Women’s Self-Advocacy: Self-Promotion and Violating the “Female Modesty” Norm

Corinne Moss-Racusin

Corinne Moss-Racusin

Many women experience anxiety when required to showcase their accomplishments and skills, yet many in the U.S. have heard that self-promotion, personal marketing, and “selling yourself” are required to be recognized and rewarded at work.

Gender norms about “modesty” contribute to women’s discomfort in highlighting their accomplishments.
These implicit rules include:

  • holding a moderate opinion of one’s skills,
  • lacking pretentiousness,
  • minimizing responsibility for success,
  • accepting responsibility for failure.
Laurie Rudman

Laurie Rudman

In contrast, many American men proactively showcase their skills, which leads others to see them as “competent,” “capable,” and “confident.”
In fact, this norm is associated with “backlash” against men who adopt the “modesty” norm and do not advertise their successes, according to Skidmore’s Corinne Moss-Racusin, Julie Phelan of Langer Research Associates, and Rutgers’ Laurie Rudman.

Women from cultures that value cooperation, collaboration, and collective accomplishment over individual recognition have even greater challenges adopting local career advancement strategies.

Marie‐Hélène Budworth

Marie‐Hélène Budworth

Yet, conforming to these norms limits women’s career advancement, found York University‘s MarieHélène Budworth and Sara L. Mann of University of Guelph.

Deborah A. Small

Deborah A. Small

Women who adhere to implicit “female modesty” expectations experience this career handicap because they are less likely to ask for promotions and raises.
This reluctance to ask contributed to women’s long-term pay disparity according to University of Pennsylvania’s Deborah A. Small, Linda Babcock of Carnegie Mellon University, University of Maryland’s Michele Gelfand and Hilary Gettman.

Peter Glick

Peter Glick

However, if women violate “modesty norms”, they can experience discrimination in hiring, promotion, and wages, reported Rutgers’ Rudman and Peter Glick of Lawrence University.
In addition, they can experience other adverse interpersonal consequences, noted Yale’s Victoria Brescoll.

Mark Zanna

Mark Zanna

People who violate norms typically experience situational arousal including discomfort, anxiety, fear, nervousness, perspiration, increased heart rate, noted University of Waterloo’s Mark Zanna and Joel Cooper of Princeton.

However, if women attribute this physical activation to something other than the norm violation, they were more likely to:

Jessi L Smith

Jessi L Smith

Despite women’s career “double bind,” targeted interventions can help women to communicate more effectively about their successes, noted Montana State University’s Jessi L. Smith and Meghan Huntoon.

More than 75 women wrote sample essays for a merit-based “scholarship” valued up to USD $5,000.
One group was composed essays about their own accomplishments whereas another group wrote about another person’s accomplishments.

Andrew Elliott

Andrew Elliott

They also completed Achievement Goal Questionnaire – Revised by University of Rochester Andrew Elliot and Kou Murayama of Tokyo Institute of Technology to evaluate “performance approach” and “performance avoidance.”

The laboratory contained a black box described as a “subliminal noise generator.”
Half the volunteers were told the box produced “inaudible but potentially uncomfortable ultra-high frequency noise,” and they were later asked to evaluate “the effects of extraneous distractions on task performance.”
The remaining participants received no information about the black box.

Victoria Brescoll

Victoria Brescoll

Women who could attribute their experience to the “noise generator” produced higher-quality, more convincing descriptions of their achievements, measured by being “awarded” significantly higher scholarships prizes – up to USD $1,000 more.
These women also said they were more interested in the task, which is typically associated with greater intrinsic motivation to showcase personal accomplishments.

In contrast, women who violated the “modesty” norm without reference to the “noise generator” said they were:

  • Less interested in describing their achievements,
  • Negatively evaluated their performance,
  • Produced lower-quality essays,
  • More likely to fear failure, 
    than when they advocated for another woman.

Women perceived as displaying their accomplishments in essays were negatively evaluated by judges, who “awarded” an average of USD $1,500 less to people wrote about their own accomplishments rather than about someone else’s.

Leon Festinger

Leon Festinger

One “workaround” for women’s double bind is to reciprocally advocate for female colleagues.
This strategy highlights women’s accomplishments as organizational policies evolve to support and encourage women’s self-promotion.
An example is Google’s self-nomination process for advancement and promotion, coupled with reminder emails to submit self-nominations.

When women reconstrue self-promotion of professional accomplishments as “part of the job,” they tend to experience less cognitive dissonance and perform more effectively when showcasing their capabilities.

  • How do you manage the norm against women “bragging” and showcasing their accomplishments?


Twitter  @kathryn.welds
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©Kathryn Welds

3 thoughts on “Women’s Self-Advocacy: Self-Promotion and Violating the “Female Modesty” Norm

  1. kathrynwelds Post author

    Selena Flood wrote:

    It’s a funny thing, even when your experience, background, and credentials stand on their own merit, many people have an issue with “certain” females mentioning their accomplishments in a non-egotistical way. In most instances, it creates a hostile backlash from co-workers and is deemed as threatening to insecure, “old school”, unexposed hierarchy. Be very careful who you extol your virtues to because what is good for the goose and certain ganders usually doesn’t work well for minority females in traditionally male-dominated roles or workplaces.

    Kathryn Welds replied

    Thanks so much, Selena, for real-world validation of lab research.
    Your experience reinforce the importance of carefully managing self-promotion to minimize the risk of backlash.

  2. kathrynwelds Post author

    JJ DiGeronimo wrote:

    A recent fast company article states, “professional success for women is dependent on “documentable and measureable competence” or basically, a proven track record.” (From The Surprising Ways That Networking Fails Women By Vivian Giang) – with this said, women have to share (at some level) their desires and their milestone which could be seen as a violation yet is equality the goal?

    Kathryn this is an amazing article! Thank you for putting this together.
    @kathrynwelds @jjdigeronimo @techsavvywomen

    Kathryn Welds replied:

    Thanks, JJ, for your reference to Lily Fang and Sterling Fang’s research a on the relative importance of social contacts vs accomplishments and skills for men and women. http://www.insead.edu/facultyresearch/research/doc.cfm?did=48816

    As you note, they found that men benefit from connections than women both in terms of job performance and in terms of subjective evaluation by others even though women and men had similar number of connections in their networks and equal educations and job skills.

    Thought women can benefit from developing skills to increase their visibility and to capitalize on their education, interpersonal connections, and education, the Silicon Valley Business Journal recently opined that “For women engineers, it’s about fixing the workplace, not self-confidence.”

  3. kathrynwelds Post author

    JJ DiGeronimo continued:

    No doubt, many workplaces are in need of more diverse teams and will eventually realize that the organizations that make inclusive cultures a priority through direct actions will benefit from their acute focus.

    My recent post that share a perspective: Are You Overlooking These Women Leaders in Your Organization?

    Thanks for the great conversation!

    Kathryn Welds replied:
    Thanks so much, JJ, for sharing these helpful resources in your blog post:

    Professional Women Blogs: http://www.purposefulwoman.com/blog

    Videos for Working Women: http://www.techsavvywomen.tv


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