Why Is It…?

“Why Is It…?” was designed by Dr. Steiner to address readers’ questions about human behavior from a social psychological perspective in order to inform and stimulate dialogue about the ways in which our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are influenced by the presence of other people. Dr. Steiner holds a Ph.D. in Applied Social Psychology. In addition to working as a university professor over the last 15 years, she conducts individual and group consultations in matters of social relationships and behavior. Readers are invited to submit their questions anonymously in one paragraph or less to Dr. Steiner at [email protected].

Q:  Why is it that so many females downplay or hide their successes? One of my friends just earned an “A” on her final exam, but told her boyfriend that she only got a “B.” Why would someone hide her achievements?

A:  It may appear counter-intuitive to most of us that someone would conceal, rather than showcase, her abilities. But this unfortunate pattern is typical of many females and has been labeled the “fear of achievement motive” by gender researchers.

In a nutshell, the idea is that males are raised with an overall “achievement motivation” which is rich in the expectations that they are meant to achieve social positions of power, status and control. Females are also raised with expectations of success – but usually only within the confines of care-giving, domestic tasks and physical/sexual attractiveness. Females are not reluctant to boast their achievements as homemakers, mothers or sex-symbols, but when it comes to matters of intellectual competence, it’s a different story.

Girls are often forewarned that if they want to “attract a mate,” they must conceal their intellectual/physical strengths in order to appear meek, dependent and submissive. Due to these explicit/implicit messages, many females learn to “fear achievement” in traditional male domains to avoid the social backlash that challenges their sense of femininity.

These messages are readily communicated throughout the fabric of society. I recently visited the greeting card section of a local store and compared birthday cards designed for male vs. female children. A male card read, “Who might grow up to be a scientist, politician, star athlete, or astronaut?…You birthday boy!” A female card read, “Who has two arms, two legs, two eyes and a big pretty smile?…You birthday girl!” The male is primed to reach for powerful and accomplished goals, while the female is applauded for having limbs, vision and a pretty smile. One can clearly see from this egregious example how males and females are socialized to adopt very different goals in terms of achievement.

Another powerful example compares an ad in a discount store flier that shows a little girl and boy modeling rain gear. The slicker and hat are identical, but the male’s gear is fashioned after a fireman’s uniform, while the female’s gear is pink with kittens. And while both would keep the youngster dry on a rainy day – the “kitten” motif places the female at a subtle but profound disadvantage due to what the kitten imagery implies. Think about it for a moment. If I were to ask you to write down five adjectives that come to mind when you think of “fireman,” you might jot down terms such as strong, courageous, helpful, respected and heroic. Now, if I were to ask you to jot down five words that come to mind when you think of the term “kitten,” your list might include soft, delicate, weak, playful and helpless. And while you might say, “but these are only images,”  their impact on the development of personality and self-esteem between genders is measurable.

In reality, females and males are equally capable of accomplishing tremendous goals that require strength, determination and intelligence. But because females are encouraged to adhere to such narrowly defined social roles, many internalize a sense of shame, rather than pride, in matters of academic or occupational achievement. In much the same way as a male may feel timid about playing with dolls or feel ashamed that he isn’t interested in sports, females often learn to minimize or conceal their accomplishments – or forego goals that are outside of the traditional female domain.

Therefore, data shows that females are still more likely to become nurses rather than doctors and hygienists rather than dentists. These jobs, while enormously beneficial to society, are disproportionately held by women because females are more likely to set lower occupational goals. In fact, research has even shown that girls are more likely to cheat at board games in order to lose to a male opponent! Findings such as these demonstrate the degree to which females have internalized a secondary role to males in competitive contexts and illustrate the “fear of achievement motive” in action.

This mindset can result in a significant handicap for females as they mature in terms of their own behaviors and expectations for success as adults. Unless parents actively intervene to moderate the effects of these negative social messages, many little girls may develop the notion that being soft, sexy, and good caregivers may ultimately be their only source of pride.