London - There is much reported about the curtailment of women in the workplace. But discrimination and childcare issues notwithstanding, is it possible that women are in part holding themselves back in many areas of their lives by being too modest?
This is the theory expounded in new research which has found that while men are happy to boast and advertise (even in some cases exaggerate) their successes, women downplay their own accomplishments.
The study, conducted at Montana State University and published in Psychology of Women Quarterly, found that although women were more than willing to endorse a female friend’s deeds, society’s gender norms meant they felt uncomfortable self- promoting.
While we might feel a certain level of humility is to be admired, this reserved attitude may be doing women untold harm at work.
Female undergraduates were found to be reluctant to talk about their own achievements in the study, because society disapproved of women who were perceived to be bragging about themselves and praised modesty.
On the other hand males who brag or “big up” their work or successes are viewed by others to be confident and more capable.
Past research has already shown that men are not affected by modesty norms as women are, and while this study might seem to give weight to this finding and thus place a further block in the way of women who wish to compete in a male-dominated workforce, it also offers a glimmer of hope.
The researchers, led by Jessi L Smith, professor of psychology, found a method which seemed to free women from the constraints of what they thought was acceptable behaviour.
Smith says: “We live in a society where cultural gender norms are powerful and imbedded in our history.
“This is in 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.”
The study found that, as expected, if female students were asked to write an essay about either themselves or a friend, the essays about the friend were rated far higher by a group of independent judges.
However, the researchers introduced a distraction into the room in which one of the groups were writing essays about themselves.
They placed a large black box in the centre of the room and told the women, who believed the essays were being written for a competition, that it was a “subliminal noise generator” that produced ultra-high frequency noise that couldn’t be heard, but could cause them discomfort.
The group that were told this story, and thus had an explanation for the unease they felt while writing about themselves, wrote far better essays than a group who were not given any explanation of the box’s presence in the room.
Smith says: “There is no such thing as a subliminal noise generator. It was total fiction. But we had given them an explanation for any anxiety they felt while writing their essay.
“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.
“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, who has already begun working with companies and bosses to help address this issue says: “I tell them that the woman that you are reading about on paper is likely really more outstanding than she appears.” – Daily Mail