Why You're Not Getting Promoted

Mature businesswoman in discussion with female colleague at conference table in office
Mature businesswoman in discussion with female colleague at conference table in office

OK, it's time to get real. Women have made great strides in the workplace throughout the years -- the gender pay gap is lower than it has ever been and the number of businesses led by women is higher than we've ever seen. But despite numerous gender diversity initiatives, too few women reach the executive levels they aspire to. There are many reasons for this, of course; lack of women's leadership-development programs, prevailing views that men "outperform" women and fewer mentorship opportunities. But I believe it's certain attitudes and opinions that are holding some women back.

Many career-focused women believe that their hard work, long hours and loyalty should speak for itself -- and that the best job opportunities, raises, and bonuses should follow. However, over the years, I have found this to be one of the greatest illusions that high-potential, promotable women have about getting ahead. The prevailing belief that quality of work is enough to warrant career advancement can actually hold you back. Without a doubt, doing good work is an essential part of the process, but doing a job well is rarely enough to earn you a promotion. Here's the thing: jobs at different levels require different skills and abilities. Most bosses don't like to put themselves on the firing line by putting you forward for promotion unless they are truly confident that you're going to make the cut; it puts them in a precarious position.

So what can you do about it?

First, take a good look at the job you think you want. I say, think you want because many people go after a promotion solely for the extra "bling" such as a more glamorous title and better pay. This is their first mistake. Never take a job for these reasons alone. Do some detective work. Analyze what the position entails. Start with the people currently in the position -- or others who have done it in the past. Find out what the critical requirements of the job are -- the pros and cons and daily activities. Take note of any special skills or additional training that you'll need to be a more qualified candidate. Finally, carefully consider if the job requirements are well-suited to your lifestyle and personality. (Will you have to travel, entertain, give speeches, handle tough clients, or work on weekends?)

Think you're the perfect contender but still getting passed over? The following points may shed some light on the subject:

You're Playing the Victim

This may not be a popular concept, but my experience has been that when women don't get the promotion they are vying for, they frequently take on the role of "victim." Often, they lament that they are not getting promoted because their boss is "sexist," or that they are not part of the "good old boy's network." There is some truth to these statements: Sexism and gender-equality in the workplace are significant issues that cannot be ignored. However, ask yourself if there are other women in leadership positions at the level you are aspiring to, or higher up the rung in your company. If so, then that is not the answer. Take responsibility -- don't pass the buck or lay the blame on something or someone else. No one respects a malcontent.

You're Striving for Perfection

This is another gender-specific issue. Women strive for perfection -- and this does not give rise to success. Quite the opposite. In fact, research espouses that the difference in upbringing between girls and boys can thwart women's success by the time they enter the workplace. Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code, summed it up beautifully in her Ted Talk, Teach girls bravery, not perfection. Saujani presents the case that boys are encouraged to be brave and take on challenges while most girls are taught to avoid risk and failure. This perfectionist phenomenon has created a feminine culture that tends to "play it safe." A report by HP also reveals the dissimilarity in mindset between men and women. The researchers found that men were ready and willing to apply for a job if they met only 60 percent of the qualifications while women considered applying only if they met 100 percent of the requirements. The bottom line is that there is never a "perfect" time to ask for a promotion. Even if you are not 100 percent ready, but know you could do the job well, take action. Believe in yourself, be brave -- and step shamelessly out of your comfort zone.

Your Boss is Not a Mind Reader

Now that you've decided to strive for more responsibility, you have to let your boss know -- in no uncertain terms -- that you are ready for a promotion. I see many women "wait it out," expecting the boss to approach them with an offer. They cringe at the thought of going out on a limb and asking for a promotion -- for some, it's as daunting as walking through the eye of a hurricane.

The thing is, your superiors may not have any idea that the potential position is of any interest to you. Why would they if you haven't expressed interest?

Many years ago when I lived in San Antonio, I was the General Manager at a national hotel chain. I informed my boss that I would like to open a hotel in the Dallas area -- a location that appealed to me at the time. In the hotel business, opening a new hotel from the ground up is a coveted position to have, even though it comes with a lot of extra responsibilities. I was aware that in most cases the GM doesn't have the option to pick the city or even the state of their choice when seeking a hotel opening position. So when I told my boss that I would love to be considered for a new hotel experience -- and that I would like it to be in Dallas -- he was a bit taken aback. He also told me that he had no idea that I would be interested in opening a new hotel. I soon learned that the company I worked for was talking to investors who wanted to build a new hotel in -- you guessed it -- Dallas! My forthright approach opened the door for me to get the promotion I hoped for and move to my preferred location.

The lesson here is that being clear and upfront is always the right thing to do. However, women tend to wait to be invited or to ask permission instead of stating what they want. Taking the initiative or being assertive is not aggressive or inappropriate -- it's essential. So, self-advocate. Request that exciting new project. Muster the courage to go after that promotion. Ask with respect and enthusiasm, but don't ever be reluctant to ask.

You Need a "Personal Brand" Amendment

What are you known for? What do people think when they hear your name? Like it or not, you are constantly being judged by your appearance, body language and choice of words. You may also be scrutinized for the people you spend your time with, your personal habits and mannerisms, and how you behave -- not just at work but also in social settings. This has nothing to do with your job description and everything to do with how people perceive you. Your boss has to visualize that you are capable of more responsibility in a more significant role than the one you are in now. Can you visualize yourself in a loftier position? If the answer to this question is "no" it's time to look in the mirror.

Self-reflection can help you uncover some of the roadblocks that may be interfering with your achievement. It may also help you to come to terms with your strengths and areas of development so you can make positive, deliberate progress. Seek opinions from non-judgmental, trusted advisors and ask them to be honest with you. Seriously consider this feedback and then take the necessary steps to consistently "polish" your personal brand.