A Montana State University study has found that gender norms about modesty help explain why women don’t feel comfortable bragging about their own accomplishments.
However, there are techniques that can help women communicate more effectively about their successes, say the study’s authors Jessi L. Smith, MSU psychology professor, and former student Meghan Huntoon.
“This sheds light on an important issue and brings into question how we look at self-nomination for awards, cover letters for job applications and even pay raises,” Smith said.
Smith and Huntoon’s study, titled “Women’s Bragging Rights: Overcoming Modesty Norms to Facilitate Women’s Self-Promotion,” was published in the Dec. 20 in “Psychology of Women Quarterly.”
The research, which sampled nearly 80 MSU undergraduate women, confirmed that women downplay their own accomplishments but have no trouble promoting a friend, Smith said.
Past research had shown than men are not affected by modesty norms like women are. However, this was among the first studies to test ways to help women write about themselves effectively.
Smith and Huntoon, who is now a doctoral student in psychology at Northern Illinois University, began the study when Smith saw an interesting response to a request for submissions to an MSU Women’s Faculty Caucus newsletter.
“Nobody responded about themselves. Not one,” Smith recalled. However, many women told Smith about things happening with their friends and colleagues.
The researchers found that American women are reluctant to talk about their accomplishments because cultural norms promote modesty, and society disapproves of women who are perceived to be bragging. However, Smith said, American men who brag are perceived as confident and capable.
“Cultural gender norms are powerful and embedded in our history,” she said. “This is no way, shape or form to be blamed on women. It’s just part of our culture, and it is our job to find ways to change these cultural norms.”
In Smith and Huntoon’s study, four groups of about 20 mostly freshmen female students at MSU were each asked to write essays for a merit-based scholarship that ranged in value up to $5,000. The subjects were told that the essays would be used as samples to help other students improve their essay skills.
One group was asked to write about their own accomplishments; another group was asked to write about the someone else’s accomplishments. A group of impartial judges evaluated the essays, awarding an average of $1,500 less to essays in which people wrote about their own accomplishments.
To study whether female modesty could be overcome, Smith and Huntoon had another two groups write essays about themselves but introduced a distraction.
A 3-foot square black box was placed in the room where the students wrote. The researchers told one of the groups that the box was a “subliminal noise generator” that produced ultra-high frequency noise that couldn’t be heard, but could cause them discomfort. The other control group wasn’t told what the box in the room was.
“There is no such thing as a subliminal noise generator,” Smith said. “But, we had given them an explanation for any anxiety they felt while writing their essay.”
The group that had the black box as justification for their discomfort wrote essays that were awarded up to $1,000 more than the group that had no explanation. And they enjoyed the writing experience more, too.
“The key here is that when women had an alternative explanation for why they might be feeling uncomfortable – the supposed noise generator- the awkwardness they felt from violating the modesty norm by writing about themselves was diverted, and they did just fine,” Smith said.
Smith said the research has broad practical implications. People in authority positions, for example, should put in place practices that make it feel normal for women to promote their accomplishments, Smith said.
“Cultural shifts take time, so while we wait, our results also suggest that people should be proactive and promote the accomplishments of their female friends and colleagues to their bosses. Women were very good at promoting the accomplishments of friends.”
Smith said she has already used the results of the study in talks to search groups, pay equity task forces and others who review applications from women.
“I tell them that the woman that you are reading about on paper is likely really more outstanding than she appears.”