Marketing yourself, or self-promotion, is often necessary to get ahead — no matter how uncomfortable it may make you feel. It’s difficult to measure to what extent women brag and partake in self-promotion in comparison to men, but plenty of studies and experts out there claim that females are less confident and less likely to self-promote than males. That is, even though they perform at equal or higher levels in the workplace.

Women tend to feel nervous when they aren't being modest. A professor of psychology at Montana State University, Jessi L. Smith, wanted to undertake a small study that looked more into this issue of women and their tendency to feel nervous about self-promotion. Smith’s study required about 60 freshman female students at a university to write essays about their life achievements. The best essays would win up to $5,000.

One group of students was placed in a room that contained a 3-foot by 3-foot box. They were told the box was a “subliminal noise generator,” which made a noise that was too high for humans to hear but could sometimes cause discomfort. However, it was a placebo; “There’s no such thing as a subliminal noise generator,” Smith told Time magazine. “It was total fiction.” But it made the participants believe there was something causing their nervousness while they wrote their essays about their personal achievements.

Strangely enough, the students who wrote their personal essays in the fake “subliminal noise generator” room actually wrote better essays and received up to $1,000 more for their essays than women in other rooms. The students appeared to believe that it was the black box that made them uncomfortable, not their lack of modesty. And this somehow made it easier for them to brag and partake in self-promotion.

“Within American gender norms is the expectation that women should be modest,” the authors of the study wrote in their abstract. “We argue that violating this ‘modesty norm’ by boasting about one’s accomplishments causes women to experience uncomfortable situational arousal that leads to lower motivation for and performance on a self-promotion task. We hypothesized that such negative effects could be offset when an external source for their situational arousal was made available."

Previous studies have shown that women are less likely to tout their achievements than men, even if they perform equally to their male counterparts in the classroom or workplace. One such study measured confidence and performance of female medical students and found that they had far less self-confidence than men. “Female medical students self-reported less self confidence than the male medical students and were also observed by trained raters to be less confident,” Richard M. Frankel, the study’s lead author and professor of medicine at the Indiana University School of Medicine, said in a press release.

Another study completed by Catalyst, an international nonprofit, found that women who consistently made their achievements known did better than women who didn't. Those who reminded their manages of their accomplishments, asked for feedback and to be given credit, as well as asked for promotions when they deserved them, were working to close the gender gap.

Though Smith's study was done on a small scale, and is probably too small to jump to conclusions, it opens up questions as to why women feel nervous when self-promoting, and why they shouldn't. “Results suggest that when a situation helps women to escape the discomfort of defying the modesty norm, self-promotion motivation, and performance improve,” the authors conclude.

Source: Smith JL, Huntoon M. Women’s Bragging Rights: Overcoming Modesty Norms to Facilitate Women’s Self-Promotion. Psychology of Women Quarterly. 2013.