Modesty may not pay off at work, York researcher says

Women who believe in modestly under-representing their accomplishments at work appear to earn less than those who think it is appropriate to speak up, York Professor Marie-Hélène Budworth told the annual meeting of the Academy of Management this week.

Budworth, lead author of a paper on modesty and wages, and her co-author, University of Guelph Professor Sara Mann, found that contrary to prescribed gender stereotypes, women appear to be rewarded for self-promotion in organizational settings. In contrast, men who are quite modest about their achievements appear to do better than men who are prone to boasting.

 Right: Marie-Hélène Budworth

Budworth and Mann surveyed the employees in a small, unionized manufacturing workplace in the Toronto area, and presented their findings in Philadelphia to the Academy of Management, the largest research association in the world devoted to creating and spreading knowledge about management and organizations. Their study investigated employees’ beliefs about modesty, rather than their actual behaviours, so more research will be required to fully understand the relationship between beliefs about modesty, behaviours and gender.

However, it appears that men and women are rewarded differently in the workplace for the same behaviours, which is something women should keep in mind, says Budworth, a professor of human resources management in the School of Administrative Studies in the Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies.

“The practical implication is that self-promoting behaviours are contrary to prescribed gender stereotypes for women, but may be something they need to embrace in order to remain competitive in today’s marketplace,” she says.

As noted in the research paper, It appears as though when women have trouble discussing their accomplishments and favour giving credit to others for achievements, the rewards are distributed to others. However, when men believe that it is inappropriate to boast, and actually give credit to others for work, they receive some reward.

Men’s and women’s beliefs about what it means to be modest may be the reason men fare better than women in the workplace. It is possible that men and women with similar beliefs about being modest act out those beliefs differently, says Budworth.

“A man, who has been socialized to be competitive but also thinks it’s important to be modest, may present the facts about meeting his performance targets. This gives the employer hard information on which to base an evaluation,” says Budworth. “On the other hand, a woman who believes it is important, and feminine, to be modest, may be much less likely to speak directly about her strengths.”