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When it comes to women in the workplace and their continuing struggle to break through the glass ceiling, self-advocacy remains one of the biggest barriers in the way.

To some extent, it’s an issue of perspective. Self-advocacy is commonly viewed as being self-promotional. Read that as “pushy.” Or boastful. Or self-aggrandizing. That’s old-school thinking, of course, but thinking that still manages to remain all-too common in many workplaces.

That negative coloring aside, self-advocacy is the ability to articulate one’s needs and what is necessary to meet them. And it’s an important skill for anyone in the workplace to develop, women and men alike.

It’s a skill that can be learned and practiced, but it needs a foundation to be built on. Author and educator Mary Ellen Copeland says one of the cornerstones is belief in oneself – having self-esteem and confidence in your worth. Another building block is your knowledge of and confidence in what you want and are advocating for. It helps to be articulate – to be able to express yourself clearly, but, more importantly, to assert yourself clearly.

Knowing those essentials and actually being able to put them into action, however, is an issue. Especially for women. And it doesn’t get easier, even when women have advanced to senior management positions, according to a 2013 study by gender intelligence leader Barbara Annis with Thomson Reuters.

The 326 women leaders surveyed across North America said that their top career challenges were both in “navigating the system and accessing informal networks. The challenge is self-promotion, advocating for themselves and expressing their talents.”

One of the issues is that while women may talk about their past successes, they fail to tie those successes to their future potential, according to Zabeen Hirji, Chief Human Resources Officer at Royal Bank of Canada (RBC).

To make that link takes an understanding and articulation of your value proposition – or how you deliver as a team member or leader in a way that yields positive business outcomes. What’s more powerful in communicating that than a direct self-promotional message, though, is to position yourself to help others achieve their goals through efforts and actions that showcase your accomplishments and potential.

Other essentials on the road to successful self-advocacy include understanding the dynamics of strategic relationships and having a commitment to build them. Knowing who’s got the power and influence in your sphere – or the one you want to reach – is one thing. It takes political savvy to become a savvy self-advocate.

To no small degree, the idea of self-advocacy may be uncomfortable to women because it’s a concept they tend to tie to a male leadership model. And while that may be fine for the guys, it’s not necessarily authentic to women’s behaviors.

As Barbara Annis told Maria Shriver on NBC News, there’s a cost when women choose or are coached to adopt the manner of men. “There’s a huge personal cost, and I think there’s a huge cost for organizations who aren’t getting the best out of people, and the diversity of that.”



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