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Violating the Modesty Norm: Women in STEM June 13, 2013

Posted by The Raise Project in Uncategorized.
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Meet Dr. Jessi Smith, a psychological scientist and professor at Montana State University. Dr. Smith’s work focuses on the psychological components and phenomena that impact motivation and achievement. As an expert on factors that impact women in STEM fields, the RAISE Project spoke with Dr. Smith to get some possible answers about what holds some women back. Since 1973, women have obtained 42% of all degrees awarded in STEM fields. This is a glaring difference from the STEM workforce with only 27% of women comprising these jobs.  A jessi smithcloser look reveals that women are paid-less and receive far less recognition for equivalent work as compared to men.

Women also tend to shy away from awards and other platforms that may increase the recognition of women in science. So, what gives? Could this be a case of reinforcing the glass ceiling?

According to Dr. Smith, women feel uncomfortable self-promoting. It goes against the modesty norm. For example, when women are asked to write a letter describing their strengths it tends to downplay accomplishments and successes. These types of “cover letters” are often required for employment and awards so women are unconsciously placing themselves at a disadvantage. In fact, most letters of reference written for women tend to focus on personality over accomplishments. The opposite has been found for males.

Self-promoting is uncomfortable and leads to unpleasant feelings for most women. Violating the modesty norm is salient to women and when women self promote, there is a backlash; people tend not to like them, think of them as narcissistic, or believe they must be hard to work with. So, what can we do?

Dr. Smith conducted a study on women and self-promotion. Participants (women) were asked to write a letter in order to compete for an imaginary award. Half of the participants were seated in a room that contained a big black box that supposedly made noises that caused anxiety. The other half were seated in a quiet room. The purpose of the box was to give participants something to blame when they felt uncomfortable, so when the women began to write their letters they could attribute these uncomfortable feelings to the black box and not to themselves. Results revealed that participants in the black box condition wrote higher quality letters. The opposite was found for the participants who wrote their essays in the quiet room. These results suggest that the cognitive dissonance (i.e. uncomfortable thoughts and feelings that happen when we violate a norm) that occurs as a function of self-promotion directly influences how women present themselves.

Later, Dr. Smith took the essays written by the women in these groups and gave them to a new batch of participants and asked them to rate them in terms of how much award money they would assign to each letter (0-$5000). Women who were in the black box condition were given a significantly greater amount than the women in the quiet room condition.

Now that we know the impact of cognitive dissonance related to violating the modesty norm, perhaps we can overcome it!

Self-promotion can pay off for females in STEM fields. The NSF and NIH currently fund Dr. Smith’s research to the tune of approximately $5 million. She is certainly a scientist to watch. You can check out some of her fascinating work here: http://www.montana.edu/wwwpy/smith.htm