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.
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.
Yet, conforming to these norms limits women’s career advancement, found York University‘s Marie‐Hélène Budworth and Sara L. Mann of University of Guelph.
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.
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.
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:
- Engage in self-promotion,
- Express interest in self-promotion,
- More effectively describe their accomplishments.One example is reattributing “anxiety” to “excitement,” leading to improved performance.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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