If you are a man looking for employment now is the time to do away with false—or real—modesty, says research from Rutgers University. Men who don’t boast their accomplishments and abilities while interviewing for a position fail to impress both male and female interviewers, and may even be looked up unfavorably, says Corinne A. Moss-Racusin, a doctoral candidate in Rutgers’ Department of Psychology. However, Moss-Racusin, along with graduate fellow Julie E. Phelan and Professor Laurie A. Rudman, found that when women behave modestly on an interview, they are not looked upon unfavorably.
The study team chose to examine the role of sex role stereotypes and consequence because previous research had mainly focused on women and social expectations, Moss-Racusin says.
“Significant previous research has examined backlash against women who behave agentically—[for example,] are ambitious, confident, and assertive—which is typically reserved for men,” she says.
Women who behave outside of gender expectations suffer on multiple levels, Moss-Racusin adds.
“This body of literature has established that women encounter backlash—social and economic penalties—when they violate gender stereotypes at work,” she explains. “However, scant research has sought to extend this process to men. Therefore, the inspiration for the current research was to determine whether men would be similarly penalized when they violate gender stereotypes—here, by behaving modestly on a job interview.”
Results indicated that men who behaved modestly—a quality usually associated with or accepted in women—evoked negative responses from both male and female interviewers. Although job applicants in the staged interviews were presented as equally competent, those who exhibit more modesty were less liked, which researchers say is a sign of social backlash.
Why is modesty viewed as such an unfavorable quality in men? In our cultural context, this trait is considered a sign of weakness and associated with low status, both of which are deemed as hindrances to their employability and earnings potential.
“Men are disliked when they behave modestly because this behavior violates traditional gender stereotypes calling for men to be ambitious, self-promoting, [and so on],” Moss-Racusin maintains.
Because the participants applicants behaved equally modestly—the only difference between them was their sex.
“This suggests that dislike of modest men is linked to their gender, and the fact that modesty violates gender stereotypes for men, but not women,” she notes.
Interestingly, whether the “interviewer”—in this case, the participant, since participants rated the videotapes of job applicants who responded to questions that were simply presented on-screen—was male or female made no difference.
“In our research on backlash, we never find participant gender differences,” Moss-Racusin says. “That is, men and women are equally likely to administer backlash against people—male or female!—who violate gender stereotypes.”
This finding means that there is little same-sex support for those who behave outside gender role expectations.
“Norms are deeply ingrained in us, to the extent that women are not supportive of other ambitious women, and men are just as likely as women to penalize a modest man,” she maintains. “We’re all subject to the same sets of rules, and are equally likely to police them.”
Surprisingly, although modest men were less liked, they were not less likely to be hired.
“Though modest men were disliked relative to identically modest women, they were not less likely to be hired,” Moss-Racusin notes.
Isn’t likeability important when job-seeking? Maybe not so much for men, research shows.
“In our work on stereotype-violating women, we typically find that agentic women experience both prejudice—they are disliked relative to identical men—and hiring discrimination; they are less likely to be hired than identical men,” she explains.
It seems that just being male may provide protection in this scenario.
“In this case, we did not find any differences on hiring,” Moss-Racusin explains. “This may be because men experience higher status in society, and are afforded a certain ‘benefit of the doubt’ when it comes to hiring. However, dislike can have serious ramifications for men’s careers, and remains troubling.”
The message remains that whether you are a man or a woman, violating gender stereotypes may induce career-damaging backlash, the researcher concludes.