Self-Deprecation: Why Women use it as a Business Strategy

In many business situations, including taking credit, accepting a compliment, or even talking about their own work, the immediate knee-jerk reaction for many women is to put themselves down. In this satirical video clip [warning, adult language], comedian Amy Schumer and other female performers suggest that perhaps women do this because they have low self-esteem or hate themselves.

Consider how often you joke about yourself?  Do you constantly apologize, jokingly, when you ask a question? Do you push off credit, citing luck, or being surprised that you accomplish anything because usually, you’re a hot mess?  The temptation to self-deprecate is completely understandable. Research suggests that women who self-promote and behave assertively are more likely to be seen as pushy or arrogant than their male counterparts—displaying the same behavior. 

This is where self-deprecation can easily get tangled up with impostor syndrome. If you constantly tell others that you’re bluffing and blundering your way through life, putting yourself down offers a little safety net, but then becomes a vital truth. The assertion begins to be less joke and more projection. “I’m stumbling through my successes.”  Next thing you know, you believe the lies you’ve been telling everyone else, while you’re trying to convince them that you’re like-able.

But here’s the thing – you do know what you’re doing. Whether you’re a staff member at a big organization, a freelancer or a small business owner, if you’re hitting your targets, meeting your deadlines and managing to keep a roof over your head, you’ve proved that you’re more than capable. Don’t do yourself a disservice by pretending otherwise.

Research on gender stereotypes provides a powerful explanation for women’s use of self-deprecation. In western societies like the US, women are considered more empathetic, caring, supportive, and interdependent.  Conversely, men are seen as independent, ambitious, and the font in which decisions flow freely (without emotional constraints).

These stereotypes pose a significant barrier for women who want to highlight their accomplishments or advocate more assertively for rewards and recognition. Indeed, any type of self-promotion presents a dilemma for women. Any challenge to the typical gender stereotypes presents a dissonance of what a woman signifies in social norms, creating a backlash in social penalties.  Those consequences come from both men and women, who deem the lack of “ladylike” or womanly behavior an affront to the norm.  The penalties of that backlash can be social, organizational, and economic.

Successful women are caught in a catch-22: to overcome traditional negative stereotypes they are encouraged to adopt more stereotypical male behaviors, yet if they choose to do so, they are very likely to be penalized for violating the expected behaviors of women.

So, does self-deprecation work?  Sad honest truth, it does.  But like all things that are bad for us, it must be used in moderation, lest you fall into the trap of the imposter, or fall too far on the spectrum of perceived confidence.  You must walk the tight-rope of being effortlessly competent, while looking only a little halfhazzard, as you embrace the assumed overwhelming aspects of your too busy life.  This is the acceptable, successful, female. 

My personal opinion?  Self-deprecation is a socialized form of bullshi**.  Be a rockstar, be a good person, and be authentic in your accomplishments (and emotions).  Using self-deprecation in humor is a great way to connect with your team (transformational leaders know this), but it’s not an overall strategy for your career.

Go forth; be awesome.


Amanatullah ET, Morris MW. Negotiating gender roles: gender differences in assertive negotiating are mediated by women’s fear of backlash and attenuated when negotiating on behalf of others. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2010;98(2):256-267. doi:10.1037/a0017094

Published by Melissa A. Walker, Ph.D.

Training and Development Network believes there is always a positive way to engage, develop, and retain your employees; create a supportive environment for diversity, equity, and inclusion; assess opportunities to build on current knowledge or skills; and facilitate change management for any organization. We believe in engaging, actionable programs that enable your staff and leadership to immediately implement tools for change and growth. TAD offers a variety services for both the individual and the organization. We are here help you navigate career challenges, or achieve your organizational or event goals. Contact us to start your proactive journey today.

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