Ladies: Modesty is Not the Best Policy

By Rebekah Peterson

Ladies, have you ever been told you did a great job and your gut reaction is to say:

“It was no big deal.”

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“It was just a little hard work.”

“I got some help along the way.”

Or, “I just got lucky”?

These are just a few examples of the ways women keep themselves from self-promoting, which is when you clearly articulate your strengths and accomplishments to a person to advance your professional career.

But why do women downplay their accomplishments?

In short, violating modesty norms (the expectation that women should be humble and modest and not talk about their own strengths) makes women uncomfortable. And research shows that women need to (and can) power through this discomfort if they want to be successful at work.

In 2013, researchers Smith and Huntoon randomly selected 78 women from a Northwestern university to write an essay for a scholarship application that promotes the merits of either themselves (breaking modesty norms) or another person as a letter of recommendation (not breaking modesty norms).

The researchers thought breaking the modesty norm would cause self-promoting women anxiety and in turn affect their ability to self-promote in their essays.

Turns out they were right.

When they asked the women about the experience of writing, the self-promoting women expressed less interest in the task, were more likely to adopt performance-avoiding goals (“I just wanted to avoid doing poorly on the task”), and felt they performed poorly.

But it wasn’t just the women themselves who judged their work poorly. The researchers took all the essays and had 44 new impartial research participants judge them. The catch was, the researchers reformatted the essays that were written about another person to sound like people were writing about themselves.  This way the judges couldn’t tell the difference between essays that were written to self-promote, and those that were originally written to promote others.  Result: the participants assessed the self-promoting essays as lower quality compared to those that originally promoted another person.

So, women couldn’t promote themselves as effectively due to their anxiety, but could effectively promote for another person.

Here’s where it gets crazy:

There was actually a second group of women who completed the same task, but they were told there was a black box in the room that generated subliminal noise and could cause them discomfort. In reality, the box was a fake and there was no subliminal noise.

But, the women who self-promoted with the supposed “subliminal noise” expressed more interest, adapted more performance-approach goals (“I wanted to do better than other students”), and felt their work was of higher quality.

So, it’s not that woman don’t have the ability to self-promote, they just need something to blame their anxiety about self-promoting on.

Does this mean all women should turn on a subliminal noise when they need to self-promote?

Of course not, but here are some tips:

  • Employers should recognize that women are downplaying themselves and work to encourage women to self-promote.
  • Women should recognize this makes them uncomfortable and practice talking about their own accomplishments so they can power through any anxiety.
  • Most importantly, women should support other women who self-promote and break modesty norms. Make a pact with your friends to call each other out when you’re downplaying and congratulate when you successfully self-promote.

So remember, next time you’re doubting yourself–you didn’t get lucky. You killed it.

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