Women are more likely than men to downplay their accomplishments. Whether it’s in their professional, personal or athletic ventures, we’re less likely to own up to the scope of what we’ve achieved.
In a National Bureau of Economic Research study, women consistently ranked their performance on a test lower than men, even when their scores were the same. Men gave themselves on average, a 61 out of 100. Women gave themselves a 46. Even when study participants were told that a potential employer would use their self evaluation to make decisions on hiring and pay, women still were less likely to promote (or accurately assess) the quality of their work. This “self-promotion gap” reveals stark differences in how individuals subjectively evaluate their performance, and how they communicate that to the world around them. Women will often qualify their successes, amending their achievements with words like “just” and “only”.
It was just a 10k. I only run 30 miles a week.
As both a coach and an athlete, professional ultrarunner Sally McRae is no stranger to the cultural pressure to diminish one’s achievements.
“I think that that’s something that is a struggle for all humans where we wonder, am I enough? Is what I’m doing enough, are my accomplishments, am I valuable enough?” says McRae. Often, we’ll hedge our bets by using language that diminishes what we’ve achieved because we’re afraid others will do the same. So, we try to beat them to the punch.
Culturally, women can get more pushback for owning their successes. We can be seen as pushy, braggadocious, or over confident. Many of these qualities are celebrated in men, but seen as unflattering or off-putting in women because the cultural scripts to remain humble and meek are so strong.
“Don’t say I just ran five miles,” says McRae. “Let’s talk about how awesome those five miles were. A lot of times, that impulse to downplay is rooted in fear. Fear of not being enough. Fear of being seen as less than. And I don’t want fear to rule my life and conversations.”
Women can hold each other accountable to owning what they’ve achieved by lifting one another up, and getting more comfortable accurately assessing their own successes.
The Comparison Trap
One thing that’s made this even more difficult is the prevalence of social media. Now, it’s easier than ever to compare oneself to others—whether it’s your less-than-Instaworthy vacation or sub-perfect Strava file.
“Now that we have all this access to social media and being able to peer into everybody’s lives, strangers or friends, to be in a constant state of comparison,” says McRae. “Using the word just may be more prevalent than it’s ever been, because we’re saying just when we compare what we look like and what our training is and when it comes to our relationships and our jobs and how much money we make it’s dangerous. And we know that comparison is a thief of joy.”
It’s easier to say “I just ran five miles” when you’re comparing yourself to someone else’s 50k on social media, or to think you’re just not a runner when you’re comparing a low point in your training to someone else’s peak volume.
Disconnect from people and media that make you feel less than, or make you feel like you need to downplay your achievements.
Parenting Confident Children
McRae has seen the toll that things like social media and comparison take on young athletes, too. As the mother of a teenage girl and boy, she works hard to make sure her teens get the right message.
“It’s a constant battle, and something we talk about a lot,” says McRae. “I remind them that they are enough, even when they don’t feel like it.”
McRae says it’s a challenge that follows many young athletes well into adulthood, but that communicating with her kids that feelings of inadequacy are normal can help. She also makes sure to demonstrate confidence for her daughter and son too.
“I want them to see what it looks like to be strong and confident,” says McRae. “I want them to see me being brave—and failing too. It’s all part of it, and I want them to see me working through it, over and over again so that they can know that it’s OK.”
Own Your Confidence
“It’s easy to understand, intellectually,” says McRae. “But it’s hard to put into practice. It’s hard to live out the kind of confidence we should all have. Our bodies are capable of amazing things, and we have to celebrate that in ourselves and in each other. Lots of people feel like they don’t belong, like they’re imposters. But we can all support each other and stop diminishing ourselves as women.”
The goal isn’t, and shouldn’t ever be, to get women to act more like men, but for all of us to come together and interrogate what makes it hard for certain folks to own the realities of their lives, and how we can all open up more space for honest and mutual flourishing on and off the trail and track. It’s not enough to tell women to “lean in” and own their achievements: we all need to create the cultural conditions where women are able and equipped to own their success without fear of negative repercussions or pushback.