I’ve been thinking about modesty this week.

Modesty is a virtue that women are meant to display in both their business and their personal lives. Perhaps modesty isn’t quite the word I’m looking for here: I think that women – women who are ‘good’, who will take pains to avoid encouraging uncomfortable feelings in others – are meant to be self-effacing. Which is a step well past modesty, really, and a giant leap towards minimising their expertise and knowledge.

I see this diminishing of self regularly amongst groups of women. They’re meeting for a lunch date, or drinks after work. Each has clearly put effort into her grooming and appearance, as dressing for yourself – or for others – is a pleasure worth the investment! Upon their arrival the women will coo compliments at one another, which is well and proper. But here’s where things quickly degenerate into a much more complex and toxic social interaction, which looks a little like this:

Tilly: “Amanda, that dress is amazing, you look so beautiful!”

Amanda: “Really? I’ve still not lost the baby weight. Thank God this dress is loose, I feel like a whale! I got it on sale, it was only $15.00.”

I’m over the bizarre social contract that reinforces these minimising, bonding conversations. Variants of this self-effacing interaction occur all the time – in our private lives, and in the workplace. For some reason, women engage in a social performance that consists of compliments, followed by a necessary self-effacement. You are seemingly not allowed to get the compliment if you don’t minimize yourself immediately afterwards. It is like a wretched cycle of self-love bulimia. Don’t bring that self-love and appreciation out into the daylight without apology, lady. Woe unto any woman who smiles and says, “You know what? Thank you so much. I really do look fabulous tonight.”

I am happy to acknowledge compliments gracefully, without minimising my effort or my talent. I have noticed that this makes other people uncomfortableParticularly in a business context.

As an authority in my profession and the Director of my own agency, I am an expert voice in the category of social media strategy and marketing. When I make a statement about my knowledge, or explain in a few powerful words why we are the very best agency the client could hope to engage, I’ve noted that some prospective clients will quip:

“Ha ha, and you’re very modest too!” or

“You’re not afraid of big-noting yourself!”

These responses come from a place of wanting to break the perceived tension of a frank, positive self-assessment made by a woman about herself. We’ve grown so accustomed to hearing women minimise themselves in their personal space, that hearing a woman express her expertise in a corporate mode is so foreign that we need to make jokes to break the tension of her statement. To make up for her lack of modesty and self-regulation.

When a man makes statements asserting his authority and expertise, we applaud his self-confidence. He’s the boss, he’s staring down his competition, he’s the man. We replay his antics on YouTube ad nauseum, and call them ‘powerful’ and ‘authentic’ while using them in sales training sessions.

And when a woman does the same, we reach to the crutch of sarcasm to shift our own intangible sense of something being amiss.

Photographer: Breeana Dunbar