Self-promotion is an important strategy for leaders. Why? Because followers and other leaders look for confidence and competence in leaders, and self-promotion has been shown to increase people’s perception of both confidence and competence. It has been shown to be important in both hiring and promotion decisions.
But here is the ugly truth. Women do not like self-promoting women, at least in three experiments reported in a recent study (Rudman, 1999). Women consistently hired self-promoting men over self-promoting women. They actually liked self-effacing women much more than self-promoting women. Men, when hiring in an outcome dependent situation, (that is a situation where there was some task that both people would need to work on together), actually were far more likely than outcome dependent women to rate a self-promoting woman as “hireable”.
The author of the paper suggests that women are so strongly socialized into gender norms such as female humility, that they may more aggressively defend the norms, as they feel threatened when a woman violates these norms of impression management.
The problem is that self-promotion is linked to a perception of competence. Thus, if a women doesn’t self-promote, she will be perceived as less competent by both men and women. If she does self-promote, she will be perceived as less likeable by women, and will be less likely to be hired by women than a self-promoting man.
Interestingly, one study included self-effacing or humble men in the assessment, to see if men also faced a gender backlash for non-stereotypical behaviour. The study found that self-promoting women were far more likely to be hired over the humble man by both men and women. The most intriguing result? When assessing the humble man, women gave him lower ratings than the men and were less likely to hire the modest man than the men. Thus women were more likely to enforce gender stereotypes for men as well.
This study was conducted using undergraduate psychology students in 1999, most of whom would be in their 30s now, likely far enough on in their careers to participate in hiring decisions. If these women are representative of their generation, the lack of representation of women in leadership roles will likely not improve in the near term.
This research suggests that women might be limiting the advancement of other women, more than men, at least in western cultures. Why is it that women find other women more threatening than men in a workplace environment?
Perhaps it is time that we train both men and women about the gender aspects of impression management in hiring and promotion situations. If we help interviewers to be aware of their biases, perhaps they can reduce the impact of those biases for both self-promoting women and self-effacing men.