Why women receive confidence as arrogance

by May 31, 20162 comments

Women misinterpret confidence as arrogance

Women frequently experience confidence as arrogance in other women. We expect women to hold back, be modest and unassertive. We judge if they are bold, assertive and qualified. Our benchmarks for women are different than for men. We are more accepting of authority and expertise from men than women, especially in the hierarchical male-coded world of business, with clearly defined lines of authority. Because that is what we are used to. Women prefer to cultivate relationships, generally between peers, than up and down a hierarchy.

 We have been in the workplace for a much shorter time than men, in competition with them and each other. So this is very new. We have less experience and are not trained to take things less personally at work, and to find constructive ways to handle conflict. Read: Getting Better at Handling Confrontation.

Case study

Amelia is an international communications expert. She recently received feedback from a less experienced peer, that her references to her (excellent) credentials and (deep) experience in a corporate meeting had been “too much.”  She asked the woman who debriefed her, if there could possibly be a case of gender blowback. The woman confirmed “No, I felt so too.”  Now that comment alone presumes that women will not judge their female colleagues more harshly than their male counterparts. The reality is that women are just as likely to receive confidence as arrogance in women, as a man. Perhaps more so. Women are as riddled with unconscious biases as me].

Confidence and arrogance

More case studies

I heard the same comment “too much” when a very competent and qualified woman made a pitch to a group of women to lead a project, citing her excellent career-long credentials and achievements.  They also would not accept their own unconscious biases.  Her confidence was received as arrogance, but the same comments were not levelled against the men in the process who talked equally eloquently about their successes.

Susan is a Sales Director. She had just closed a 7 figure deal and shared her success with her girlfriends at work drinks in a bar in Central London.  “I was so excited. It was a massive deal and I wanted to share it. They barely commented. I could see from their faces and body language that they thought I was bragging. My men friends would have made me pick up the bill in celebration.”  

Read:  Assertive communication. 9 tips to avoid being labelled a bitch


One of the reasons for gender blowback from women is anxiety. An article in Psychology Today suggests that the majority of female criticism “stems from feeling inadequate in an area of life they value highly.”  In the case of Amelia, the comment came from a woman who was in the same field but considerably less qualified and experienced. It is highly possible that she felt “inadequate and defensive”,  when she is more likely to criticize another woman’s style.

In other words, she’s not critical of other women because she thinks less of them; she is covetous of what they have instead”

We frequently see posts about women not being supportive of each other. We hear about women bullies, bad women bosses, and alpha bitches.

Read: 10 behaviours of an emotional bully.

When describing a bad male boss – we would just say “bad boss” with no gender tag. With very few women in the C-suite, we are compared to one another, in an unhealthy way. To generate an improvement, we need to understand the drivers and unconscious biases, that trigger negative behaviours, and reactions.

If Amelia had been Andrew

Women typically do not give and receive negative feedback well. They can even avoid giving it all together. If Amelia had been Andrew, do you think that he would have raised the issue with his coach? Not for one moment.  Andrew knows his experience is valid and if a handful of people think he is being cocky or receive it as arrogance, then he will not fret about it. He may modify his bio or introduction in that particular group if he is highly empathetic, but he will not waste his energy on it. He is used to rough and tumble of corporate life and any comments will generally wash over him.

Double bind

Women both support and sabotage women. Exactly the same as men do to each other, although for women it becomes a bigger deal. They are also equally guilty of a lack of awareness of their own unconscious biases. This can create a minefield of trouble and feed the guilt volcano with even senior executives such as Indra Nooyi CEO PepsiCo sharing her angst.

Women, as well as men, catch women in a double bind. If they are too feminine they are “bimbos” and if they are direct and business-like they are “bitches.”

Read: Women with power or bitches unleashed?

We rarely discuss work/life balance with and about men. We are judgemental about female ambition, but not male. We are critical of women’s parenting choices, but not men’s. We assume that a mother is the best primary caregiver, which is not always the case.

The only real antidote is to have more than 3 women in senior positions. Until that happens they will continue to confuse confidence and arrogance and make judgments based on unconscious bias, rather than objective analysis.


Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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