the feminist mission of a blog like Feministe to encourage self-promotion,” Filipovic told the Cut. “Women are notoriously really bad at positioning themselves as experts or even competent.” And even with her own convictions, Filipovic says she “really really hates” promoting herself — she just doesn’t feel she has a choice.
In a time when many writers leverage quickly informed opinions into cable-news appearances, Filipovic wonders whether the demands of self-promotion might further segregate women within media. “You have these dudes who are happy to go on CNN and talk about foreign policy in Syria,” she observes, “when all they’ve read are the same New York Times articles I’ve read.” Too many female journalists, she worries, retreat into womanhood, motherhood, reproductive justice — issues “situated either in our physical bodies or in our relations with other people.” They hesitate to present themselves as experts beyond that sphere. All while “dudes make entire journalism careers” by positioning themselves as experts “on every political issue under the sun,” as Filipovic puts it.
Although Schawbel doesn’t specialize in women’s self-branding concerns, he echoes the issues raised by people like Sandberg. “Women have to be really careful,” he said. “Other women will try and sabotage them. That’s why a lot of women are quiet.” On social media, the backlash women might face for leaning in — being found bossy, bitchy, or difficult — can come not just from co-workers, but from friends, strangers, and future colleagues. Women are in a bind: The imperative to self-promote is real, but so are the risks.
Sara Horowitz, the founder and executive director of the Freelancers Union, is an impressive self-promoter in her own right — the union has almost doubled in membership since Horowitz described the rise of the gig economy in The Atlantic two years ago. She has a more optimistic take on gender differences: She thinks women’s ability to multitask gives them a leg-up in building the networks freelancers’ livelihoods depend on. Self-branding, she says, is not a discrete chore. “You build your reputation in a million little ways every day,” she says. “Just help people who need help, ask for help when you need it, and be a good person to do business with.” Just being a good person sounds nice, but it's not an easy full-time job. “My work essentially is my life,” says Filipovic, “sad as that is to say.”
“Sad” seems to be the prescribed reaction, for women, to the dissolution of work-life boundaries. But there might be a silver lining to it happening online, in public. Social and work life have always been inseparable, to a certain degree, and the boys’-club whiskeys were often even more elusive for women than a seat at the boardroom table. If women can shake the vestigial embarrassment of striving for professional success in public, they might also be able to work the people-pleasing social skills they’ve been cultivating all along (not necessarily by choice and without pay) to their own advantage. Why humblebrag, in other words, if you can bring the smoke-filled room online?