Is Self-Promotion Still A Risk For Women? 8 Sep 2021

Even those who seem genuinely interested in helping women advance their careers, often ascribe to the idea that if only women leaned in, or showed more confidence, we would see more of them in leadership roles.

To be sure, in a logical world we would promote not just women, but also men, on the basis of their competence rather than confidence. But in the real world those in charge of judging talent and performance are often too lazy or distracted to detect true indicators of either, so impression management is rampant. Unfortunately, those who speak loudest or show off unashamedly (no prizes for guessing they are more often male than female) tend to advance their careers more than those who are quietly talented or focused on combining hard work with humility and discretion (no prizes for guessing they are more often female than male). Indeed, self-promotion leads to actual promotions independently of real merit or talent, widening the gap between individuals’ career success and their actual value.

In that sense, asking women to be less humble, perhaps by incentivizing them to emulate the much more common variant of hubris found in men (e.g., encouraging them to apply for jobs even when they are not qualified for them, speak even when they have nothing to say, and make womansplaining as common as mansplaining), seems a reasonable tactic for advancing women’s career, except for the non-trivial fact that it may actually not work. Indeed, decades of psychological research have consistently highlighted a “double bind” whereby women are damned if they don’t self-promote (because this is interpreted as a lack of interest in being a leader), and damned if they do (because that is interpreted as unfeminine or overly masculine).

Because gender differences in vocational interests and achievements do change over time, mostly eroding traditional archetypes of masculine and feminine behaviors, and trending towards androgyny, one would perhaps think (and hope) that in the 21st century we do not apply these ancient leadership archetypes that propel men to the top and make women good followers. For instance, if career-related behaviors and orientations, such as leadership, are becoming less gender-normative, then it is logical to expect that we may be abandoning the double standards we historically applied to male and female behaviors at work, yet this is far from reality.

Consider some recent research findings on this:

(1) Given that most self-promotion happens online now, particularly vis-a-vis work and careers, research has examined gender differences in digital self-promotion or showing off. Results suggest that men engage in much more assertive self-presentational strategies of entitlement, enhancement, and blasting than women.

(2) Already in college women feel uncomfortable self-promoting because they fear that they will be evaluated negatively for it, in effect paying a tax rather than enjoying a premium. In contrast, men reap the benefits of showing off, even when they feel no pressure to do so.

(3) Pretty much anywhere in the world, men think they are smarter than women even though they aren’t. In that sense, men tend to brag because they are unaware of their limitations, whereas women self-promote less because they are self-aware. As Voltaire said, “doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd”.

(4) Self-promotion is often fueled by narcissism, which is more commonly found in men than women. So, the more deluded, entitled, and arrogant you are, the more you will tend to brag. However, the main problem is that we like to throw gasoline to this fire: many of the masculine traits that underpin narcissism – overconfidence, assertiveness, bravado, risk-taking, and fearless defiance – are not just tolerated, but also celebrated in men. This is probably the single best explanation for the typical profile of heads of states around the world, and there are no signs of change.

This is not to say that there aren’t any role reversals at all. For example, a recent analysis of social media activity among US politicians (mining 2 million tweets by congresspeople between 2017 and 2021) found that female politicians actually self-promoted more than their male peers, at least online. So perhaps politics is the great equalizer, albeit to the bottom rather than the top of the talent pyramid.

More broadly, longitudinal data suggests that since the 1990s women have become less feminine and more masculine. Given that most of the traits that enhance leadership performance are traditionally feminine traits (e.g., empathy, self-awareness, humility, altruism, integrity, self-control, and emotional intelligence are all higher in women than in men), it is a pity that cultural norms and evolution are turning women into men, rather than vice-versa. It would be far more probable to boost the overall performance of leaders if we managed to get fewer women to emulate men, and more men to emulate women – and actually appreciate them for doing so.