Cover Story

Are men better at selling themselves?

Even as an undergraduate, Lisa Thomas, PhD, knew she wanted to be an industrial/organizational psychologist. So when an I/O psychologist from the local hospital spoke at her university, Thomas introduced herself after the lecture in hopes of making a career connection. As an icebreaker, Thomas asked the woman about studying for the GRE, and why she had chosen I/O psychology. Then she asked for the woman's contact information and permission to get back in touch if she had any more questions.

"I was very nervous about approaching her because I still felt kind of inadequate," Thomas says.

Shortly afterwards, Thomas began emailing the woman monthly to check in, telling her she wanted a job where she could learn about the field and that she was smart and capable. "I told her I was a very hard worker and I got straight A's," she recalls. Thomas also mentioned her willingness to do grunt work, entering data or anything else that needed doing.

After the first email failed to garner a response, Thomas worried she was being too assertive. But her husband told her, "It's OK to feel that way, keep doing it. Don't stop until she says 'no.'"

Freeze-frame: Her husband's willingness to feel discomfort but persist despite it is, in essence, the difference between men and women when it comes to self-promotion, says Corinne A. Moss-Racusin, PhD, a social psychology postdoc at Yale.

Both women and men might fear that people won't like them if they are self-promoting, but women are more likely to let it stop them. In one study by Moss-Racusin, published last year in Psychology of Women Quarterly, 192 college students answered questions such as "What are some of your best qualities or strengths?" and "Overall, why should someone hire you as opposed to another candidate?" Then the participants imagined a group of people watching a video of their interview, and answered such questions as, "Would you worry that people thought you were too confident?" and "Would you worry about being called vain?"

Moss-Racusin found that while women and men both worried about backlash, this fear inhibited women's but not men's abilities to promote themselves.

"It's not that women are inherently lacking the ability to self-promote, but it's a stereotype violation for them," she says.

That's an unfortunate reality because self-promotion is key to getting ahead as a psychology researcher, professor or practitioner, says Marie-Helene Budworth, PhD, a psychologist and associate professor in human resources management at York University in Toronto.

"So many great young people are held back not because of skill, ability or intelligence, but other factors," she says.

The Gender Divide

Self-promotion is something all grad students — male and female — must master in order to get ahead in school and beyond. However, it's a skill at which women, who currently make up about 75 percent of psychology graduate students, tend to start from a disadvantage. For example, when surveyed on their views about self-promotion, the female participants in Moss-Racusin's study said they were worried about backlash even though few had actually experienced it. That finding suggests that women have internalized a cultural norm, she says.

"Women face a double bind. They're penalized socially for behaving in ways that might be perceived as immodest, and they're penalized professionally for behaving in ways that aren't self-promoting," says Budworth.

Men also may be perceived as overly boastful, but the bar is set much higher for them, suggests research by Budworth. In a study of 68 Canadian employees, she found that women who scored low on modesty earned more than women who said it is important to be modest. Conversely, men who scored high on modesty earned more than men who didn't think modesty is important.

"My guess is that men who believe it's important to be modest still self-promote because it's still acceptable for men to talk about their accomplishments in a very factual way," says Budworth. "But when they start to tip into that area that seems a bit boastful and showy, that's when they start to be penalized."

The penalty for not promoting yourself, however, may be much steeper. Misplaced modesty during salary negotiations costs the average working woman upwards of $500,000 in lost wages by age 60, according to an analysis in the 2003 book, "Women Don't Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide." The study also found that, among people graduating with master's degrees from Carnegie Mellon University, men were eight times more likely to negotiate their salaries.

Some of these women may have been making calculated decisions to avoid backlash or perhaps even being passed over for jobs, says Hannah Riley Bowles, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government who studies gender, negotiation and leadership. "Women pay a higher social cost and particularly career cost for attempting to negotiate for higher compensation," she says.

One study, co-authored by Riley Bowles and presented in the Academy of Management Proceedings in 2009, showed that when women came to the bargaining table with an offer from another possible employer — a common and usually effective negotiating tool — potential employers were turned off. "Everybody knows if you have an outside offer, it's totally appropriate to negotiate," she says. And yet, when women do this, people respond with an, "'Ugh, I don't think I want to work with her' feeling."

Tips for Beginners

Though women may face more self-promotion pitfalls than men, experts suggest you use the same tactic regardless of your gender.

One good strategy is to stick to the facts, says Budworth. Outline your accomplishments with numbers, grades, publication credits — anything verifiable, she says.

You can also avoid seeming boastful by saying that your adviser or mentor pushed you to talk about your success, and acknowledge anyone who helped or contributed to your research. But don't give away all the credit, cautions Moss-Racusin. Even while acknowledging others, be sure to own your work, she says.

"[Women] tend to give their success away. They'll say, 'I was so lucky to work on a good team,' or 'my adviser really helped me do this project,'" Moss-Racusin says.

It may also help to take a third-person perspective: Think of what your teachers or classmates might say about you, suggests Moss-Racusin, whose research also suggests that women are more comfortable promoting others. She hypothesizes that by thinking about themselves in the third person, women will find it easier to talk about their accomplishments.

Maybe this tactic would have helped Thomas, too, but thanks to her cheerleading husband, she managed to muscle through her discomfort and reap the benefits of self-promotion. Her sixth email finally garnered a response from the psychologist she wanted to work with. Rather than finding Thomas pushy, the woman had been impressed by her persistence and created a paid internship, which Thomas held for two years. Her hard-earned mentor also encouraged Thomas to pursue a doctorate instead of the master's degree she originally intended to seek. "It changed the course of my career," says Thomas, who graduated with a PhD in I/O psychology from the University of Illinois in 2010.

Her advice to other students who are shy about self-promotion? "Do it anyway. Because I was as scared as the next person," she says.

Sophia Dembling is a writer in Dallas.