Ah, the see-saw advice that women face when it comes to professional success. Can we have it all? Should we lean in? Would that require bragging more? Yes, research has shown that self-promotion is a significant component to closing the gap between men's and women’s achievements in the workplace. But thanks to societal gender norms, women are often told to be modest, demure, and polite. What’s a self-respecting but socially conditioned gal to do?
Subverting these proscribed gender norms can make women uncomfortable. We’re conditioned to behave in certain ways to fit in, and when we act in a way that’s inconsistent with the norm, it can trigger what’s called situational arousal, “often experienced as discomfort, anxiety, fear, or nervousness, as well as physiological symptoms such as increased perspiration or heart rate,” according to Jessi Smith and Meghan Huntoon, authors of a new paper on women’s self-promotion in Psychology of Women Quarterly. Smith and Huntoon, both of Montana State University’s psychology department, wondered if there could be a way to help women overcome these feelings and allow them to brag about their accomplishments with wanton abandon.
The researchers recruited female freshmen at the university to write essays about their own accomplishments or about someone else’s. In the room where they wrote these essays, there was a three-foot-wide black box. The researchers told one group of students that the box was a “subliminal noise generator,” one that emitted a high-frequency sound that couldn’t be heard, but would make them uncomfortable. With something else to blame their discomfort on, those students wrote stronger essays about themselves, as evaluated by independent judges, and were more confident about their performance on the task.
"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," Smith said in a statement. "Basically, people in authority positions need to put in place practices that make it feel normal for women to promote their accomplishments.”
How that might work in the office is another story. Maybe every company should invest in a fake subliminal noise generator?