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GRAWA President’s Message: Use professional accomplishments to further your career

Jill Paperno

Jill Paperno

When I was growing up, I was told it was impolite to brag. And I agree, it is impolite to brag in social settings. But in the business or law world, the way we obtain promotions or recognition, which contribute to advancement in our careers, is to let people know what our achievements are. Isn’t that a form of bragging?

I believe there is a big distinction between being the bloviator, who regales everyone with his or her accomplishments, and being a professional who uses a history of excellence to move forward. The behavior of the former is annoying and socially unacceptable. The conduct of the latter is not just appropriate, but necessary to further a career. But women have a difficult time shifting from the social prohibition to the professional necessity. I have seen so many women respond to praise for work well done by deflecting, minimizing or praising another.

In December 2013, a study entitled “Women’s Bragging Rights:  Overcoming Modesty Norms to Facilitate Women’s Self-Promotion” was published in “Psychology of Women Quarterly.” The author, Jessi Smith, basing her findings on a study of about 80 undergraduates, confirmed that women are more willing to recognize others’ achievements than their own.

A Montana State University article, “Bragging rights: MSU study shows that interventions help women’s reluctance to discuss accomplishments,” published on the Web in 2014, quoted Smith:

Smith said the research, which sampled nearly 80 MSU undergraduate women, confirmed that women downplay their own accomplishments but have no trouble promoting a friend. Past research had already shown than men are not affected by modesty norms like women are. However, this was among the first studies to test ways to intervene to help women write about themselves effectively …

Smith said they found that American women are reluctant to talk about their own accomplishments because cultural norms promote modesty. And, society disapproves of women who are perceived to be bragging about themselves. However, Smith said, American men who brag about their accomplishments are perceived as confident and capable.

“We live in a society where cultural gender norms are powerful and imbedded in our history,” she said. “This is no way, shape or form to be blamed on women. It’s just part of our culture, and it is our job to find ways to change these cultural norms.”

If we fail to sell ourselves, while those around us do, we may lose opportunities to climb the professional ladder or be acknowledged for the expertise we have.

In an article entitled “Why It’s So Hard For Working Women To Get Ahead, And What We Can Do About It” (, Jillian Berman, business editor of the Huffington Post discussed impediments to getting ahead, and shared the discomfort that many women (myself included) feel about describing their own accomplishments.

The idea of selling myself to my boss, a potential employer or even just another human socially makes me queasy. Even composing a self-congratulatory G-chat is agonizing. It usually takes me several drafts to come up with a sentence fragment that conveys I did something worthwhile with just the right subtlety (example: “Hey, this is something i did at work this week that i thought you might find interesting.”)

My problem is even worse on Twitter, a tool designed essentially for self-promotion. Like other women Kat Stoeffel highlighted in a piece in New York Magazine a few months ago, I often resort to constructions that downplay my role in what I’m sharing. Think: “Look at this little thing I wrote,” retweeting others’ complimentary tweets about the post or just tweeting the headline.

One of the ways to change these norms is to encourage women to describe their accomplishments and seek recognition for work well-done. Another is to increase the recognition of women for excellence in their professional lives. Each year, the GRAWA Nominations Committee does both.

Why is recognition important? Is it just a mutual pat on the back among organization members or something more?

GRAWA Immediate Past President Tiffany Lee’s theme for last year was “You can’t be what you can’t see.” When we promote our members, we are providing examples for younger attorneys of women who have been recognized in their fields. We are supporting the nominees and recipients in their careers and enhancing their reputations. We are demonstrating our appreciation to those women who paved the way for the rest of us. For those who have clients who are not always appreciative, the support of the legal community can be very meaningful.

GRAWA’s Nominations Committee selects members for recognition by many businesses and associations, including The Daily Record, MCBA, members’ alma maters and others, and submits the nominations. During the 2014-2015 GRAWA year, the Nominations Committee nominated numerous members for awards and recognition.

Shannon O’Keefe Pero, the chair of that committee, coordinated the efforts that resulted in recognition of many of our peers. As president elect of GRAWA, one of my roles was to sit on that committee. And it was a great experience. Our focus was, in essence, to praise our members and encourage others to do so as well.

We review biographies and information to seek nominees. And we ask members to submit their names for awards. But it is a constant challenge to get our members to suggest that they might be suitable for nomination or submit their resumes so that we could review them. I believe this is related to the reluctance of women to self-promote.

In the coming year, I want to continue to encourage our members to submit their resumes and suggest their own nominations for awards. We have begun to expand our weekly “eblast” to include notices of personal and professional celebrations.

On Sept. 17 of this year GRAWA will hold its New Members Reception. This reception is one of our biggest events. At the reception we welcome our newest GRAWA members and introduce them to our membership. We also recognize members who are celebrating 25 years of admission to the bar. At the reception, we recognize the new members and their accomplishments individually. It is a first step in what I hope is a long road of celebration for achievements.

Jill Paperno is the 33rd president of GRAWA. She is the second assistant public defender at the Monroe County Public Defender’s Office, where she has practiced for over 28 years.