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Jillian Berman Headshot

Why It's So Hard For Working Women To Get Ahead, And What We Can Do About It

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About a year into working my first job, my boss and I sat down for my annual review. As I kind of expected, he told me I was doing well and offered some minor suggestions for improvement.

Then he asked me if there was anything else I wanted to talk about.

The seemingly benign question made my stomach churn. It felt like an invitation for me to ask for a raise. Still, I wasn't all that interested in talking about it. Even armed with the knowledge that the conversation was probably going to go my way and the feeling that I did deserve more, I had a tough time getting the words out of my mouth.

After the talk ended, I was relieved, but not completely. I got the raise and yet it probably took me an hour to recover from the awkwardness of acknowledging out loud that I was doing a good job.

The idea of selling myself to my boss, a potential employer or even just another human socially makes me queasy. Even composing a self-congratulatory Gchat is agonizing. It usually takes me several drafts to come up with a sentence fragment that conveys I did something worthwhile with just the right subtlety (example: "hey, this is something i did at work this week that i thought you might find interesting.")

My problem is even worse on Twitter, a tool designed essentially for self-promotion. Like other women Kat Stoeffel highlighted in a piece in New York Magazine a few months ago, I often resort to constructions that downplay my role in what I'm sharing. Think: "Look at this little thing I wrote," retweeting others' complimentary tweets about the post or just tweeting the headline.

A new study out of Montana State University concludes that my resistance to self-promotion can be traced back to the way I've been "socialized." Women often feel uncomfortable touting their accomplishments themselves because they've been socialized to be modest, humble and "act like ladies" -- demurely shying away from publicly acknowledging their achievements, according to the researchers. This adherence to so-called "modesty norms" doesn't extend to ideas or other good colleagues -- we have no problem touting their good work -- rather it's limited to how women sell themselves.

"The problem is that we've got this culture that rewards women for being submissive, and quiet and modest and humble and acting like ladies, but for men we expect them to take risks and be assertive," said Jessi Smith, the study's lead author and an associate professor of psychology at Montana State University.

The researchers split 78 female students into two groups and asked them to write scholarship application essays. One group wrote the essays for themselves, while the others wrote them for a friend. The researchers found that the women writing the essays for themselves tended to rate the experience less favorably and were awarded less money by the judges.

Smith and her team came up with the idea for the study after she sent requests to a woman's professional group for examples of their good work that she could highlight in the group's newsletter. "We got zippo, it was like pulling teeth to get people to give us a story," she said.

The problem with that attitude, Smith and others say, is that selling yourself is a key part of getting ahead at work. If you want a raise or a promotion you often have to ask for it -- if not explicitly than at least by sending your supervisor some sort of signal that you're going above and beyond what's required. In other words, you have to brag a little bit.

The result, is that the squeakiest wheel often gets the grease and, as other research has noted, the squeakiest wheels are often men. That may explain in part why women make up just 4.6 percent of CEOs at Fortune 1000 companies, but 46.9 percent of the U.S. labor force overall, according to Catalyst, an organization aimed at boosting women at work.

One way to deal with women's reluctance to self-promote is to tell them to "get over it." That's the tact Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg's made famous with her book "Lean In," which advises that women step up to the table and work hard to get noticed.

Smith's solutions have more to do with employers than workers. Employers trying to recruit and promote the best female employees should assume women are probably underselling themselves and create safe spaces for self-promotion, instead of asking them to just "get over" their natural aversion to it, she said.

Some companies have already put versions of Smith's suggestion into action. Google employed a version of this strategy last year after finding that women had a tougher time making it past the phone interview round of the hiring process because they were less likely to flaunt their accomplishments, according to The New York Times. Now, the tech giant has changed its interview process to make up for that.

Nancy Gibbs, Time magazine's first female managing editor, offers a practical tactic for making sure women who are less-inclined to brag don't get short-changed. After taking the helm of the magazine late last year, Gibbs reviewed the salaries of the magazine's female employees to make sure they were "comparable to what men of equal stature were making," according to Capital New York.

While this may seem like a bit much, these types of steps are necessary when even women who are hyper-aware of their tendency to stay quiet about themselves still do it. As a business writer here, I'm constantly inundated with studies that show pretty clearly that advertising your accomplishments only helps you at the office. And yet, I dread writing weekly emails to my editors about my work, which they solicit from me, because it makes me feel so weird.

It's hard to tell if that's because of the way I've been "socialized" as a woman or if it's just something about me, but I'm comforted by the fact that Smith and other women seem to feel the same way. After her study was published, Smith said she was nervous to send it to a colleague who asked a professional group for studies on the topic.

"I hesitated while I was typing the email," she said. "I felt uncomfortable doing it. The way I dealt with it is that I made a joke."