networking · promotion

On Feminine Modesty and Self-Promotion

At the interview for my new #alt-ac job, there was only one question that really threw me for a loop. After the Associate Dean asked it, I looked down at my hands. I paused, for more than a second. I might even have blushed. The question?

“Tell me what your peers would say the best things are about you as a researcher and a colleague.”

 Maybe the question shouldn’t have surprised me. Is this the new “Tell us about your strengths /weaknesses”? Maybe those of you who are on hiring committees know. But interview pressure or no, this is a hard question to answer. Because as women–and especially as female academics–we are taught that to speak highly of ourselves, to speak strongly about our strengths, to shine light on our positive accomplishments and qualities, is braggy. Not humble. Unbecoming. Immodest. As Lee puts it,

 Good Female Academics are mild and quiet and work away at their jobs, hoping to get noticed, but well aware that any attempt at blowing their own horn will be met with derision and dismissal….This is the message we’re sent as girls and as women. To believe in ourselves is arrogant, unfounded, untrue.

 So to be asked to do just that, to blow my own horn, even in an interview–which is explicitly an exercise in presenting a public, polished, and promotional version of oneself–was really hard. It felt not unlike realizing that I’d left the house pantsless. And especially hard because of the way the question was phrased. Not only was I being asked to speak positively about myself, but I was being asked to do so on behalf of others–not just to think highly of myself, but to own that others thought highly of me too, and to speak in for them.

I was lucky that I’d already established a good rapport with the interview panel by that point, and so I could laugh about how difficult being asked to answer that question was as I formulated an answer. I told them about qualities and achievements that I thought my colleagues appreciate in me–my work to build opportunities for teamwork and skills development among graduate students, my attempts to create forums where my peers could showcase their research, my ability to effectively coordinate large groups of people and projects with lots of moving parts, the great parties I throw–but it was uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable repeating it here. But I’m doing it, because I don’t think that we, as female academics, will stop feeling like self-promotion–even self-belief–is unbecoming, immodest, or arrogant unless we keep doing it: talking about what we’re good at. Celebrating our accomplishments. Making others aware of our work. Sharing our knowledge publicly. Convincing others that our voices need to be part of the conversation. This is what CWILA is doing in encouraging women to pitch book reviews. And what does when she exhorts us to say yes when the media calls. And what Hook and Eye’s boast posts encourage us to do on a regular basis. 

It’ll get easier. It is getting easier: for us, as women, to answer questions like the one that I got without demurring, or blushing, or laughing. And for those around us to get used to the idea that yes, we are knowledgeable, effective, powerful, respected. And it’s okay to hear us say that. Because it’s true.

What about you, dear readers? Do you find self-promotion an uncomfortable experience? Been judged for doing it? How do you work against the spoken and unspoken expectation of Good Female Academics? Or have you figured out how to transcend them in ways that you’d like to share?

photo by Arturo de Albornoz // cc

7 thoughts on “On Feminine Modesty and Self-Promotion

  1. I patted myself on the back recently when I wrote a letter for something in which I spoke about myself – for once – in a completely confident tone. The type of letter necessitated it, but I had to force myself to do it. I actually told people that I felt like I wrote the letter like a man would. Hmmmm… Thanks for posting about this!


  2. Yes.

    This is super highly gendered. Let's think of some …. Disney princesses. Cinderella meets prince, falls in love, returns meekly to obscurity and has to be actively sought out by him. She can't reveal herself; she has to be discovered. Sleeping Beauty has to go hide away from a curse, gets cursed anyways, falls into a super deep sleep (even more passive than Cinderella) until some dude has to seek her out to wake her up. Snow White tears off into the bush, banished for being too pretty, and gratefully keeps house for a bunch of gnomes, still has to die from being too pretty (this is even more passive than Cinderella AND Sleeping Beauty), must be brought back to life by some dude who has to seek her out.

    The gist of all these stories, and many, many, many others? Good things will come to passive women. The happy ending involves you carrying on conscious or unconscious in perfect passivity and accepantce and humility, until someone else comes to mark you as special and lift you out of the circumstances you must otherwise be perfectly, modestly resigned to.



  3. Elizabeth, the research shows that many men assume that they can do the job they're interviewing for, even if they don't actually have the skills. They figure they'll fake it till they make it, and act accordingly. Women on the other hand, tend instead to want to flag exactly those things they don't know how to do, and discount their ability to learn it. They tend toward scrupulous honesty. Both men and women might be equally able to acclimate to the given job, but the man acts like he can do it easily, and the woman will list all the reasons she's not qualified.

    Other people are speaking up for themselves, that is, because they don't share the scruples you express here: and they're moving ahead faster.



  4. I think that a lot of people find excessive self-promotion by either men or women kinda off-putting and icky. The difference might be more that women are more likely to be “punished” for it than men, or that the content of the bragging sticks when males do it while only the performative aspects stick in memory when women do it. (There are studies on related issues that I've read, like the differences by gender in effects of playing hardball when negotiating salaries, but I'm completely spit balling when extending to the current topic. Maybe someone else knows the research literature.)

    So here's something I try to do. Brag on other people's behalf when you get a good chance, and put in good words for other people. Not all of this can be public, but the instances that are public make it an easy thing for someone to answer when they get asked the question that wrong footed Melissa in an interview: “Well, I guess one thing I'd be safe in replying is that they admire my ability to keep a cool head in a crisis/ my ability to explain difficult materials clearly to non-expert audiences (like deans) /whatever ” Until we've made sufficient changes so that men and women are equally uncomfortable bragging about themselves (okay, maybe that's the wrong direction to hope for), maybe we need to be making every effort to level the playing field by bragging about female colleagues for them.


  5. Yeah… I'm writing grant proposals this month and I feel like a little bit of my soul is being sold to the Devil. That's both gendered and Catholic!


  6. HUGE issue. Thank you for posting about it. A good first step is to really listen to the compliments our friends and colleagues give us and to ACCEPT them. That's pretty tricky, too, but without it, we don't even hear all those things that we might repeat when asked a question like this in an interview.


Comments are closed.