The Gender Gap in Self-Promotion

Yves here. This post highlights an under-appreciated contributor to why women make less money than men: as a group, they tend to under-rate and undersell their capabilities. While doing a good job of documenting the gender bragging gap, however, I found the piece to be timid in positing explanations.

Most women want to get married and have kids. Both men and women are conditioned to see men as breadwinners. Women who compete too successfully with men undermine what way too many people have internalized as the “natural” order.

From a 2018 article:

Ideologically, though, it doesn’t appear that society has kept pace when it comes to gendered income expectations. It’s not supposed to matter, theoretically, yet around seven in 10 adult respondents to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey said that it was “very important” that a man be able to support a family financially in order to be a good husband or partner, but only 32 percent said the same about women. Poorer adults, however, were more egalitarian, emphasizing the importance of both men and women to provide for their families, and respondents with college degrees rated ability to provide as less crucial than people with only a high school education (81 percent and 67 percent respectively).

Not only does it appear that traditional expectations that men should make more have lingered, a recent U.S. Census Bureau report suggests couples might find it shameful when women are the breadwinners. When women were the bigger earners, both husbands and wives underreported her earnings and inflated his. In these marriages in which wives earned more, men inflated their own earnings by nearly three percentage points higher than what they reported on their tax forms, and wives reported their higher earnings as 1.5 percentage points lower than what they reported, says Marta Murray-Close, an economist at the Census Bureau and co-author of the study. Responses more dependably meshed with reality when men earned more than their female partners.

Earlier (and typically widely reported) studies have linked female breadwinners with negative marital consequences. Women making more than their male partners – even just $5,000 more a year – increases the likelihood that they’ll divorce, a 2015 University of Chicago study found. This echoed earlier studies suggesting that women’s higher earnings increased divorce risk.

In addition, Canadian researchers found that women who earn more than their husbands experience “status leakage,” which means their affiliation with people of lower status lowers their own status as well. Women who feel like they’re in a higher echelon than their partners were more likely to feel embarrassed or resentful of their husbands’ lower status and more likely to be unhappy about it and consider divorce, the authors wrote.

One example of how these expectations influence women’s behavior comes from middle school, or what in some parts of the US is called junior high school. Mathematician Andrew Dittmer as a sideline taught math to sixth and seventh graders in Cambridge public schools. He noticed a pronounced shift as the women hit puberty and started taking the idea of dating seriously. Younger women weren’t inhibited about doing well at math. But that changed. It was still OK to be good at math as part of being perceived as generally smart and college bound. But women who’d done well at math and exhibited aptitude retreated from working at it. The few who persisted were often harassed by women for being nerds, even when they were physically attractive.

More specifically, selling is a form of dominance and most people have low tolerance for women who display aggressive behavior. It was striking as I worked in and with various professional services firms how comparatively few personal “styles” were well tolerated among senior women. And I doubt this was largely driven by the clients, since I saw women at McKinsey who were deemed to have a “style” problem and were sent to Roger Ailes for coaching who left the firm and went on to be very successful with senior executives.

The one exception to this rule was a woman I knew moderately well when I was young who became the first woman partner in M&A at Lazard Freres, which made her the first woman M&A partner at a prestigious firm. She was feared even at Lazard for how brutally frontal she’d be in negotiations. But she managed to do it with an affected Southern twang and not a hint of extra energy when she’d to do the verbal equivalent of sinking her teeth in someone’s throat. She also managed to continue working at a senior level well into her sixties, when most people in her field lose their edge and get shoved aside by the younger bucks.

By Christine Exley, Assistant Professor, Harvard Business School and Judd Kessler, Associate Professor of Business Economics and Public Policy at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. Originally published at VoxEU

Women earn less than men at every level of employment, an inequality that has persisted for decades. This column examines one potential factor, namely, a sizeable gender gap in self-promotion. It considers four possible causes for this gap – performance, confidence, strategic incentives, and ambiguity – and while none can explain the gap alone, they do shed light on some of the labour market perceptions women may internalise over time, and to which employers should be sensitive in hiring practices.

There is a gender gap in pay. The average woman earns less money than the average man. The gap worsens at the top, when considering the highest earners. The gap has improved slightly over time, but it has nevertheless persisted over many decades. While researchers have pointed to a number of factors to help explain the gap, such as differences in labour market experience achieved by men and women and what occupations are chosen by men and women, a sizeable and persistent ‘unexplained’ gap remains (Blau and Kahn 2017).

An important and commonly asked question for policymakers and researchers is what other factors — even after accounting for differences in labour market experience, occupation, etc. — drive this gender gap in pay. Some well-studied possibilities point to women being more reluctant than men to negotiate (Babcock and Laschever 2003) or to compete (Niederle 2016).

In our own recent work (Exley and Kessler 2019), we consider an additional possibility, namely, that of a gender gap in self-promotion. We define self-promotion as the subjective way in which individuals describe their own ability and competence. Consider, for example, a job candidate. When the job candidate is asked about her aptitude in maths, an objective response may reference her (verifiable) score on a standardised test. A subjective response instead relates to how she personally describes her aptitude in math (e.g. “I’m just okay” or “I’m really strong in math”) We explore self-promotion because these types of subjective responses are elicited in myriad contexts that are relevant for educational and labour market outcomes – in school and job applications, in interviews and performance reviews, and in meetings and around the water cooler, just to name a few.

Using an online labour market platform called Amazon Mechanical Turk, we recruited 1,500 ‘workers’ and 300 ‘employers’ to participate in our study. These workers were split into one of four treatment conditions: the public version, the private version, the ambiguous version, and the private (information about others) version. Unless otherwise noted, we will focus on the findings from our public version.

At the beginning of our study, each worker completes a test with 20 analytical questions. Rather than their actual performance on this test (i.e. the number of questions they answered correctly) determining their pay, however, their self-promotion determines their pay. In particular, workers are asked to answer several self-assessment questions that require them to subjectively describe their performance. One of their self-assessments is then shared with a potential employer who will determine whether to hire them and how much to pay them if hired.

What happens?

Self-promotion pays. Workers who provide more favourable self-assessments are hired more often and earn more money.

But, women engage in less self-promotion than men. For example, consider our results from the self-assessment question that asks workers to indicate the extent of their agreement on a scale from 0 to 100 with a statement that reads “I performed well on the test”. The average man rates himself a 61 out of 100 and the average women rates herself a 46 out of 100. Put differently, the average woman rates herself 25% lower than the average man.

One explanation for the gap could relate to performance differences. Perhaps men rate themselves higher because they performed better on the test. This is not the case. Both the average man and the average woman correctly answered 10 out of 20 questions on the test. (If anything, women slightly outperform men in the test on average.)

A second explanation for the gap could relate to confidence. Indeed, we find that when asked to guess their score on the test, men overestimate and women underestimate their true performance, leading to a gender gap in confidence widely observed in prior literature as well (Niederle and Vesterlund 2011). Perhaps men engage in more self-promotion because they think they performed better on the test. We find that this is not the case. Even after we inform both men and women of precisely how well they performed on the test – for example, both the average man and the average women learn that they answered 10 questions correctly and are told where in the performance distribution their score puts them – the average woman still rates herself 19% lower than the average man.

A third explanation for the gap could relate to strategic incentives. As noted above, self-promotion pays. Perhaps men inflate their self-assessments more than women because they (accurately) believe that doing so would result in higher pay. We find that this is also not the case. Even when self-assessments cannot influence how much money one makes — when we eliminate employers in our private version — the average woman still rates herself 22% lower than the average man.

A fourth explanation could relate to ambiguity in the decision environment. We investigated this by increasing and decreasing the amount of ambiguity in our experimental setting. In our ambiguousversion, we increased the ambiguity around the optimal amount of self-promotion. Workers learn that there is some chance of ‘being caught’ if they engage in too much self-promotion. In particular, workers learn that employers may additionally learn their actual performance on the test. In our private (information about others) version, we decreased the ambiguity around the typical amount of self-promotion. As in our private version, there are no employers, and workers also learn the average level of self-promotion of others who performed the same as they did on the test, giving them more guidance on what an appropriate level of self-promotion might be. In both the ambiguousversion and the private (information about others) version, however, the average woman still rates herself lower than the average man.

So, what else could explain the gender gap in self-promotion? At this point, we can only speculate. Prior work shows that women may be viewed more negatively – or even experience a backlash – when they engage in activities akin to self-promotion (e.g. Bowles et al. 2007). On the one hand, we note that there is no scope for such backlash in our setting. Employers do not know the gender of workers, so they cannot treat men and women differently. Employers do not know the actual performance of workers, so they cannot even identify who may be engaging in excessive self-promotion. On the other hand, if self-promotion does result in more backlash for women than men in settings outside of our study, it could be that women are more averse to self-promotion because they have – more so than men – internalised the potential risk of self-promotion.

While more work is clearly needed on the drivers of the gender gap in self-promotion, one implication is clear. Since women persistently engage in less self-promotion than men, how men and women describe their performance should be interpreted with caution – particularly when making important decisions that relate to hiring, promotion, or pay.

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  1. Louise

    Why is this seen as women underselling and underestimating rather than men overselling and overestimating?

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Because puffery is well accepted in business circles. Look at advertising.

      If it were not perceived as normal and acceptable, men would be sanctioned for their chest-thumping.

      1. JohnnyGL

        Yeah, just anecdotally, thinking of all the colossally arrogant people I’ve known in some capacity, they’re all guys.

        Some of them were arrogant to the point where it became a running joke, but those guys would still get taken seriously and didn’t get their comeuppance nearly as often as we’d like to see in a more just society.

    2. Ford Prefect

      In my experience it takes three major face-plants from over-puffed men before management figures out there is an issue. The first time is clearly somebody else’s fault. The second time is a random anomaly. They usually get promoted or put onto another project while the janitorial team comes in to clean up. The competent women and/or self-effacing men often don’t stand a chance unless there is very enlightened management.

      As we saw in the Global Financial Crisis, even destroying the world’s financial system and economy was generally not enough to kick them to the curb unless they had managed to simultaneously bankrupt their firm and render it incapable of receiving a bailout (Dick Fuld of Lehman as a prime example).

  2. PlutoniumKun

    As always when discussing gender differences, it should be clarified I think that the differences are within an average or mean, while the distribution on either side is overlapping. Most of my working life has been within technical fields which are notoriously male and introvert-heavy – and introverts usually struggle at the sort of self-promotion that comes naturally to some people. Off the top of my head, the two most ruthlessly self promoting colleagues I’ve had the misfortune to work with in recent years have been female, but it may be that they simply stood out more for this than their male colleagues (itself a form of sexist perception possibly).

    But on a simple level, it does show clearly how badly designed our systems are to identify the right people for the right jobs – in so many sectors we select for dark triad personality types and extroverts over basic competence. Its surprising how little we actually know about how to identify the right people for promotions, I’ve seen organisations use all sorts of methods, almost all flawed in some way.

    1. anon y'mouse

      women can’t afford to be introverts, either.

      we are supposed to walk a fine line between socially adept manipulator-moms who are also reserved enough to remain seemly. talking to and knowing everyone and being friendly and smiling all of the time like a nitwit.

      if a woman is introverted, she has had to work hard not to be her natural self so that she isn’t called a “cold fish” or something more uncharitable. because while in men that might be considered laconic reserve and thus be read as “strong” and other positive personal traits, from women it is taken as being self-centered and too narcissistic to try to ingratiate.

      and that is what we are supposed to be all of the time–ingratiating. of course, not too ingratiating though or they are asking for harassment/flirting.

  3. Synoia

    Why are men’s sports the leading sports on TV?

    Full of males congratulating themselves for moving a ball quickly?

    Glories of war and battle?

    1. divadab

      Big monkey stuff. We admire champions. Just like any mammalian species – males compete, and to the victor the spoils. It’s not complicated except to those who think humans are somehow outside of animal nature.

      females compete too – is there a cheerleading squad that doesn’t have a head cheerleader?

      matriarchal and patriarchal hierarchies exist in every mammalian species including human. Expecting females to compete like males is ignoring basic socio-biology.

      1. Karla

        Because men have the most potential physically manifest violence, strength and often military experience. Without the distractions of pro-sports, that energy might potentially attack the masters of finance, upper level managers and the on site quislings of the economy. Picture the pickets smashing the windows of auto plants in the Depression to demand higher wages or the Cliven Bundy riflemen up on the bridge intimidating the feds.

        Pro-sports serve a useful, and profitable, function to diffuse and channel that energy onto the meaningless nonsense of studying balls being thrown back and forth and the memorization of abstract statistics that keep, mostly men who think that RBIs, rebounds and personalities are important, from paying attention to their personal and family economics and channeling that energy into real change.

        1. jrs

          I don’t think women necessarily CAN be as self-promoting as they should be in order to get more income. Sure women can try and perhaps improve at self promotion but .. Aggression is linked to the presence of testosterone, even in castrated male species the fact that a male level of testosterone was there in the past, makes them more aggressive than females. To the extent that self-promotion works by the same pathways, women just aren’t the same, pity as they may be just as good at performing a job!

          Women’s economic disadvantage may be why women on average consistently poll again and again as significantly more liberal/left than men on most things. They know they aren’t societies big winners in this society. The @#$#ed up thing is many women, especially unmarried women, are going to spend their old age in abject poverty because of how this society is set up. So will many men of course, but the odds are worse for women.

          1. Yves Smith Post author

            Sorry, I attribute a great deal to acculturation. Women internalize early on that if they stand up to a man, they can have the shit beaten out of them. Women are trained to be nice and polite and smile a lot, which is a sign of subordination.

            I was a big, loud, and rowdy girl despite not having any athletic skills. I was constantly told to be quiet and behave, thank God not much by my family. Boys who were much wilder than I was were not told to dial it down.

            1. inode_buddha

              It isn’t just women who are taught that, I’m a very hetero male and went through the same experience. Probably because I was big, loud, and rowdy, got beaten up almost daily in school. I think its more an issue of conformity, power, and control, and when you add gender into the mix they simply take advantage of that too.

            2. kiwi

              Maybe sometime you can read up on biological and neurological and hormonal differences between men and women, and how they impact the brains and behavior.

              They do exist. You cannot chalk up all of the differences in male/female behavior to mere socialization.

              1. The Historian

                Maybe sometime you can read up on how humans are different from any other animals.

                Like when it is cold, we don’t roll up in a ball and wait it out – we build fires.
                Like when the weather is bad for a while, we don’t just suffer through it, we build protective structures and live off of food we get from elsewhere.
                Like we don’t eat everything raw, we cook it to make it more digestible.
                Like when we get sick, we don’t just suffer and die, we invent medicines.

                And so on….

                Humans are the only animals that are NOT controlled by biology, so neurological and hormonal differences between the sexes really don’t amount to much, do they?

        2. Stan

          Women are the majority in colleges, business schools and medical schools. They make more money when in their 20s than their male peers. The position that women are not self-promoting is completely false.

  4. The Rev Kev

    The question of how genders affects people’s perception of people is both subtle and pernicious. too many preconceptions at work here. I saw a good example of this back in early 2017 after the US Elections. A play was performed in New York which featured an re-enactment of the debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton but there was a catch. The role of Trump was played by a woman and the roll of Hillary was played by a man and it seriously messed with a lot of people’s heads. Too much cognitive dissonance. Below is an article that features a clip from this play-

    1. JohnnyGL

      Ha! I recall that one. It was well done, mannerisms and all!

      Interestingly, they picked Trump’s sharpest, most effective attack line throughout the whole string of presidential debates. And hitting Clinton on the issue of trade was how the midwest was won in 2016.

      You could absolutely do a similar set up with race. Combining both really enhances the effect, sometimes.

      When that woman cop shot a black guy in his own apartment in TX, I was seriously unnerved by the number of people that were still, somehow, finding a way to be sympathetic to her!

  5. David

    It’s a bit depressing how often women are encouraged to develop and nurture all of the worst characteristics of men, including self-promotion. By no means all men find self-promotion easy, and many (like me) actively dislike it. So we tended to wind up in fields like academia or the public sector where, if anything, there was historically a tendency to introversion and to quietly get on with your job, waiting for the system to recognize you and pick you up. Even today, academics who write best-selling books and are forever on TV tend to be distrusted by some of their more traditionally minded contemporaries.
    But this has all changed. Across the whole of the public sector self-promotion became the rule, and promotion increasingly went to those who made the most noise and had the highest visibility, whether or not they were the most able. And many of these were women: – indeed some of the most ambitious and ruthless managers I’ve known in different organizations have been women, and this trend seems to be continuing.
    If your measure of success in life is money and status, then I suppose this kind of analysis makes some sense. But if your satisfaction comes from a job well and honestly done, and if you have some care for the organization you work for, then ironically you’d do best to disregard the implicit advice of this article, because it’s not clear that thrusting self-promoters are any happier in the end with their careers, especially looking back on them. Maybe women have got it right, after all.
    As PK says, it’s a bit complicated, and to say that “the average woman earns less than the average man” is simply untrue unless you define your terms, and defining those terms reveals the class-based nature of the argument. Most countries have laws requiring equal pay for the same job (the UK has had these laws since the 1970s) and from the supermarket cashier to the bus driver to the police officer to the tax inspector, men and women have the same pay. As the article admits, this is really about educated middle class women being on average less successful in negotiating high salaries than men are. When I’ve pointed this out, the usual response is to change the argument to yes, well, women don’t work as long as men, women don’t have equal access to senior positions and so forth, which is certainly true in some cases, but is a different set of issues.
    As an aside, and having worked always in one area or another of the public sector where everyone knows everyone’s salary and it’s all organized on a progressive scale, I’ve always been amused and somewhat appalled at the obsessive jealousy and suspicion that people in the private sector showed about their colleagues’ earnings. Maybe the cure for this is not more self-promotion but more transparency.

  6. Eclair

    Wow, I think we may be asking the wrong question here. By asking how can women make as much money as men, especially ‘high status’ women, we’re implying that making money, lots of it, is what’s important.

    Look at how ‘high status’ men make lots of money: extracting stuff from the planet (and ruining the earth in the process) and devising new and devious ways to move money around and make more money from money (the FIRE sector). Sometimes they invent lovely tech-y stuff, but then that devolves into more and better ways to track and control people. And bomb the sh*t out of them.

    What’s important? Raising children (not necessarily bearing them or fathering them) and working to make your community …. from your neighborhood, to your town, to your country, to our planet …. a place where every living thing … dung beetles and hummingbirds, elephants and antelopes, toads and garter snakes, all humans, can thrive and prosper.

    Happy Holidays!

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I hate to tell you, but I’m not at all keen about the idea of relegating women to gender stereotypes, as in nurturing. That generally also means being dependent. If you don’t like being dependent, have other skills, or aren’t nurturing, by your equation you are not a fit woman.

      And some high status men make a lot of money through non-destructive activities. Authors like Steven King. Filmakers. Surgeons. And as I have pointed out repeatedly, in Japan entrepreneurs are revered for creating employment, not for making money.

      So again you are stereotyping.

      1. Eclair

        Yves, when I asked the question about what was important in life, namely nurturing children, our communities, our planet, I was in no way implying that these were the duties of women only. They are, or should be, human priorities, performed by both men and women. And, they certainly include intellectual and healing activities, story-telling in words and images (JK Rowling, dropped to number 2 highest-paid author in 2018, besting Stephen King), keeping people healthy, etc. And, ‘nurturing’ should in no way imply a state of ‘dependency.’ It takes a lot of emotional strength (as opposed to physical prowess) to be nurturing. Our current system equates ‘nurturing’ jobs with low status (and low pay), because they are regarded as suitable for a woman. Perversely, we reward highly those destructive and belligerent activities, thought of as ‘masculine.’ And, we make those people who do not fit our gender stereotypes suffer.

  7. inode_buddha

    You could almost say that the men are full of Themselves.

    Frankly, I’ve gotten to where I refuse to work in an inflated environment full of puffery.

  8. Summer

    It sounds like it could be the set-up of some “romantic” comedy that I haven’t seen: wife hides from her husband of 10 or more years that she was promoted to executive suite at her job.

    1. Arizona Slim

      Something like that happened here in Tucson. A lady from China married an American guy who was one of her hospital patients. At the time, she was a nurse.

      Well, they settled into domestic life in Tucson, but, to her, that was a bit dull. So, she secretly opened a Chinese restaurant.

      Husband heard about it. Wanting to impress his wife, he took her to the great Chinese restaurant that he’d heard so much about.

      Once they arrived, she had to break the news to him: She owned the place.

      Szechuan Omei was a Tucson legend for many years. And Madeline Gerrish’s TV commercials? Oh, brother. You want to talk about self promotion, Madeline was among our local all-time best. “You try! You like!” was her slogan.

      One of the children, Andy, became a firefighter. Let me tell you, life in the fire station kitchens is very competitive, but Andy Gerrish was considered among the best cooks in the Tucson Fire Department.

  9. smoker

    Re Capitalist Society Favoring Self Promoter Males

    All I want for Christmas is to wake up and discover that Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Jeff Bezos, Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, Sergey Brinn, Larry Page, Eric Schmidt, Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, et al, were all just characters in a horrifying nightmare; versus the Ghastly, Immoral, Megalomaniacal Billionaires they actually were allowed to become by the Bipartisan powers that be.

    Being trapped with no escape in Silicon Valley is like living in hell.

  10. kk

    I was at a work meeting two months ago with a young woman back that week from maternity leave after having her first child ( twins as it turned out), she is extremely well qualified and super smart. The meeting trailed on for hours as usual and when the boss turned to her to ask a technical question, she said with a smile that she had not been following any of the discussions but rather had been thinking about her babies. She handed in her notice that day. I know she has no money problems as her husband is a big boss for some other company but the reality was she thought about her priorities and office life came a long was behind behind a mother – or so she said.

    1. Arizona Slim

      A meeting that trails on for hours? And she has a husband who makes a good income? Boom, gone. Can’t say that I blame her for leaving.

  11. David in Santa Cruz

    By coincidence, I’ve just finished Ronan Farrow’s rambling take-down of the self-promoting and abusive rape culture at NBC News. I felt as if I was reading about Chimpanzees and Bonobos, not cream rising to the top.

    I fear that the inclusion of women in the workplace is nothing but a marketing ploy in most organizations. I have found that throughout my career, it was the self-promoters who climbed to the top of the pile to be back-slapped by other self-promoters, rarely those with real talent capable of exercising reasoned judgment. This was the case with either men or women.

    Self-promotion appears to me to be a subset of bullying, which in most cultures is encouraged in males from an early age. Bullying has become what passes for “entertainment” in our culture — Reality shows, sitcoms, police procedurals, professional sports, social media, and political discourse are rife with bullying. As climate-change ramps-up scarcity and rationing, I suspect that women will become more adept at being bullies as time passes.

    Merry Christmas…

  12. Plenue

    “Most women want to get married and have kids.”

    I really wonder how much of this is acculturation as well. It always seems strange to me that we act as if there’s a unique mothering instinct, but not a fathering one. Last I checked, women can’t spontaneously reproduce. There are plenty of men who have no interest in being parents, I don’t see why it should be so different for women.

    In fact I know there are women, probably quite a few, who have zero interest in becoming mothers (and plenty who are mothers but are terrible at it, as I’m sure anyone who has worked with CPS, DHS, or charities can attest). I imagine that number would be higher if we didn’t browbeat women with motherhood as an expectation from before they can even walk, with eg baby dolls.

    1. kiwi

      Well, why bother considering anything as strong as the biological instinct for survival and reproduction to explain women’s desire to have children (or humans’ drive to reproduce)?

      It’s baked in. It’s baked into any reproducing creature. And all the intellectulization of this instinct, just because we’re humans and can do so, is silly.

      Sure, humans are able choose other paths, unlike, for example, rutting moose, but the instinct and drive to reproduce is still there for most. We wouldn’t exist if it didn’t.

      1. Plenue

        “It’s baked into any reproducing creature.”

        Except it isn’t baked into me.

        And again, women cannot spontaneously reproduce. It takes two to tango, and if there are men like me who have zero interest in creating offspring, then there are certainly women as well.

        And ion point of fact it’s very possible that we as a species won’t exist for much longer in large part because we wouldn’t stop reproducing.

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