Why Aren’t Women Allowed to Brag?

D.R. McElroy

Women are raised to be embarrassed by praise. · 6 min read


Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Our society teaches women to be self-effacing. We are encouraged to brush off compliments about any of our achievements outside the spheres of beauty or motherhood. We are allowed to be pleased when people comment favorably on our skills regarding childrearing and household maintenance. We can be proud (but not too proud) when we are complimented on our looks.

But to desire, or worse yet expect, praise for the work we do outside of the home? Well, that’s unseemly.

I recently wrote an article in which I described myself as “a very good writer”. As soon as I typed that line, I felt the heat of embarrassment rise in my cheeks, accompanied by that pit-of-the-stomach feeling you get when people make fun of you. I felt acute self-consciousness just by having written something about myself that I was proud of.

I deleted the line, tried to think of something better, rewrote it, deleted it again, then finally tk’d it until I could come up with something satisfactory. Eventually, I published the article with the line still in it.

I didn’t sleep the night I published that story. I worried incessantly that people would read it and blast me for bragging about my writing skills. I felt small.

*I felt acute self-consciousness just by having written something about myself that I was proud of.*

Lest you think this behavior is a relic from another time, remember that just a few months ago Time magazine ran a piece about the controversy over the disqualification of a high school swim team member who was eliminated for wearing a regulation-approved swimsuit in a manner that was deemed “immodest”.

The disqualification was based on her appearance while completely ignoring the fact that she was a state champion swimmer; she was shamed for failing to look a certain way rather than being praised for her athletic accomplishments. The teen actually had to appeal the ruling through the school board, which reversed the decision in the wake of a huge public outcry.

Oh, and that swim team judge was female.

There is a lot of esteem-building information out there. Much of it instructs parents and others who work with children to be sure to validate the self-worth of girls every bit as much as they do boys. At the same time, however, gender behavior expectations remain rigid and deeply entrenched in our society.

*…she was shamed for failing to look a certain way rather than being praised for her athletic accomplishments.*

How many times do we still hear “Boys will be boys”? While many women bristle at the presumption that accompanies this phrase it remains staunchly planted in the lexicon — along with the gender norms associated with it. A number of prominent politicians have been excused for their criminal behavior based on this attitude.

With this complicity in accepting male gender stereotypes comes the unsurprising expectations of female gender behavior as well.

The active suppression of female success.

Though we can name any number of female stereotype behaviors, they all boil down to one principle: No woman must ever humiliate a man. We can’t be smarter, we can’t be faster, we can’t be richer. We can’t excel at anything that matters to how men judge their own success.

Not only that, but we mustn’t even talk about our accomplishments lest we somehow inadvertently embarrass a man who might overhear us and subsequently feel emasculated. So women are made to feel that any mention of our accomplishments in public is not only unwelcome but actually unwomanly. Men are encouraged to announce their successes while women must remain “humble”.

In her article “How to Self-promote Without Being a Self-promoterLydia Smith writes:

It can be difficult to strike the right balance between highlighting your abilities and bragging, and uncomfortable to try. Why do we find it so hard to promote ourselves, even when we need to?

Self-promotion walks a fine line in our society: While people admire other people’s success, there is a strong abhorrence towards those who boast of their own achievements. Pride, in fact, is one of the seven deadly sins.

It is nearly impossible to find words that mean to speak of one’s own success that don’t have a negative connotation associated with them: brag, boast, vaunt, swagger, self-praise, crow. Conversely, as long as someone else does the praising, there is little negative connotation at all: commend, compliment, applaud, approve, laud, promote.

But the social stigma against boasting is much more severe for women than it is for men. As indicated by my anecdote above, I actually felt physically ill after merely typing a prideful statement about myself nevermind actually publishing it.

It is this taboo that makes it so hard for women to rise in the corporate world. The “old boy network” is built on back-slapping and hand-shaking, i.e. men promoting their accomplishments and those of their colleagues. The success of the network is dependent on everyone knowing each other's achievements.

*Men are beginning to recognize that women are, in fact, more than capable of doing the work, but we are still not supposed to brag about it.*

The presence of women changes the dynamics of the network due to gender stereotyping. While men allow boasting as a means to accomplish business prominence amongst themselves, that exception is not extended to women. Men are beginning to recognize that women are, in fact, more than capable of doing the work, but we are still not supposed to brag about it. Women still must remain humble and self-effacing.

This requirement hamstrings women in business. Since the tendency still exists for us to be overlooked in our careers, it is critical that we make others aware of our accomplishments. Until we do so, we will continue to be overlooked.

Changing the game for women in business.

So, how do we brag in the face of such strong social stigma? This is one of the reasons so many women become entrepreneurs. Without the suppression from the old boy network, women feel more freedom to point out our achievements. We may feel uncomfortable about it at first, but as our businesses succeed we realize that listing our accomplishments gives people faith in our abilities. That list demonstrates that we have what it takes to win, whatever the venue.

*Business success requires acclaim.*

But becoming an entrepreneur isn’t necessarily what every woman wants. So in order to succeed in a corporate environment, we must learn how to deftly self-promote despite the stigma.

Every woman who works — whether inside or outside of the home — is well aware of what she accomplishes. Many of us toil without the expectation of acclaim, but we are rewarded in other ways; we may feel the love of family or fulfillment of our spirits.

The business world, unfortunately, doesn’t run that way. Business success requires acclaim. Whether it’s likes and follows, or positive reviews and promotions, success in business requires that our achievements be not just recognized but commended.

And that can’t happen if nobody knows about them.

It takes skill and experimentation to find the right kind of self-promotion for your particular field. Lawyers, for example, need to use strong language about cases won and settlements reached, while teachers might want to talk about their caring and creativity. Finding the appropriate language for marketing is a completely separate topic, but an important consideration nonetheless.

*Most important of all, be willing to help others as well.*

It really is okay to be proud of your achievements. It’s also a good thing to tell other people about them. Remember that most people are totally wrapped up in their own stories. They’re not going to go out of their way to seek you out and build you up, but many of them are willing to help you out if you make it easy for them.

Put your achievements in front of people. Ask politely for what you want (this goes for ALL people asking for favors, not just women). Tell people how they can help you and make it easy for them to do so.

Most important of all, be willing to help others as well. That’s how the old boy network keeps going: you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. If someone gives you a boost, thank them. If someone asks for a favor — and you can reasonably comply — then consider doing so. Don’t be a doormat, those days are over. Be genuine, expect your due, do your part in return. Simple.

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D.R. McElroy is a published author, writer, and copy editor with 15 years professional experience. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Horticulture and a Masters in Environmental Resources. A conservationist, naturalist, and environmental advocate, she spends her time writing nonfiction articles on a variety of topics, as well as writing books on contract for publishers. D.R. wants to build a community of people who love nature and wildlife as much as she does, and who want to help protect our resources for public use.


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