Getting a woman to talk (about herself)

January 17

It’s a storied stereotype that women love to talk. They call each other up on the phone, go out for coffee dates, they gossip, they gab. But when it comes to talking about themselves, women are far less likely than men to speak up.

According to Jessi Smith, a Montana State University psychology researcher and professor, “Men are not reluctant to talk about themselves and will sometimes exaggerate or inflate things like their grade point average or how big that fish was that they caught. Women, on the other hand, are much more modest and humble.”

While modesty and humility are not the worst attributes to exhibit, the anxiety women suffer when asked to talk about themselves can hurt them in the most reasonable of circumstances — a job interview, for instance. And sadly, the women that do brag get punished for it. Smith’s findings are in a recently published study entitled “Women’s Bragging Rights: Overcoming Modesty Norms to Facilitate Women’s Self-Promotion.”

“If you say an accomplishment but you change the gender of the person saying it [to female], she’s not liked.” Smith said Thursday on The Takeaway. “Both men and women don’t like her. They think she’s smart but they don’t want to be her friend and they don’t want to allocate resources or rewards to her.”

Here’s the kicker: “So, in some ways, women are smart enough to have figured out over time that when they violate the modesty norm, it doesn’t feel good and people aren’t going to respond favorably to them.”

Ann Friedman in Pacific Standard magazine found similar conclusions.

“It’s not that women don’t want to succeed,” she wrote. “It’s that, despite their education and experience, they’ve internalized messages about their lack of qualification.”

Smith set out to reverse the anxiety that cultural norms inflict on women who try to talk about themselves. In a study she conducted with Meghan Huntoon, she found that women had no problem talking about their accomplishments if there was something else to attribute their anxiety to.

Smith said this was a classic example of the misattribution paradigm where if you give people an external justification for any anxiety they’re feeling, they will blame their anxiety on that external justification. This doesn’t mean we should introduce something new for women to feel anxious about. Instead, how can we use Smith’s findings to get quiet women to talk about themselves? Especially when it’s necessary for landing a job, negotiating a salary or asking for a raise?

People in authority need to implement practices that make it normal for women to promote their accomplishments, Smith said.

To hiring managers, Smith added, “Instead of saying, ‘Tell us about the great work you’ve done,’ say ‘Please tell us the big projects that you’ve completed this year.’”

And to those who’ve already won the job but are in pursuit of fair compensation, Friedman says confidence is necessary.

“Those who are paid higher have usually negotiated harder,” Friedman wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review. “Especially if you’re at the stage in your career where you’re going to define your future earning potential, negotiation is not optional.”

If negotiating a salary sounds intimidating, Smith assures that it’s going to be.

“Cultural shifts take time,” she said. “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.”

Time to start talking.

Ruth Tam is a writer based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @ruthetam.
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