Jessi L Smith

Jessi L Smith; MSU photo by Kelly Gorham

Montana State University's Jessi Smith has been getting calls from national reporters about her research into women's reluctance to brag about their accomplishments and how to level the playing field in the workplace.

Ironically, Smith, an associate professor in psychology, said Thursday that while she was getting calls from national media like the Huffington Post and Public Radio International, she hadn't told her own boss.

Instead – much like the women in her study – she downplayed the recognition by telling her supervisor she was being interviewed for “some research.”

Society expects women to be “modest,” Smith said, and so women feel uncomfortable bragging about their own successes. That's not new.

What's new about her study is that it looked for possible solutions. She concluded there are ways to make it easier for women to communicate their accomplishments, without bragging.

“Women's Bragging Rights: Overcoming Modesty Norms to Facilitate Women's Self-Promotion,” was published Dec. 20 in the Psychology of Women Quarterly. Smith did the study with Meghan Huntoon, a former MSU student, now a Ph.D. student at Northern Illinois University.

Smith's conclusion is contrary to the message in Sheryl Sandberg's best-selling book, “Lean In.” Sandberg urges women to “get yourself to the table,” Smith said, to be assertive, tell bosses about your accomplishments and ask for a raise or better job.

But Smith said there's a danger of “blaming the victim” in that message. To overcome society's unwritten rules demanding modesty, Smith said, a better answer is for bosses to seek out information about men and women employees' accomplishments in an even-handed, impartial way that doesn't reward bragging.

“You can suggest to women, ‘Ignore the norms, be assertive,'” Smith said. “But they run a very real risk of a backlash.

“It's a pretty difficult Catch-22,” she said. “If women don't brag about themselves, they might not get promoted or the best opportunities. But if they do … nobody wants to work with them.”

When women do talk about their accomplishments, they tend to downplay things, saying, for example, “It was a team effort,” she said. When men brag about accomplishments, they tend to be seen as confident.

Other studies have found similar gender differences. When men negotiate, they start asking for higher bids, she said. When asked about their grade point averages, men tend to overinflate their GPAs, while women tend to underinflate.

Employers can make a difference, Smith said. One example can be seen at MSU, which this year changed the way it conducts annual employee reviews, she said.

Last year, faculty in her department had to write letters describing their accomplishments. This year, they were asked instead to fill out an online form, listing just the facts – research articles published, whether they were peer-reviewed, etc. That leaves less room for stereotypes or playing one's accomplishments either up or down.

Smith was inspired to conduct the study after she asked MSU faculty women to write about what they were doing for the Women's Faculty Caucus newsletter. She noticed that no one wrote about herself, but several women wrote about the great things their friends and colleagues were doing. (It was Carol Schmidt in MSU's news service, rather than Smith herself, who suggested the, Chronicle might be interested in doing a story on her bragging research.)

In Smith's study, four groups of 20 female students, most of them freshmen, were asked to write essays for a scholarship, supposed to be worth up to $5,000.

Impartial judges evaluated the essays, and awarded an average of $1,500 less to essays written about the young women's own accomplishments vs. essays on the accomplishments of others.

The researchers then put a black box in the writing room, and gave one group of freshmen women essay-writers the fictional explanation that it emitted a high frequency noise that might cause discomfort. The other group had the black box with no explanation.

The young women who could explain away their anxiety because of the black box wrote self-promoting essays that won $1,000 more than the group with no explanation.

Smith said she recently shared her findings with Gov. Steve Bullock's Equal Pay for Equal Work Task Force, which is looking into why Montana women earn only 67 cents for every $1 earned by men.

The modesty effect, Smith said, “feeds into the pay gap.”

The cultural emphasis on modesty comes from women's traditional role as family caretakers concerned about the group, Smith said, while men are expected to be assertive, independent breadwinners.

Unfortunately, she said the rewards for fulfilling gender expectations are so different. Men get merit raises, promotions and better salaries, she said. The reward for women is that “they are ‘liked.'”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at or 582-2633.