Selling Yourself Short: Why Women Do It & How to Rise Above

Do you sell yourself short? Why are women taught to be humble and modest?

In How Women Rise, Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith explain that women tend to sell themselves short. This is because society praises modest women while viewing ambitious women as arrogant or brash.

Stop selling yourself short with the below solutions.

Thinking Low of Yourself

This rigid line between acceptable and unacceptable causes women to develop binary thinking—a woman is either a good person who is humble and modest, or she’s a selfish person who brings attention to her goals and achievements. Your attempts to meet the “humble and modest” standard result in detrimental behavior such as downplaying your goals and achievements, and could make you develop a habit of selling yourself short.

(Shortform note: In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg reiterates that society’s tendency to dislike successful, ambitious women causes women to develop counterproductive habits in their attempt to appear humble and modest. Sandberg describes the 2003 “Heidi/Howard” study, which asked two groups of participants to review a case study of an ambitious entrepreneur and rate the entrepreneur’s likeability. The two case studies were identical, except that one was about a female entrepreneur named Heidi, while the other featured a male entrepreneur named Howard. The group that read about Howard rated him as more likable and less selfish than the group that read about Heidi.)

Behavior: Downplaying Goals and Achievements 

The authors explain that women who sell themselves short tend to minimize their accomplishments and downplay their goals. They don’t bring attention to the work they’ve done, they have a hard time accepting praise, and they neglect sharing their goals with others to avoid appearing overly ambitious.

This harms their ability to progress in their careers because superiors overlook them in favor of employees who may be less successful but are more vocal about their goals and accomplishments. The authors note that to progress in their careers, women must be able to advocate for themselves so people see why they’re credible and deserving of promotion. Further, they must be able to express what they want in order to get it—if a woman never tells her boss she wants to move up the corporate ladder, she’ll likely be overshadowed by someone who does.

(Shortform note: In Lean In, Sandberg also argues that women must express their goals and talk about their achievements to move up the corporate ladder—if not, they’ll likely be overlooked or taken advantage of. However, she warns that doing so isn’t easy and doesn’t guarantee success. Advocating for yourself as a woman, Sandberg says, requires you to sacrifice some level of likeability—men and other women will criticize you, treat you poorly, and resent you for breaking the norm. To succeed, you must acknowledge the possibility of these challenges and allow yourself to react emotionally when they occur. The more women stand up for themselves, the more the world will change and the less hate they’ll get for self-advocating.)

Downplaying Goals and Achievements: The Solution

Helgesen and Goldsmith provide a few solutions to help you stop selling yourself short.

1. Learn to accept praise. When someone recognizes your accomplishments, simply thank them. Don’t try to downplay your effort or shift praise to someone else. 

(Shortform note: Another tactic experts recommend to help you learn to accept praise is to record the compliments you receive. This will help you remember them and boost your self-esteem, making you better equipped to accept compliments in the future.)

2. Tell others about your accomplishments. Rather than quietly working toward company goals and expecting your boss to notice, regularly update them on what you’ve accomplished. Not only will this show you’re a hard worker, it’ll also help your boss stay up to date on company progress.

(Shortform note: Other experts reiterate the importance and benefits of updating you on your accomplishments. However, this can be detrimental if you don’t do it the right way—for example, a busy or more hands-off leader might be overwhelmed by constant, detail-dense updates. Aim to structure your update according to their leadership style. For example, if they tend to micro-manage, update them often and in greater detail. If they’re more hands-off, a weekly bulleted list may be the best approach.)

3. Make your goals known. Share your ambitions with others so they know what you want and can help you get there. Further, learn to concisely express what you want, why you want it, why you’re qualified, and how you plan to achieve it. For example, you can create a concise statement such as, “My next goal is to take on the role of Team Lead. I have an excellent relationship with my colleagues and am passionate about helping them excel. I’m an experienced leader and specialized in leadership at university. I plan to beat my revenue goal this quarter and continue helping my colleagues do the same until the position opens up.”

(Shortform note: To be perceived as positively as possible while sharing your goals, Sandberg recommends emphasizing your concern for the common good. Masking your personal goals as communal ones makes you less likely to face backlash because it aligns with a stereotypically female concern for the common good. One way to do this is by using terms like “we” or “us.” For example, “My next goal is to take on the role of Team Lead. I want our team to excel and I think my close relationships with everyone will help us reach our full potential as individuals and a group.”)

Selling Yourself Short: Why Women Do It & How to Rise Above

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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