Nobody Likes a Modest Man

But modesty in women is a-okay.

Or so says a new study from the journal Psychology of Men & Masculinity. First, researchers videotaped two male and two female graduate students answering job-interview questions like “What are your technical skills?” and “What kind of salary do you expect?” Their answers were scripted and identical. So, for instance, when asked about their salary expectations, they all said “Well, if I should be lucky enough to get the position, I’m sure you’d offer me a fair wage.”

Reasonable enough, but not exactly assertive.

Each of the participants in the study—232 undergraduates—were randomly shown one of the scripted, videotaped interviews and asked to rate the fake applicant on a number of qualities, including whether they liked the person. The male applicants were rated as less likable than the female applicants, even though they gave the same answers to the questions. Interestingly, the modest men were disliked by women and by other men. Everybody hates them.

So why would the same answers coming from men be deemed less acceptable?

From the paper:

Changes in gender roles that have afforded women more financial independence have not yielded relaxed demands for men. That is, men are still required to uphold masculine ideals that require chronic exhibitions of strength while avoiding signs of weakness.

So that’s the bad news for modest men. But guess what, women? When you act assertive you’re deemed deficient in social skills, according to an earlier paper by the same researchers. What’s more, employers were less likely to hire those assertive (or “agentic,” as the researchers call them) women even if they were seen as competent.

Is the lesson here that everyone should behave according to gender stereotypes lest they offend potential employers/colleagues/passers-by? Let’s say no just because that’s a depressing conclusion. Instead maybe the takeaway is that men and women have to be aware of those expectations and attempt to walk a line between being true to themselves and conforming to society’s expectations.

At least, that’s my modest assertion.

(The authors of the paper, titled “When Men Break the Gender Rules: Status Incongruity and Backlash Against Modest Men,” are Julie E. Phelan, Corinne A. Moss-Racusin, and Laurie A. Rudman. While that paper is not online, their paper on assertive women can be found here.)

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