Why is It So Hard to Be Self-Promotional if You’re a Woman?

Posted on
Apr 25, 2017


“What’s the hardest part about writing a book?”

I’ve been asked this question a lot lately, and my answer is what you’d expect: figuring out which darlings to fight for and which to cut, weaving a cohesive narrative, and finding an author bio photo of me that doesn’t have obscene words in the background.

You know, the usual.

What I did not anticipate, after my book was sold to a publisher, and after we finished the edits, was that actually telling people about my book would prove to be one of the hardest things I had to do. For the record, this should sound like utter bullshit. I mean, it sounds like utter bullshit to me. 11-year-old me has been waiting for this moment for COUGH COUGH years. And now we’re being sheepish about it? WHAT THE HELL, GERALDINE?

But as a whole Pandora station called “Geraldine’s Greatest Self-Disparaging Hits” plays in my head, this is what I find myself grappling with. Self-promotion is a very difficult task for me. I have to ask my friends and family and everyone in my social circle – people I love and respect and have peed next to in public bathrooms – to buy my book. I am asking them to spend time and money on me. And that act makes me profoundly uncomfortable.

While in Japan we struck up a conversation with a family from Chile. The father asked us what we did, and I quietly mumbled something about travel writing.

“That’s amazing!” he said, and wanted to know more. I shrugged my way through talking about the blog and stared at the ground like an awkward teenager.

“She’s also just finished a book,” Rand said, looking at me as though my omission was crazy.

“That’s not a big deal,” I mumbled about the realization of my childhood dream.

I have spent a lot of time trying to unpack why my reaction has been this way. Rand and I recently had a spat because he wanted to do some promotional work for my book. The problem with having a partner who is a digital marketer (YES, BELIEVE IT OR NOT THERE IS A DOWNSIDE. It’s not just sexy Google rankings talk all day) is that when you do something worth noting, they want to tell the world. I sat on our bed, tearfully begging him not to email anyone because they might feel obligated to buy my book or to help spread the word about the launch.

“Have you lost your mind?” Rand said. (The fight escalated to the point where I screamed, “YOU KNEW I WAS BAD AT SEO WHEN YOU MARRIED ME.”)

Rand’s support is so apparent, so evident, I started to wonder if there was something unusual about my near-pathological reluctance to promote my own work. I asked my friend Mike, who is a talented and award-winning children’s writer and illustrator, about his own struggles to be self-promotional.

“It definitely feels weird and icky sometimes … it feels awkward promoting one’s work, as if to say ‘Look how great I am!'”

All of that sounded like madness to me, frankly, because Mike. Is. Great. I kept asking around, and found that while Mike and a few other men I knew had discomfort promoting their work, it seemed like almost every single woman I knew did. So, like most people looking for social proof that they haven’t lost their mind, I asked on Twitter.

And again and again, I heard the same response from women across professions (writers do not claim sole jurisdiction over this) – it is very difficult to sing your own praises. Heck, for many of us, it’s difficult to even mutter your own praises under your breath when no one is home. It feels rooted in the same misogyny that has so many of us second-guessing ourselves for promotions or recognition of any kind. There is a fundamental fear of being disliked, a belief that if we do promote our work we’ll be see as arrogant or opportunistic, demanding or difficult.

Even those that did promote their work noted that they only shared an article once or twice – believing that there was a limit to how often to we could promote our own work before exhausting the goodwill of our social networks. A limit that we only seem to apply to ourselves. (Indeed, I’ve received this criticism from Rand as well – even when I share my work, I do so only once, and I don’t share everything I produce. I argue that I don’t want to annoy people – even as men and publications in my feed endlessly tweet out the same article again and again. The New Yorker keeps trying to make The Borowitz Report happen in my feed at least 5 times a day. I still follow them.)

Rachel Bloom’s brilliant “Lady Boss” video encompasses this duality – of trying to stand up for ourselves while still worrying about who we might offend in our quest to be valued and heard.

We float between believing in ourselves and being mired in self-doubt, often in the same breath.

And for many of us, it’s the self-doubt that overtakes the conversation.

I know both of these women. Naomi is a brilliant writer. Her voice is both poetic and direct, which is an amazingly tough thing to balance. Ashley is a damn rock star in her field. While I struggle with the lack of logic in their statements, I find myself applying the same flawed thinking to my own life.

“What if you are telling people to promote a book that isn’t any good?” I ask Rand, my voice cracking with panic.

He stares at me blankly for a beat. He pulls up my Goodreads reviews and points at it.

“Are you kidding me?” he says. “Look at these reviews. They. Are. Glowing. And these are from people who don’t know you. You’re worried about asking people who know and like you to buy your book?”


(Ugh. Yes, this happened. Two days later my friend Ronell wrote this beautiful post which made me cry. And yet I still worry about not being liked.)

Amazingly, I can be simultaneously disgusted with both my self-doubt and the thought-of self-promotion. For those of us who can’t quite break free of the idea that women shouldn’t laud our own achievements, we find ourselves in a lose-lose situation. In either case, we’re being insincere.

We do not extend this dynamic to our male counterparts, I’ve found. As Jenét succinctly puts it, this is a judgement we hold against ourselves. To be self-promotional is to be at odds with being a woman.

And when I find a woman who is able to promote and value her own work, I regard her like a unicorn.

I emailed Jenét about this – and, okay, maybe I also asked her to be my Obi Wan. She told me that growing up, the emphasis emphasis was put on racial equality, not on gender equality. (She laughed and said that it was implied that women were as good as men).

“I got the standard ‘You’re just as good as white people but know you have to work twice as hard for it matter.'”

And as a kid, she already knew that she was intelligent, and tough, and different. For her, the only option was to embrace it.

Her email touched on something critical: it’s impossible to divorce this issue from other forms of oppression or marginalization. #intersectionalfeminism (Even Mike, my illustrator friend who struggles with lauding his own work, is neither straight nor white.)

In Phoebe Robinson’s brilliant You Can’t Touch My Hair, she discusses how she needs to self-censor so that she’s not perceived as “an angry black woman”. She notes that she used to dim her own light to make other people – most notably white people – more comfortable. For so many women, it isn’t simply misogyny that keeps them quiet, it’s institutionalized racism, or ablelism, or homophobia, or transphobia. In sharing our work, we make ourselves even more vulnerable than normal. In lauding ourselves, we worry how we’ll be perceived.

Whether we manage to laud our own work or not, we all seem to be unified under one sentiment about seeing women stifle their own voices:

I have a lot of privilege at my disposal. I’m white, I’m able-bodied, I’m cis, and straight, and have a husband who is a frigging marketing juggernaut. My biggest obstacle is that I need to stop playing the soundtrack to Geraldine Sucks: The Musical, over and over in my head.  I thought about what Jenét told me in her email.

“I believe with my whole heart that every woman can and should be their own hype man. Women absolutely are allowed to be proud of their achievements and the products they create. Fuck anyone telling me or any woman that promoting ourselves is bragging. That it’s not feminine (code for unattractive) or classy. Fuck all of that! Closed mouths don’t get fed. The end.”

And I’m working on that. I share other women’s work. I sing their praises, even if they are too scared to sing their own. And I’m trying to be less uncomfortable about talking about my own work. I spent twenty minutes deciding whether or not to include this next paragraph. But here it is:

I wrote a book. It’s good. It really is. That is hard for me to say, not because it’s not the truth, but because I don’t want you to think I’m bragging. But whatever. I worked really hard on it and I’m proud of it, so I’m going to brag. You should buy it. It’s available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Indiebound. I recorded the audiobook, too, because I’m multi-talented and bilingual. I speak four languages in the book with some pretty solid proficiency.

Here’s my husband dancing with a couple copies of it:

I hope you still like me after this grand display of non-self-loathing. If you don’t, well, I’m trying to be cool with that, too. Baby-steps, y’all. Baby steps.

Also published on Medium.

Leave a Comment

  • All About Sana

    I was pulled to your post because like so many women, I too have my share of “am I worthy enough?” moments. My personal belief is that every successful woman has gone through her shit of meeting people who underestimate her or pull her down when she is feeling good about herself. Heck, Taylor Swift wrote a song about it. These people are nothing but free loaders themselves. They are jealous of others’ achievements. These experiences accumulate as we grow older and manifest in these self-doubting behaviors. This is what I do. I aim high. I look at women like Michelle Obama and Oprah who have fought against all norms of what a woman is capable of doing. When I look at these women who have achieved so much, I don’t feel embarrassed about my achievements. Hope this helps women!

  • Ryan Jennings

    This is what helped me Geraldine, whenever that voice of fear takes over (and I promote heaps).

    Recite and repeat, ideally first thing in the morning.

    Now I am the voice.
    I will lead not follow.
    I will create not destroy.
    I will believe not doubt.
    I am a force for good.
    Defy the odds.
    Set a new standard.
    Step up!

    Find a group that’s not afraid to feel the fear and go for it. Even better. Start one. I’ve joined Seth Godin, AltMBA. Tony Robbins and Gary Veynerchuk. They all have their own versions of unnatural confidence. It rubs off. Then give that permission to others and you will find your voice stronger than ever.

    I sat with Rand for lunch once at a Moz conference. He gave me the confidence to go large on ‘alt-tags’ and get techy with domain analysis.

    Create your ‘CEO’. Confidence Engine Optimisation. The world is waiting for you.

  • Andy Taylor

    Harry Potter: [teaching Dumbledore’s Army] Working hard is important, but there’s something else that’s even more important: believing in yourself. Look at it this way: every great wizard in history has started out as nothing more than we are now – students. If they can do it, why not us?

  • Andi Plummer

    Sending this post to two of my best friends who are women and should never feel like they can’t self-promote because they’re awesome. Thanks Geraldine!

    • Andi Plummer

      O and this also totally relates to job interviews. I think this is why I find them so difficult, you’re supposed to say how amazing you are and why they should hire you and I hate that question. Why do I find it so hard to just say “Because I am the best person for this job.”

      • Everywhereist

        And, of course, all of this relates to compensation, too. It’s equally hard to say, “I deserve this much money.”

        • Andi Plummer

          Ugh it’s so true. I’m always second guessing “wait, is that too much?” When I should be saying “Hell yes, I deserve this!”

  • jonathanwthomas

    From a different perspective – as a small business owner who turned his blog into a business – I’ve been used to hustling and self-promoting for many years. It never gets easier. But let me tell you what is REALLY painful. When you put all the work into launching a product, promote the hell out of it and scream to the rafters and no one buys it. Or they leave a shitty review on Amazon. It’s crushing. I never get used to it. But let me tell you, when something sells great – it’s the best feeling in the world. That’s what will happen to you next week when I’m sure your book becomes a bestseller – it’s going to be a great feeling (but don’t worry your old friend self doubt will still gnaw at you). Try to enjoy it when it comes!

  • Vikki Fraser

    So I saw your initial tweet asking for input but was too busy to reply but here’s my answer to that and this article. Promote it!! We followed you, not the other way around (me and gang who have never actually met you). Your family, friends, and all that are so happy for you right now (never met them either but I’m sure of this), give them more than one chance to share, like or buy. Listen you can’t ~possibly~ be more annoying than Caribbean Street vendors or the high school friend who promises her new venture IS NOT a pyramid scheme. If all else fails, channel your inner Bloggess, Jenny Lawson. She’s great at that stuff.

  • Look, I have friends that pressure me to buy jamberry nail thingies, makeup, and candy to support their kid’s baseball, etc. I would FAR prefer a friend say, “I wrote a book. Do you mind buying/promoting it?” ESPECIALLY when said friend has a hilarious blog that I can read to get a snippet before pimping out their book! I love this post. I just finished reading The Confidence Code, so this is apropos. I don’t mind promoting some things I do (knitting, writing) and yet, I don’t post multiple times when I write. I think I’ll do things differently next time I blog! Thanks for the inspiration! 🙂

    Any word on tour dates/locations? Because I’m going to buy your audiobook for me to listen to and a hard copy for a friend. If you’re not coming to Austin, I’ll cry myself to sleep and then order the hard copy from Amazon when I wake up (because I’m lazy). If you’re coming to Austin, I’ll buy the book from Book People so I can see your lovely face in person and get your John Hancock. 🙂

  • Captain_Sakonna

    I have a tough time promoting myself too, but for me it doesn’t seem to be rooted in self-loathing (gender-related or otherwise). I genuinely don’t like it when other people promote their stuff overmuch, and I don’t want to be “that guy” to someone else. For instance, when people tweet the same thing over and over, I want to yell, “I saw it the first time! Stop drowning out the other voices in my feed, I’m a mortal and I only have so much time to expend reading Twitter!” Even being invited to parties/events that I don’t want to go to, and having to say “no,” is horribly awkward from my perspective, and I would hate to force that on somebody else.
    On the other side of the coin, I *do* want to be told about or invited to things that I’m going to enjoy, obviously. But there’s a fine line, and when I’m promoting myself to other people, I feel like I’m really bad at judging where the line is. So I err on the side of not crossing it.

  • “open mouths don’t get fed.” That gave me goosebumps! I struggle with imposter syndrome and it’s hard to self-promote. I don’t knoe a solution besides forcing yourself to do it!

  • As a blogger I can relate to this because it feels like you’re being too pushy, and not lady like, promoting something you’d worked hard on. I don’t even tell people I know “in real life” about my blog because it just feels so uncomfortable to promote it or tell them about it. I’m trying harder to ignore the horrible cringing feeling I get whenever I tweet about a new blog post, but it still feels very uncomfortable. I find it so easy to share and promote other people’s work, but my own? Ew.

    I’ve followed your blog for years and I’ve not once thought anything you’ve written on here was rubbish. In fact, your honesty about things like this (and well, everything you share on here) is one of the big things I love about your work. I cannot wait to read your book and ram it down the throats of all my family and friends.

  • Oh man this was uncomfortable to read because it highlighted so many true things about myself that I wish were not true. Why DO I feel that a maximum of one announcement/request is more than enough and will oversaturate my friends or my feed, when obviously I don’t feel that way about other people who do the exact same thing??

    Somewhat related (at least on the supporting women/non-white-male-cis front) my mom is a food writer, and has decided that for the rest of time she’s only going to write about people other than white males. She feels she’s promoted plenty of them over the course of her career, and she’s over it. So it’s all women, minorities, and other underprivileged groups from here on out!

  • I can’t wait to get my copy! Then I’ll do some promoting for you 😉

  • Bridget Carter Tinkle

    Read this post. Went to Amazon. Pre-ordered your book. See? Your self-promotion totally worked.

  • Dr. Pete

    If it’s any consolation, I pre-ordered your book 5 months before Rand emailed me, and I don’t have a time machine. You’re great, the blog is great, and I’m sure the book is great.

  • You are amazing. I know how much easier it is to hear that from another than it is to say it to yourself, but thank you both for your book and for bringing this issue to light as well. I’m glad to support such eloquent, strong women when they give voice to something that matters so much to us all. Thank you!

  • Michelle Eichman Oberoi

    I pre-ordered your book and have been awaiting/expecting a few book promotion posts. A lot of us live under the proverbial rock and need to be told in simple terms that your book is on the market and how to get it. I wish you success and look forward to a post on what life is like after the release, as your publishing process and voice recording articles were so interesting.

  • Shanon Lyon

    Blah! I hate that this is true, but it is. I absolutely hate self-promoting, and the more I do, the harder it gets and more uncomfortable it feels. So much to unpack around this topic. Thanks for sharing and opening it up.

  • Lori Baker

    I have to stop myself from saying something self deprecating or wanting to climb under the table when given a compliment. I feel downright nauseous when I have to promote myself. But I want to break the cycle and I want to help other women feel less like imposters if they can see a woman talking about her own value. In every other aspect of my life I attack the things I find scary and learn that the worst thing that can happen is someone says no. It’s definitely not the horror, shame, and bloodshed I imagine. I’ve gotten a bit more confidence from a podcast called The Guilty Feminist where they give each other weekly challenges. I find it really inspiring how many good things have happened for them because they pushed themselves out of their comfort zone. I’m going to push myself, but it would really help if I had a Ruth Bader Ginsberg pillow to scream into. Screaming “holy shit!” repeatedly in the car on the drive home is also acceptable.

  • Christi DeRouen

    Had an interesting thought after reading this – I don’t know you personally but I do know your brother and he has no problem with self-promotion. Just another confirmation that this has to do with being female since it must not be how you were raised.

  • I, too, channel my inner Eeyore. “Thanks for noticin’ me.” Thank you for expressing what so many of us feel.

  • THIS. IS. SO. TRUE!! Thank you for writing this. I’ve already shared, Tweeted, FB’d it, etc. Every woman I’ve shared it with has had the same response – wow, this is me! And once it’s said out loud it’s like, why the hell am I like this? haha. It is certainly a discussion that should be kept going. Perhaps in your next book……..?

  • Great, great post, one that nails pretty much everything I struggle with as well. I’m an older Hispanic cis male and I definitely identify with the feelings you share in this post, and very specifically with the statements made by the women of color. We share a caustic deference to some perceived and some real societal expectations that we must steel ourselves to overcome. I’m actually ashamed it’s taken me almost 50 years to come to some of these realizations but at least I have.

    I’m a social media strategist, ironically, in a world of over-the-top self-promoters who provide so many false indicators that everyone else but me is great at self-promoting their amazing lives. We can feel this way even as we’re fully aware of this distortion.

    For my own self-promotion, I just haven’t believed in being boastful, that the work should stand on its own, etc., but I’ve adopted my own principles of the effects of social proof in mitigating some of my reluctance. I still terribly undershare on a personal level, recoil at the narcissists, but so greatly admire those who bare their souls as you have.

    Where I begin to spiral is when I begin to consider the very possible reality that I’m actually right when I self doubt. Because while it’s easy for people to say you’re awesome, your work is good, etc., it’s also very possible they’re wrong and you’re awful, as a person and/or in what you do. There are plenty of people who are jerks and/or who are bad at their work, but they have people telling them otherwise anyway. My desire to be real makes it hard to adopt any of the affirmation brainwashing, which leads to more of the same. Ugh.

    Anyway, thanks for writing and providing a reason for people to talk about this. I think I’m only half way through sorting all of this.

  • Tee

    I needed this today! I just started a blog about my personal battles with Depression and Anxiety (and spending a week in a Psych Ward), and over and over again people have sung its praises, and said that it’s powerful. My goal with this blog is to show that everyday people–the kid at the grocery store bagging your groceries, the lady next to you in yoga class–are real and deal with something that is so very stigmatized. I want to do my part to de-stigmatize mental health issues, and Goddamit, I’m GOOD. So, I’m going to both follow you on Twitter AND share this and ask my friends to share my blog. THANK YOU!


  • You are a fantastic writer and I have bought, and can’t wait to read, your book. Love your bravery for saying out loud that it is good. I know it is even before reading it.

  • Bonniejean

    That Lady Boss video changed my life. I watch it every day to get pumped up. You do you, Geraldine. Because you are incredibly funny and very, very smart.

  • Hi Geraldine,
    This is indeed a timely post. Many hesitate to promote their products of getting annoyed by others.
    But in reality, it is the other way round. Unless and until we ourselves shout it out who else will do for us!
    In my believe and experience, it is we are the one the who need to take initiative to promote our products.
    Self promotion is not at all bad! Of course a meager number may not support this concept, i firmly believe that it is a must do by authors.
    I belive in the ratio of 20:80 that is to say 20% for creating the product/resource or whatever it is and an 80% promotion required to get the end result! I am sure it is a proven method too!
    Thanks for sharing this interactive post very informative indeed.
    Keep sharing
    Have a wonderful and profitable and promotion full month of May 2017

  • Jennifer Sanow

    Thanks for writing this! I literally have a hard time asking MEMBERS OF MY OWN FAMILY to read my blog, much less the general public, even when I think I’m kind of funny (sorry for thinking that, world).

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