At the risk of triggering your gag reflex at the kind of domestic picture this presents, I will tell you that my spouse and I love reading out loud to each other. We are currently partway through “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott, one of my childhood favorites. Last night we read Chapter 7, where youngest sister Amy is disgraced over an incident at school regarding pickled limes, an inexplicable tween trend of the 19th century. The chapter concludes, as many do, with a moral message delivered by the girls’ mother Marmee:
“You are getting to be rather conceited, my dear, and it is quite time you set about correcting it. You have a good many little gifts and virtues, but there is no need of parading them, for conceit spoils the finest genius. There is not much danger that real talent or goodness will be overlooked long; even if it is, the consciousness of possessing and using it well should satisfy one, and the great charm of all power is modesty.”
When my spouse read this in his “Marmee voice,” I snorted. For although it is true that Amy is a bit of a conceited twit, I strongly object to the core messages in this little speech: don’t show off, even if that means no-one notices how awesome you are. It’s better to be overlooked than to be conceited.
Lest you think these sentiments a quaint relic of the 19th century, I will tell you that this ties in to an ongoing discussion I have had with my spouse for the last few years, and therefore his reading of this passage was accompanied by lots of teasing significant looks. I believe it started when I got a manuscript draft back from my advisor with almost no comments on it. I was a little bit annoyed, thinking that he could have given me some more feedback, “but,” as I said to my spouse, “maybe he just didn’t have that much to say. I am a pretty good writer.” My spouse was appalled. He is a very humble person, and he just thought it sounded ridiculously arrogant to say, “I am a pretty good writer.”
But let’s put things into context. He is the male child of two academics. I am the female child of a single mom who didn’t even graduate from high school. The odds of me graduating from college, let alone earning an advanced degree, were rather long. It’s easy for him to be humble. But if I had not to some extent “paraded my virtues” in the words of Marmee March, I would definitely not be where I am today, mere months away from defending my PhD dissertation in biology. I love my husband; he is a great guy. But I think he is wrong about this issue. I think women in particular are often too humble about their strengths and accomplishments, and this is a problem.
Immediately after it happened, I told a friend of mine (let’s call her Stacey) about the “good writer” debate. Stacey laughed ruefully and told me that growing up, whenever she would say something like “I am good at math” her mother would accuse her of being a “Braggy Sister Bear.” For those of you unfamiliar with the Berenstain Bears, the paperback adventures of Mama, Papa, Brother and Sister Bear were a staple of dentist’s and doctor’s office waiting rooms throughout my 1980s childhood. Although I don’t remember Sister Bear being particularly braggy, a quick Google search turned up several hits for “Braggy Sister Bear,” including some actual pages of Berenstain Bear books. These pages included tidbits like this one, from “The Berenstain Bears: No Girls Allowed”:
“But you know, [said Mama Bear] there’s such a thing as a bad winner too – someone who makes a big braggy show every time she wins.”
Sister Bear knew exactly who Mama was talking about.
After Stacey told me this story, I started becoming more aware of all of the ways that women in particular are told not to brag or put themselves forward, and how these messages are socially reinforced over and over again, even by the people that should support them most: family members, friends, partners. And while it’s true that arrogance is a character flaw, there are times and places, including job interviews, salary negotiations and performance evaluations, when a girl needs to put herself forward, and not just demurely content herself with “the consciousness of possessing and using [talent] well,” to paraphrase old Marmee.
Here is why this really matters: women still hold a smaller percentage of top leadership roles, and relevant to anyone hoping for an academic job, tenure-track faculty positions,1 than men do. Women hold fewer positions on the editorial boards of top journals2, are invited to give fewer symposium talks at scientific conferences3,4, and file fewer potentially-lucrative patents on their work5. Women make substantially less money than men in a wide range of professions, including very highly trained ones6. With a title that says it all, the 2011 study “The $16,819 pay gap for newly trained physicians: the unexplained trend of men earning more than women” finds a huge discrepancy in starting salaries between men and women doctors in New York state, even after controlling for variables like specialty choice, practice setting and hours worked7. In fields such as law and academia, other studies have shown similar trends6,8.
Now, it would be foolish to attribute a desire to seem modest as the sole or even primary cause for all these troubling trends – the causes are many and varied, notably including the lack of family-friendly policies at many workplaces1,9. But women often undervalue their own contributions, and how can this not be part of the problem? In one study, women working on a group project in a team including both men and women typically gave themselves less credit in the joint outcome than they actually deserved (men did not do this)10. Other studies show that women are more motivated when advocating for others than for themselves11. Perhaps it is partially the fear of being labeled “braggy” or “conceited” that keeps women from honestly advocating for and evaluating themselves. It’s a hard balancing act, because unfortunately sometimes when women do engage in negotiation, they encounter backlash12. We could probably all benefit from some negotiation training that takes these gender differences into account.
Probably the most important negotiation process I have participated in so far was when I was deciding where to go to graduate school. I knew I was a strong candidate: I already had a Master’s degree, rare in my field when applying for a PhD. One school awarded me a fellowship, and I used that as leverage to obtain a fellowship at another of my prospects. Another school offered a couple thousand dollars to cover moving expenses, and I tested the waters at my top choice to see if that was possible there. It wasn’t, but asking hasn’t seemed to jeopardize my relationship with the man who became my advisor or anyone in the department that I joined. I will admit that these negotiations made me profoundly uncomfortable, but in the end, I am glad I advocated for myself, and I hope this practice serves me well in the future, when I will hopefully have the opportunity to negotiate job offers.
As women, I believe we have to push back when the Marmees of the world tell us to be demure, modest and self-effacing, because if we don’t acknowledge our strengths, they may be overlooked. We have to put ourselves out there a bit, and probably that means we will rub some people the wrong way. But we will also be more likely to get what we deserve, whether that is a tenure-track position, paid maternity leave, or a raise. And it goes both ways – not only should women think of ourselves as “self-confident” rather than “braggy” when we do things like look a prospective employer in the eye and enumerate our strengths, or tell a potential collaborator that our contribution to her project is worth co-authorship, we should also support other women who do so. “It’s true, you are good at math,” my friend Stacey’s mother should have said to her. And Marmee might have said to young Amy March something along these lines: “My dear, you just have to be more subtle when you engage in self-promotion.”
Today’s post was written by Christine Lattin. She is a PhD candidate in Biology at Tufts University in Massachusetts who just defended her dissertation on avian stress physiology. She is starting a post-doctoral fellowship at Yale University this summer. She tweets @c_lattin.
- Ceci, S.J. and W.M. Williams, Understanding current causes of women’s underrepresentation in science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 2011. 108(8): p. 3157–3162.
- Amrein, K., et al., Women underrepresented on editorial boards of 60 major medical journals. Gend Med, 2011. 8(6): p. 378-87.
- Schroeder, J., et al., Fewer invited talks by women in evolutionary biology symposia. J Evol Biol, 2013.
- Isbell, L.A., T.P. Young, and A.H. Harcourt, Stag parties linger: continued gender bias in a female-rich scientific discipline. PLoS One, 2012. 7(11): p. e49682.
- de Melo-Martin, I., Patenting and the gender gap: should women be encouraged to patent more? Sci Eng Ethics, 2013. 19(2): p. 491-504.
- Travis, C.B., L.J. Gross, and B.A. Johnson, Tracking the gender pay gap: A case study. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 2009. 33(4): p. 410-418.
- Lo Sasso, A.T., et al., The $16,819 pay gap for newly trained physicians: the unexplained trend of men earning more than women. Health Aff (Millwood), 2011. 30(2): p. 193-201.
- Noonan, M.C., M.E. Corcoran, and P.N. Courant, Pay differences among the highly trained: cohort differences in the sex gap in lawyers’ earnings. Social Forces, 2005. 84(2): p. 853-872.
- McGuire, K.L., R.B. Primack, and E.C. Losos, Dramatic improvements and persistent challenges for women ecologists. BioScience, 2012. 62(2): p. 189-196.
- Haynes, M.C. and M.E. Heilman, It had to be you (not me)!: women’s attributional rationalization of their contribution to successful joint work outcomes. Pers Soc Psychol Bull, 2013.
- Bowles, H.R., L. Babcock, and K.L. McGinn, Constraints and triggers: Situational mechanics of gender in negotiation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2005. 89: p. 951-965.
- Bowles, H.R., L. Babcock, and L. Lai, Social incentives for gender differences in the propensity to initiate negotiations: Sometimes it does hurt to ask. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 2007. 103(1): p. 84-103.