A ViewPoint by Esther Emery
When I applied to graduate schools, I bombed the interviews. On paper I was a rock star candidate: great photos, great resume, great writing. And, of prime importance in the networking-dependent field of theatre, I had a recommendation from a power player.
He told me later that he didn’t understand why I hadn’t gotten into the top-notch program he had aimed me towards. He had pulled all the right strings. I should have gotten in.
All I could do was shrug. My mentor hadn’t seen the interview. He didn’t know that when invited to promote myself, I had completely frozen. The confident and capable theatre director he knew had disappeared, replaced with a stammering and blushing adolescent.
Researchers at Montana State University have recently released a new study on women and bragging, “Women’s Bragging Rights: Overcoming Modesty Norms to Facilitate Women’s Self-Promotion.” They propose that women experience discomfort when promoting themselves because self-promotion defies a gender-based modesty norm.
Does this sound familiar? It sure sounds familiar to me. I think the gender-based modesty norm they’re talking about is exactly what tripped me up in my ill-fated Ivy League interview. And I suggest that this tangle goes yet deeper for Christian women, for whom self-promotion may be entangled with the sin of pride.
The MSU study isn’t the first study done on women and self-promotion. But it is unique in that the focus is entirely on altering conditions to facilitate (positive) change, towards greater ability to self-promote.
From the abstract: “Results suggest that when a situation helps women to escape the discomfort of defying the modesty norm, self-promotion motivation and performance improve.”
These researchers have named the beast and they are working to vanquish it. But for Christians this is not so simple. It is not so simple as “self-promotion is good! Let’s all learn how to do it!”
As Christ followers, we aim to be last, for the last shall be first. As Christians, we aim to be motivated and equipped by the Holy Spirit. But I suggest that in many instances, these principles are being applied differently across gender lines.
Traditionally, men have been “anointed” as leaders. Men have been “called” as leaders. In a culture where we all seek to do God’s will, male leadership has been preferred insofar as it has been defined as “God’s will.” Self-promotion by males has been socially acceptable—and even admired— as a task of leadership.
Is self-promotion a task of leadership? If so— and I tend to think that it is, at least in some form— then it is time for Christian women to learn to claim our bragging rights.
In response to a study like this one at MSU, Christians should invite one another to actively apply the language of “calling” and “anointing” to women as well as men. Loosening our tongues to speak well of our accomplishments is a part of the process of rising to our full stature, to stand side-by-side with men as leaders in the church and in the world.
We don’t have to reverse our upside down kingdom. We don’t have to reverse our spiritual training and seek for the things of this world, which decay. We don’t have to replace our living god with idols of jealousy and pride.
But if our greatest treasure is our spiritual gifts, then men and women together should lift up the riches offered by the women of the church. We should open wide the doors to this storehouse of wealth.
It means being a little less quick to slap down a compliment with, “Oh, isn’t God great? God did it. I didn’t do it. It wasn’t me.”
It means being a little more courageous about saying, “This is my work. I can see that I’m doing it. I can see that these things that I’m doing are having an effect on the world. And, by the will of God, I am the one who is making this happen.”
It means giving the kind of compliments that interact with ongoing process and identity. Things like, “I see you being called into work that is new, maybe frightening, maybe uncomfortable. I see you becoming a new thing. Thank you for courageously following your leading.”
Most of all, it means trusting, at a deep level, that “anointing” and “calling” are valid words in the first place.
This is the work of faith: To trust that the Holy Spirit speaks directly into the heart of a human being, and that human being is capable of hearing and understanding the call. To believe that we can hear— even the still small voice! And our hands— not just half of the hands, but all the hands!— can be God’s hands in this world, our talents an expression of God’s creative power.
Men and women, this is a beautiful thing. Let’s learn to brag about it.