The XX Factor

Why Do Women Downplay Their Professional Achievements?

Who, me? Nothing much.

When I last reported to you on my Lean In circle, I was feeling pretty stoked about how several of our group’s members had asked for and received raises. Since then, my circle of Brooklyn-based twenty- and thirtysomething professional ladies have continued to follow the curriculum provided by Sheryl Sandberg’s nonprofit. We meet about once a month and either watch and discuss an education video provided by the organization, or two members share a larger issue or dilemma they are facing in the workplace.

The latest meeting’s topic was “harnessing the power of stories.” We all found the video a little basic and the discussion questions a bit vague, so we ended up veering off the stock curriculum (sorry, Sheryl!) and came up with a storytelling exercise for ourselves. With performance review season upon us, we challenged ourselves in two minutes to tell the story of what we do at work and what we have accomplished in our current jobs. As we took turns, a clear pattern began to emerge—a number of people in the group did a great job articulating all sorts of things about their companies and work situations while completely downplaying their own accomplishments.

One woman described in detail the wide range of tasks her boss handled, but described her own role only as a footnote—talking about herself as someone who her superior “offloaded” to, rather than highlighting all of the tasks she successfully manages on her own. Another woman described her rise in an organization from intern to a senior position as a chain of events that just sort of happened, rather than confidently explaining how her skills got her promoted several times. I even did this myself. I clearly articulated lots of great things that have happened at Slate since I started three years ago, but I didn’t really mention the projects I’ve led or the role I played in these successes.

This was a very eye-opening experience as we pointed this out to one another. I don’t think any of us went into the exercise attempting to be modest or coy. It was genuinely hard for many of us to speak clearly and confidently about our professional accomplishments, even in a supportive, low-stakes environment where the goal is to encourage professional accomplishment itself.

In Sandberg’s book, she highlights the many studies that have found women consistently give themselves lower self-evaluation scores, are less likely to think of themselves as “very qualified” and have an even harder time articulating their accomplishments in front of other people. “Ask a man to explain his success and he will typically credit his own innate qualities and skills,” Sandberg writes. “Ask a woman the same question and she will likely attribute her success to external factors, insisting she did well because ‘she worked really hard,’ or ‘got lucky’ or ‘had help from others.’ ”

It was stark to see our group fall so firmly into this trap and valuable as I go into my performance review. I’ll let you know what happens next.