Until we recognize gender bias and how they shape our perception of confident women the workplace, we cannot correct it.

“You have to put yourself out there.”  “Be assertive and prove yourself to get promoted.” “Speak your mind.” “Act like a boss.” Maybe you have thought of or even been told one of these phrases regarding your career, and yet when you do act confident, you find it backfiring on you in the workplace.  

In order to advance in their careers, women are often told they must display a certain amount of confidence in themselves and in their performance.  After all, self-confidence is an important quality that contributes to achieving goals. But is too much confidence in the workplace a bad thing?  Depending on the work environment, an ‘overly’ confident female employee may not be perceived in a positive light. While being told confidence is the key to their professional success, it may not be in actuality.  

The Double Standard

As a woman, have you been penalized for speaking up, stating your mind, or being “too” confident? The traits we associate with effective leadership are often associated with masculine characteristics, like assertiveness and ambition. So automatically a male is more likely to be associated with leadership stereotypes while female attributes, like compassion and collaboration, are not.  

What is known as the confidence gap—the theory that women feel less confident than men in their abilities, holds true in the business world. Women do not always promote themselves which means they are passed over for opportunities like projects and leadership positions.  

Add to that social norms which say that it is okay for men to be assertive, but women should be more subdued and caring. When women do not behave within the norms, there can be consequences. Ironically, the characteristics needed to be promoted and grow in a position are also the same ones that women can be penalized for. A Yale study found that when men expressed anger, their perceived status increased.  However, when women were angry, they were deemed less confident and received lower wages and status.

Walking a Fine Line

Most times, being able to take risks in a position is admirable. How we perceive confidence is not always by the same definition, which is part of the issue.  What is perceived as confident to one person may be deemed aggressive by another. For women, developing a healthy sense of confidence is imperative to their success. 

But in many situations, women are struggling to tread the fine line between confident and being labeled something negative like bossy or abrasive. Asking for a promotion, challenging the status quo, or speaking up will often further a male’s career, but unfortunately ca harm a woman’s career if the work environment still maintains antiquated views of how women “should” behave. 

The Consequences of Being Confident

Compared to men, women are far more likely to suffer both professional and social consequences for showing dominant behavior. Being assertive can backfire and women may now find themselves where their professional situation is at risk, such as:  

  • Workplace Consequences:  Having a reputation for being cocky or too bossy.  
  • Social Consequences:  The Backlash Effect, which means being alienated by colleagues who feel threatened by the confidence. 
  • Missed Opportunities:  Not being invited to meetings or allowed to take on new projects
  • Being Held Back:  Not being considered for promotions, leadership roles, or growth within the organization.

A study by Northern Illinois University found that it is fear of these consequences and backlash from others that often prevents women from self-promoting – beginning well before they enter the workforce.  Researchers asked a group of female students to write scholarship application essays highlighting their achievements. Some women were told the essay would be anonymous while others told that their name would be included. Not surprisingly, those that were anonymous and did not have to worry about any ramifications, rated themselves much higher than the other cohort. 

The Role of Leadership in Developing and Supporting Confident Women

There are a few things that those in a leadership role can do to support and develop confident women within their organization. The first is acknowledging that bias can, and do, exists. 
The second is calling it out when they see it. From meetings, to reviews for promotions, to performance reviews – are women being held to a different standard? And are those standards based on outdated, bias perceptions? Both women and men within the organization should ask themselves this question and make sure that women who are ambitious and confident aren’t being silenced or held back because they don’t fit within the bias views. 

In addition, the culture of an organization should be adapted so that women, and men, feel comfortable exhibiting behaviors that might not be considered “the norm” based on their gender.  There are plenty of norms that are simply outdated and don’t serve the people or the organizations they serve. 

Until we recognize gender bias and how they shape our perception of confident women the workplace, we cannot correct it.  And most importantly, not correcting the bias keeps talented women from contributing fully and adding value where they work. That leads to frustration, burn out and attrition.