Self-Advocacy: Why It’s Uncomfortable, Especially for Women, and What to Do About It

Self-advocacy—speaking or acting on our own behalf—is an increasingly important skill (for a primer on how to do it, see reference 1) and one that makes many of us

Vivian Siegel

Vivian Siegel

cringe. Just look at the new National Institutes of Health biosketch: Instead of modestly providing a list of publications, we need to clearly and cogently champion our multiple accomplishments. (The biosketch is also very useful to people who write nomination or recommendation letters for you.)

I’m not speaking about braggadocio; I mean acting on our own behalf with the same persuasive power we use on behalf of others. And that is hard, especially for women, to do.

Gender Stereotypes in Negotiations

One classic example of a situation in which women have a harder time with self-advocacy than men do is the job negotiation. Janoff-Bulman and Wade tell the following true story about two assistant professors hired at the same time, one a man and the other a woman.2 They “have equivalent research records, letters of recommendation, and teaching experience; in fact, they are essentially indistinguishable on paper. Yet, the man’s starting salary is considerably higher than the woman’s. A male administrator further up the bureaucratic hierarchy notices this discrepancy and discusses the cases with the relevant department chairs and dean. He learns that the new assistant professors were offered the same starting salary. The woman accepted, but the man negotiated and consequently was paid more.”
The high-level administrator was satisfied by this explanation and the discrepancy in salaries remained. The man was rewarded for his ability to self-advocate. Whether this is “fair” depends on whether the difficulty and potential risks of self-advocacy are equal across gender, and psychological research suggests that the playing field is perniciously uneven.

First, “gender stereotypes” impel different societal expectations for behavior. As reviewed by Janoff-Bulman and Wade, men “are expected to be ambitious,… assertive, self-confident, direct, and instrumentally competent,” while women “are expected to be unselfish, caring,…emotionally expressive, and interpersonally sensitive.”2 In other words, the expectation already exists that men will self-advocate and women will be modest.

Just Act Differently?

Well, you say, so what? All women need to do is act differently and they will get a different reaction—right?

Unfortunately, no. Psychological research shows costs associated with resisting gender stereotypes. First, perceptions of “out of role” behavior are exaggerated. In other words, a self-advocating argument made by a woman will be seen as more self-promoting, even aggrandizing, than the same argument made by a man (reviewed in reference 2). Second, the social cost of resisting gender stereotypes is being liked less by both men and women. As documented by Powers and Zuroff, self-promoting women tend to be evaluated higher in performance yet lower in likeability than those who are not self-promoting.3

This matters even from a professional perspective because being liked is a powerful tool of persuasion: People want to say yes to those they like.4 So, as a woman, what can you do? In a culture that insists on self-advocacy and then slams you for it, it’s like there’s no way to win.

Self-Advocacy and Other-Advocacy

There is a way forward, a collective way: Women are amazing advocates for others. As Smith and Huntoon relate, when they were putting together a magazine featuring the achievements of women faculty on campus, they put out a “call for women to share their successes.”5 No replies. Except they received “many replies from people telling us about other women we should feature and the good work that these other women on campus were doing.” This fits well with our gendered modesty norm and research showing women are more comfortable promoting others.6

Further, not only are women evaluated more harshly for promoting themselves than they are for promoting others, they actually tend to be less motivated in promoting themselves compared with promoting others;5 self-promotion goes against our gender stereotype and causes discomfort, termed “situational arousal.”7 Other studies of situational arousal suggest that if individuals (mistakenly) assign their discomfort to an external source (a misattribution), then they will no longer change their behavior in response to the discomfort. So what then would happen if, during the self-promotion task, researchers offered participants an opportunity to misattribute their discomfort?

In this experiment, participants were told that the department was investigating the effect of extraneous distraction on task performance. One group was introduced to a “black box subliminal noise generator” and told it caused side effects such as ‘‘increased heart rate, nervousness, and arousal,’’ thereby providing participants with an alternate, external source to which they could attribute any discomfort actually caused by their self-promotion. The black box didn’t do anything; it was simply something to “blame” if participants began to feel uncomfortable. The other group was told nothing about the black box (which was in the room for both groups). Strikingly, the participants who could blame the black box did as well at self-promotion as at peer-promotion. They also reported that they were more interested in the task and more motivated to do it.

To summarize where we are:

  1. Women are expected to be more modest than men and not self-advocate.
  2. Women who do self-advocate are less likely to be liked, and their self-advocacy will be seen as excessive compared with the same self-advocacy by men.
  3. Women are great at advocating for others and are expected to do so.
  4. Women feel uncomfortable, uninterested, and unmotivated in tasks that require self-advocacy and don’t perform as well as a result.
  5. Creating an opportunity to misattribute their discomfort is sufficient to increase interest, motivation, and performance.

Self-Advocacy IS Other-Advocacy

How might we use this information to advance our careers? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Don’t go it alone: Turn self-advocacy into other-advocacy whenever possible. Ask others to advocate for you (including nominating you for awards) in situations where it is appropriate. WICB members have worked tirelessly to promote women as keynote speakers at national meetings, as award recipients, and as leaders.
  2. In cases when you do need to advocate for yourself, think about whether you can make it also a case for something larger, for example for your research group. When it is solely about you (as it will be from time to time), ask your peers to help you craft an effective case. What would they say about you? Use their words, and resist the urge to tone them down.
  3. Know that your discomfort at self-advocacy is caused by the gender stereotype itself. It is indeed something outside yourself and is shared by members of our community, including you. In other cases of stereotype threat, this kind of knowledge aids performance (for example, by girls on
    math tests).
  4. Get a black box! More seriously, the misattribution experiment tells us that it is not the discomfort itself that leads to low interest, motivation, and performance, but rather the story we tell ourselves about the discomfort. Learn to tell a different story about “situational arousal,” or no story at all. Mindfulness practices teach you to name sensations as a way of “taming” them.8
  5. Administrators need to think carefully about tasks designed to require self-advocacy. Instead of asking candidates to promote themselves, we could rely more heavily on advocacy by others, including reaching out to people to nominate their peers for recognition of various kinds. Consider going gender-blind whenever possible. Furthermore, administrators should work with young investigators to help them build their negotiation styles and strategies. And they must make it incumbent on themselves to fix disparities that exist as a result of the gendered differences in both behavior and perception of behavior.None of these suggestions is trivial, but they are worth the effort. What you do for yourself as a self-advocate, and for each other as other-advocates, will impact not just your own career but the careers of others as well, and for generations to come. Advocating for yourself—worthwhile in itself—is still advocating for others.


    1Office of Intramural Training and Education, National Institutes of Health. Putting your best foot forward: Self-advocacy for scientists.
    2Janoff-Bulman R, Wade B (1996). The dilemma of self-advocacy for women: another case of blaming the victim? Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 15, 143–152.
    3Powers TA, Zuroff DC (1988). Interpersonal consequences of overt self-criticism: A comparison with neutral and self-enhancing presentations of self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 54, 1054–1062.
    4Cialdini RB (2008). Influence: Science and Practice (5th edition). Columbus, OH: Allyn and Bacon.
    5Smith JL, Huntoon M (2014). Women’s bragging rights: Overcoming modesty norms to facilitate women’s self-promotion. Psychology of Women Quarterly 38, 447–459.
    6Moss-Racusin C, Rudman LA (2010). Disruptions in women’s self-promotion: The backlash avoidance model. Psychology of Women Quarterly 34, 186–202.
    7Zanna MP, Cooper J (1974). Dissonance and the pill: An attribution approach to studying the arousal properties of dissonance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 29, 703–709.
    8Kabat-Zinn J (2003). Mindfulness-based interventions in context: Past, present, and future. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice 10, 144–156.

About the Author:

Massachusetts Institute of Technology