Women Keep Underselling Themselves—and What to Do About It


Research has consistently shown that having more women on the board and in executive positions benefits the financial performance of a business. In Africa, companies with at least one-quarter female board members demonstrate an average of 20% higher earnings.

While Africa has more women in the executive committee, CEO, and board roles than the worldwide average, we’ve still got a long way to go before the number of women leaders is on par with male leaders. It could take more than 100 years to reach gender parity in the workplace, according to the World Economic Forum.

But plenty of strategies can be implemented today to empower more women in business. Recruiters and hiring managers can receive training to counter gender bias. Workplaces can offer flexible work schedules and telecommuting options, which are particularly helpful for women with children. Organisations can establish mentoring and leadership development programs for their female employees.

And there are things women can do to help themselves, beginning with not underselling their experiences and qualifications. This habitual understating tends to begin with the CV, continues through the application and interview process, and even impacts performance reviews.

Resume service ValueMyResume reports that women consistently “diminish their talents and abilities by perpetually omitting valuable information about their core skills, and fail to acknowledge key achievements.” This includes failing to mention important soft skills like time management and leadership and omitting key professional achievements. One study of academic researchers found that women use positive words like “unique,” “prominent,” and “excellent” to describe their work far less frequently than men do.

If you worry that you are devaluing yourself in your CV, take time to make sure you have captured your most important skills and achievements. You could collaborate with a friend or mentor to strengthen your CV. Have them ask you about your experiences in depth; get their input on your strongest qualifications.

But even women with exceptional resumes can’t get hired for jobs if they don’t apply for them. A Hewlett Packard internal study found that most women only applied for positions they felt 100% qualified to do. Men, in contrast, did not hesitate to apply when they met only 60% of the job requirements.

If you tend to wait until you’re fully qualified for a job before applying for it, don’t. Take a risk and submit your resume. Reach a little higher than what you might be comfortable with. Men do so regularly, and you can too.

Once you are invited to interview for a position, you need to be able to comfortably discuss your qualifications and achievements. As The Communications Clinic director Eoghan McDermott explains, “There is no place for modesty in job interviews. If you have done something and it’s relevant to the job, tell the panel about it. Don’t wait for them to drag it out of you.”

This advice holds true even after you’ve been hired. Women consistently self-promote in the workplace far less than their male counterparts. One study found that men rated their performance 33% higher than women rated themselves, even when the performances were comparable. It’s okay to give yourself a strong performance review or let your supervisors and team members know what you have achieved; they might not be aware of your contributions otherwise.

The bottom line for women: Know your value and what you contribute. And don’t be afraid to let others know as well.