Why don't women brag?

'No, I swear, if you saw my face you'd wonder what all the fuss was about.'

'No, I swear, if you saw my face you'd wonder what all the fuss was about.' Photo: Karin Smeds

I was recently hanging out with a friend’s child and was rather dismayed by our interaction. No, she wasn’t rude or unruly. No, we didn’t come to verbal fisticuffs over whether ‘tis nobler to be a Belieber or a Directioner'. But when I told her she had a lovely singing voice she replied, “No, I don’t. There are lots of other kids at my school who are much better.” Wait, what’s that pain?! Oh, only my heart breaking! It was so sad to see that at such a young age she’d already been socialised to display false modesty about her talents. My distress also came from the fact that I could easily imagine how she’d come to think this was the correct thing to do, as I recognised in her reaction how many of my accomplished, intelligent pals act – and indeed how I myself act in my weaker moments. I hear friends who when they get a deserved promotion talk about how lucky they are. I hear friends describe themselves as “just” a mother.  There’s a very real and intense discomfort for many women in taking credit for their accomplishments which leads to the question – why are we so bad at bragging?

Though saddening, I could understand this little girl’s reticence. We grow up on the playground hearing whispers of “Oh, her. She’s up herself. She thinks she’s so good.” With being good at something – anything! – being treated like some sort of heinous crime, it’s not surprising that so many of us downplay our achievements or go to grand lengths to act like they sprung fully formed with no effort at all on our part. Much of it can be traced back to childhood socialisation says consulting psychologist, Prue Laurence. “Girls are socialised to be more modest than boys and it is more acceptable for boys to talk about themselves and their achievements.”  Simply put, a female bragging violates gender expectations.

There can also sometimes exist an unhealthy culture among females of bonding through self derision – most of us have probably heard or been drawn into conversations of  “Oh, I hate my thighs” to which we all know the correct expected response is “They’re not fat! You should see my [insert another part of body that we are all supposed to hate].” While I do think most of us grow out of these insecurities or make a conscious decision to stop chipping away at our self esteem just to make small talk, it can still be a hard habit to break. One of the best decisions I ever made was to learn to graciously accept a compliment. Now when I get praised I simply smile and say thanks, whereas when I was younger I would have all but challenged them to a televised debate on the topic of “Does Nicole’s hair look good today?”

And while we might no longer be in the schoolyard, a quick look to Twitter shows that even when you grow up there’s still a stigma attached to publicly acknowledging anything positive about yourself. With the rise of the humblebrag hashtag, even the faintest whiff of a boast is called out and derided. But is it any surprise that we have to resort to the back door brag when tooting your own horn is considered such thoroughly unladylike behaviour? Women are stuck in a catch-22 situation when it comes to openly acknowledging their achievements, because a wealth of research has found that while self promotion makes oneself look more competent and is therefore an asset in getting ahead, women who behave in this confident and assertive manner are perceived more negatively than men who engage in this behaviour. So instead we reject and deflect our achievements even though this can lead to repercussions in the workplace. “It is potentially career limiting to not assert ourselves in terms of talking about our achievements and successes,” says Laurence. “How will we get noticed if we don’t? Many jobs are not advertised and sometimes people are promoted because of their relationships and networks.”

Laurence suggests that ultimately the answer is to challenge these gender stereotypes by not putting ourselves down and also to throw out the very word ‘brag’ as it reinforces the negative connotations in speaking up for ourselves. “Women need to own their achievements, as men do. Women need to be proud of what they can do, as men do. And everyone needs to stop seeing it as bragging in order to change the connotation that bragging is negative.” And maybe if we can stop seeing it as bragging, and start seeing it as a fair assessment and acknowledgement of our strengths and talents, little girls of the future will proudly be singing a different, less self-effacing tune – and not denying any compliments they receive along the way.

13 comments so far

  • Displaying modesty is not a bad thing, for men or women. I understand it doesn't get you on reality shows, but look at the people on those. They're awful people, for the most part. People who don't display humility tend to be awful braggarts with a severe narcissistic streak.

    Commenter
    Tim the Toolman
    Date and time
    February 28, 2013, 11:29AM
    • I take compliments badly. I’m pretty well known for it – I instinctively brush aside compliments, or make a joke of them, while taking criticism very well, even if I don’t always agree with it or act on it. In my defence, though, I’ve got a bit of a natural urge to be an arrogant tosspot – if I don’t keep whispering “thou art mortal” at myself at all times I’m worried I’ll become the kind of insufferable jerk with a complete lack of self-awareness that I so despise.

      Maybe people who don’t brag are just more aware of how others see them...

      Commenter
      Magpie
      Date and time
      February 28, 2013, 12:10PM
    • Tim - you have a very black and white view of the world. What is being suggested, if you read the whole article carefully, is that we acknowledge our achievements and take pride in them, and accept gracefully the praise of others who recognise our efforts.

      Commenter
      doppelganger
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      February 28, 2013, 4:30PM
  • Is this really a gender thing? Or is it a Western gender thing?
    Having lived in Japan for a couple years I can tell you that you'd get similar responses from both genders. Just see how a young boy responds to praise there; he'll give you a response like "thank you, but I'm nothing special", or the more oblique "I need to practice more".

    Commenter
    David
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    February 28, 2013, 1:10PM
    • @David - EVERYTHING on DailyLife is a 'gender thing'. More correctly, it's all about society imposing unequal expectations on females.

      We can easily accept the idea that women are more understanding, emotional and empathetic, and are happy to constantly portray women as standing in the background for the sake of their children and partners.

      Is it to big a stretch to say the source of a woman's humility has more to do with women's supposed empathy that with societal norms forced upon them?

      Commenter
      aa
      Date and time
      February 28, 2013, 3:28PM
    • That didn't address what I said in any way what so ever. Did you even read the comment?
      My point was that however much the author may think this is a gender thing, it's more about culture in my experience. I offered that the archetypal "female" response to praise given by the author is near universal among males in Japan.

      What does this say about the gendered nature of the issue? It seems there are some serious shades of grey here that can be seen when encountering any number of different cultures. Just look at the United States: I have a male American friend who feels he is constantly being "cut down" when he references his achievements, to the point where he's become quite bitter about Australia's "tall poppy syndrome".

      Of course, he's not really a tall poppy that is being cut down, he's just an American that is more used to a self-congratulatory culture - a culture that is just not as prevalent here (except perhaps in sport - and even then it's not as over-the-top as in the States)

      That doesn't mean Australians aren't proud of their achievements - we're just generally less comfortable hearing people making everything about themselves all the time.
      I know many brilliant men and women who are very comfortable discussing their achievements and are doing incredible things in their fields, but they talk about what they've done in a thoughtful and relevant manner.

      Commenter
      David
      Date and time
      March 01, 2013, 1:00PM
  • I'm a woman and know plenty of women who brag. It's just a subtle type of bragging-whether it's how great their kids are, house, partner etc is. I know men who brag as well, I don't think it has anything about gender just more about personality.

    I feel that when I am usually comfortable with a part of my life I don't have to brag about how great it is, because I already know.

    Commenter
    Carlamata
    Date and time
    February 28, 2013, 3:31PM
    • I think the article is making the distinction of so-called "bragging" about oneself. It's not referring to bragging about the achievements of others ("showing off") eg of children, partner (who should all be taking the credit for their own achievements), house (isn't this just a status thing/big-noting/one-upmanship - a house can't have achievements to be proud of).

      Commenter
      doppelganger
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      February 28, 2013, 4:43PM
  • If you read to the end of the article you will see that it is suggested that we stop using the word "bragging" as it has negative connotations.
    What is being proposed is merely that we acknowledge our achievements and personal strengths (instead of thinking they are something to be ashamed/embarrassed about and feeling a need to downplay them) and gracefully accept any praise that comes our way.

    Commenter
    doppelganger
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    February 28, 2013, 4:24PM
    • First of all self denigration, which often turns into self-hate oneupmanship, is unhealthy and needs to stop. Although there is definitely a 'self-denigration' culture in the western world, especially among women, there is also a difference between being honest about your own achievements or talents and bragging. It is possible to tell others about a triumph or acknowledge a compliment without seeming self-obsessed, and it is this that needs to be encouraged, especially in young women.

      Commenter
      Kitty
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      February 28, 2013, 5:20PM

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