Warning: Misunderstood Corporate Values May Cause Side Effects

How humility can have the unfortunate side effect of blocking the professional advancement of women. Why you should care and how you can help.

If you are having trouble attracting and retaining talented women to your health tech company, it could be because “humility” is one of your corporate values.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for corporate values applied equally to men and women in the workplace. Humility at work is admirable in theory but counterintuitive to getting across the finish line.   

In practice, what I have found in my experience in the male-dominated digital health industry—only 12.5 percent of CEOs in our industry are women—is that cultures of humility more often have the effect of blocking women from taking credit for their work and, thus, advancing. And according to Karen Gallo, who authored the HBR Guide to Office Politics, “in the real world, it matters who gets the credit.”

Of course, this would not be an issue if everyone gave credit equally when it was due. But that is not the reality of many corporate environments.

“I find people who police humility to be a passive-aggressive bunch,” says Beth Minter, Ph.D., CEO of Franklin-Belle, a recruiting firm focused on the health tech industry. “I don’t trust their opinions. If you can’t be trusted to take the credit, then when you give credit, it has less value.”

For most women, the only way to receive credit for your work is to take it. And it’s easy for a woman’s confidence to be misinterpreted as arrogance. A study from Stanford University found that while women surveyed understood that visibility and the ability to “blow your own horn” were tied to success, this behavior is not necessarily rewarded in women.

“This is a systemic issue,” according to Marie Dunn, a c-suite growth executive focused on the health tech space. “If you’re part of the minority in an organization as a woman or person of color, you very likely lack access to the same type of sponsors that do the work of building your brand for you behind the scenes.” Dunn adds that we should focus on removing the stigma around talking about the work women have done in fair and honest terms.

Dunn brings up the compounding issues of both gender and race—In a Rock Health survey of women in the digital health industry, 80 percent of Asian and Asian-American women and 71.4 percent of African-American women reported underselling their skills.

For women, the act of courage and confidence of claiming credit for your accomplishments so often comes with the added bonus of criticism disguised as a call for humility. In a society where we are still unlearning the stereotype that women should be kind, supportive, and collaborative, arrogance and confidence are often conflated.

Women are also taught to believe that despite not being acknowledged for results or a job well done, it’s ok because our work will speak for itself. But that’s not reality. The problem of not receiving credit is compounded in group settings—researcher Heather Sarsons found that in academia, for women who coauthor, a woman has a 40 percent chance of receiving tenure, compared with 75 percent for a man.

The title from a Harvard Business Review article sums it up nicely: “Men Get Credit for Voicing Ideas, but Not Problems. Women Don’t Get Credit for Either.”

I believe that an overall corporate culture that embraces an ill-defined concept of humility will eat away at any well-intentioned efforts on the ground to improve recognition—and thus promotion—of women. But change takes time; little things matter, and there’s no silver bullet. Here are a few ideas for how you can elevate women in your workplace:

  1. First, acknowledge that the concept of humility can be weaponized. If you are in a position of power and have the influence to alter a corporate culture, do it. Focus on building a culture where credit is given when credit is due. Dunn encourages a common-sense look at who is on the receiving end of feedback. “If it’s predominately women or people of color, that’s a flag there’s a systems issue to address what is probably negatively impacting the experience of groups already marginalized in the workplace.”

    Geography may be another angle to consider. A Rock Health survey found that women in the middle of the country and the south were more likely to believe their geography hindered their career advancement. Similarly, these regions have the lowest percentage of digital health companies with women CEOs.

  2. Build an internal and external network. “I’ve always believed it’s important to build my network, internally and externally,” says Maggie O’Keefe, head of product for PointClickCare’s acute and payer business. “Who you know matters, and women benefit from women mentors and sponsors. You need both.”

    O’Keefe adds that “It’s important that women also build their network to support others and give back as we rise in the ranks and, much like our male counterparts, promote and amplify our accomplishments.”  

  3. Amplify the accomplishments of other women. Recognition and receiving credit are suitable for both genders and good for business. The benefits of being recognized for your work apply to both genders. A recent survey found that 90 percent of employees were more motivated when they were recognized for their efforts.

    “Amplification” is a strategy adopted by women serving in the Obama administration. When one woman would offer an idea that was ignored, another woman would repeat her idea and credit it back to the original speaker. The practice was outlined in an article by the Washington Post years ago and has since been taken up by many women working in digital health, particularly those located in more conservative parts of the country.

  4. Know your worth and make sure others do, too. “When I prep my candidates for interviews, humility often comes up,” adds Dr. Minter. “No one cares about humility when they’re making an executive hiring decision. They do care about what you’ve accomplished, the revenue you’ve generated, or what you’ve persuaded your team to achieve.”  

    Dr. Minter acknowledges that “for some, talking about themselves with sentences that begin with “I…” is a rough hill to climb.” 

What comes first? The woman who is unashamed at claiming credit for her work, helps others, and continues despite criticism? Or the acknowledgment that humility as a value is counterproductive and top-down culture change is necessary?

My perspective is both. A woman advocating for herself may receive negative feedback for her self-advocacy. She may be criticized. But culture is unlikely to change unless we are willing to take risks and be confident in expressing our accomplishments and the need for change.

“One of the biggest issues women face is being visible,” says Joy Rios, founder of the HIT Like a Girl Podcast. “We’re underrepresented in all places where big decisions are made. Whether it’s in the design of technology we hold in our hands to having women’s health issues studied in clinical trials, there are countless ways in which issues that matter to women are overlooked. Our being humble doesn’t help that.”

About the Author

Kat McDavitt is the founder and principal advisor of Innsena, a go-to-market consultancy for the digital health industry. She was the chief of external affairs and chief marketing officer for Collective Medical, acquired by PointClickCare in December of 2020.