Winner Take All: Do Awards Matter In The Career Growth of Women Leaders?

Awards can offer acknowledge and increase business prospects, but when and why should you apply?

Awards can offer acknowledge and increase business prospects, but when and why should you apply?

It can be a small glass prism with your name engraved on the base, one that you display on your desk for a few months, then on a bookshelf, then in a drawer, then throw away a few years later if you change jobs or move your office.

Or it can be the recognition you dreamed of, the pinnacle achievement you worked to have for years that finally arrives from your employer, your industry or your national or global organization.

The awards can be as glamorous as the Women’s Media Center Awards in New York recently, honoring Salma Hayek with WMC Sisterhood is Global Award, as well as Samantha Bee, Joy Reid and more.

Or awards can be as local and specific as the International Living Future Institute with its recent nod to Kathleen Smith, Vice President of the Living Building Challenge, as winner of Green Building & Design’s Women in Sustainability Leadership Awards.

If you are like me, every day you seem to get email and social media announcements of awards handed out for excellence, achievement and innovation in your field and beyond. We may be afraid to apply, we may be consumed with envy for the winner. If we are lucky, we may be the winner. And we are always wondering if an award contributes to career growth.

We all are familiar with (and perhaps addicted to watching) the glamorous entertainment awards shows for women in music, movies, TV and more, as they prance and pose on the red carpet in dresses, outfits and gems many dream of wearing.

But do acknowledgment and awards really matter for women in leadership’s career growth? And why does everyone seem to hand them out? And one more thought, is there a gender gap in awards in business?

Do acknowledgment and awards really matter for women in leadership’s career growth? #taketheleadwomen

University of Zurich researchers recently studied the incentives and non-monetary benefits of awards in academia and volunteer sectors and concluded that indeed, awards are motivating tools. So we do strive to win awards and get the applause at the dinner where the statue or prop is handed to us.

In other research, academics are looking to see if a gender gap exists and if incentives to win these awards are different for women. They are also studying if awards impact women down the pipeline, hampering or enhancing career growth.

“Markers of achievement for leadership concern women leaders in both non-executive and executive roles,” according to researchers from 11 universities and institutions worldwide including University of Oxford and Brandeis University.

According to the authors of the ongoing study, “Our intention is to develop a new multidimensional conceptual framework for gender equity performance assessment in order to use it both for retrospective evaluation and prospective planning and monitoring with a view to accelerating women’s advancement and leadership.”

In other words, they intend to see if there is a gender gap in awards for achievement and if more men routinely win awards than women, based on who is nominated, who is applying, who is judging and who has historically won. And they are studying if this has an impact on overall career growth.

Writing about awards and prizes specifically in the geosciences, author Bernard Wood writes in Elements, “Having been a member of several awards committees, it has become apparent to me that few of us take the trouble to nominate even the most deserving of colleagues for awards.”

Wood has a few theories on why some may shy away from awards.

  1. The Tall Poppy Syndrome: “This term (Australian I believe) relates to the tendency of people of merit to be cut down, resented or criticized because they are more distinguished than their peers. Many people don’t want to nominate a ‘tall poppy’ because they feel that the nominee has already had enough success or that this success is out of proportion to the nominees’ ability. The Japanese have a similar expression to “tall poppy syndrome” that refers to hammering down nails which stand out.”

  2. Enough Is Enough: “Seniority and patronage play a role almost everywhere, but where they dominate there is no need to seek “extra” external recognition.”

  3. The System is Rigged: “There may be a feeling that awards are pre-arranged by the committee and that it is pointless to make an unsolicited nomination.”

And yet, awards can have an undeniable economic impact on business for the recipient. Recognition for excellence in any form does more than massage the ego, it can amplify your career growth, signal to clients and audiences that your work is stellar, that your performance exceeds standards.

Awards can have an undeniable economic impact on business for the recipient #womenleaders #taketheleadwomen

Especially in a culture where children are awarded huge trophies for youth sports beginning in preschool, those children grow up to adults who recognize and perhaps crave the need for recognition.

“Awards are attracting attention from a variety of scholars in sociology, economics and the humanities more broadly. They are studied as signifiers of cultural value and signals of quality in a market dominated by quality uncertainty,” according to new research from George Mason University and Erasmus University Rotterdam.

Awards, then, can be equated with a level of excellence. The global buzz around the Nobel prizes announced recently attest to that. And if you are acknowledged with an award as an entrepreneur, business owner or business leader, your recognition and status can improve, your career growth can receive a jump start.

As an author, I know that when I write a new book, both my publisher and I will submit the book in multiple contests, national and regional, knowing that a win does signal an uptick in book sales.

Awards can also be a monetary amount, ranging from hundreds of dollars to thousands and even to $1 million, as philosopher Charles Taylor was recently awarded with the Berggruen Prize. Next month L’Oreal Paris will honor a new round of Women of Worth, women from around the world who have made a difference with their ideas and their entrepreneurship.

The prestige of winning an award is something you can add to your resume, your introductions to business associates, potential employers and future clients as a way to acknowledge the “shiny baubles” of your achievements. Yes, it can be part of the narrative of your career growth.

Unless it is from an outside nominating agency, ultimately, the decision to apply for a contest or to seek nomination for an award may be up to you.

“Awards motivate my team and enhance our reputation. Yet, given that I don’t believe in awards for just showing up, I don’t want my team to become reliant on the little hit that winning an award gives. If the team is always working for awards, it misses the real point, which is working for our customers,” writes  Marjorie Adams. president/CEO of Fourlane, in Black Enterprise.

Adams lays out her own criteria for guiding her employees on whether or not to apply for an award.

  1. “Credibility. Awards help raise your profile and, regardless of the source, they look impressive.

  2. Marketing and PR. Awards give you an excuse to send out a press release and reach out to your clients and customers.

  3. Morale Boost. Your team gets a real boost from being acknowledged for their hard work. As a company, an award gives you the excuse to celebrate; you’ve received outside confirmation of your firm’s quality.

  4. Competitive advantage. Can your competitors say they have won awards? Awards differentiate your company from others. You can mention awards in proposals and other write-ups about your company.”

Writing in Business Collective, Adams continues that the cons for not applying include the time it takes to apply, the time needed for evidence gathering and the letdown if you or your team do not win.

She also suggests that the award is only worthwhile if the organization handing out the award is credible. Here are her suggestions to establish credibility:

  • “Have you ever heard of them? Organizations like Chambers of Commerce, industry publications or industry trade groups are good options.

  • Look at the award categories being offered. If there are an exorbitant amount of obscure categories being offered, don’t ignore the alarm bells you hear.

  • Look at companies who have won or applied in the past. You want your company to be in the presence of other great companies. That doesn’t mean you will know all of them (my firm isn’t a household name), but you should recognize some.”

Whatever you decide, Adams writes, “The best advice I can give is to find a way that makes sense to you and your clients/customers. After all, we have to differentiate ourselves to grow our businesses. Just remember to proceed with your eyes open. Today, success can often depend on transparency, and getting a trophy for something you didn’t earn won’t hold long-term meaning, for you or your clients.”

About the Author

Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. @micheleweldon