What if all that stood between you and that promotion was a little bit of background noise?
You know the relief you feel the moment you can attribute days of emotional turmoil to your monthly cycle? Or when you lash out at a coworker and realize you just need a snack? As soon as we realize there may be a scientific justification for our behavior, we often start to chill out.
It’s called a “misattribution source,” and a new study suggests it may confirm that women are profoundly uncomfortable talking themselves up -- especially in the workplace.
In the study, titled “Women’s Bragging Rights: Overcoming Modesty Norms to Facilitate Women’s Self Promotion,” in Psychology of Women Quarterly, Jessi L. Smith, a psychology professor at Montana State University, investigated the link between “norm violation” and the ability to self-promote. It's well-documented that women are less inclined to talk about their achievements than men, largely due to a culture that mandates female modesty -- for a number of reasons.
As Kat Stoeffel wrote on The Cut last year, often this results from rational consideration of potential costs: Data shows that people don't always respond favorably to a woman speaking her mind. As such, telling women to praise themselves can cause anxiety.
When Smith and research assistant Megan Huntoon asked college-aged women at Montana State University to write two letters of recommendation for a scholarship -- one on their own behalf and one for a friend -- letters written for friends were judged as considerably better in quality than letters of self-recommendation. Why did these women have such a hard time writing on their own behalf? According to psychologists, engaging in a “norm violating” activity triggers anxiety, and ultimately, poorer outcomes. Even in 2014, fear of un-ladylike bragging stresses women out.
But what if we could trick women into feeling at ease? Since the 1970s, psychologists, have studied whether attributing to stress to an external source (other than deeply imbedded psychological concerns) can alleviate anxiety. Could it enhance performance, too? Smith and Huntoon wanted to find out.
As some of the study's participants sat down to write their recommendation letters, the researchers informed them that a "black box subliminal noise generator" would be causing them anxiety. Of course, such a thing doesn’t exist -- but the women being studied didn't know that. Simply put, the researchers wanted to see if women could unknowingly surrender their fear and overcome their self-imposed modesty -- allowing them to actually give themselves the credit they deserve.
And, lo and behold, when given something external to blame their anxiety on, the women performed better. Those who had the black box "as justification to explain their discomfort" wrote letters awarded up to $1,000 by a panel of impartial judges. They also expressed more interest -- and saw more value -- in writing the letter when channeling their stress towards a made-up source. Clearly, the mind is eager to let go of inhibitions when given permission.
So, what are the practical implications of this study? Tell female SAT takers the heat is broken? Conduct year-end reviews in construction zones? Not exactly. However, there are things employers can do to help.
In reaction to this study, HuffPost Associate Business Editor Jillian Berman wrote of several practical ways employers can ensure accomplishments and qualifications are addressed that don't require women to constantly vocalize them. To start, employers "should assume women are probably underselling themselves" and companies like Google and Time have already taken steps to "create safe spaces for self-promotion," Berman writes.
These findings are critical in understanding why a gender wage gap persists -- particularly in higher management. Confirming that women may find it harder to speak up for themselves should inform the way managers and search committees use women’s self-evaluations in promotion and hiring situations.
In the meantime, we can encourage women to let themselves off the modesty hook themselves. Ladies, it's time to lean in without being pushed.