Woman in black standing with her right arm curled towards her chin, the setting sun shining behind her as she looks on confidently.

Confidence or Arrogance: Why do Women Downplay Their Success?

Confidence or Arrogance: Why do Women Downplay Their Success?

Where does one draw the line between confidence and arrogance, and what is the gendered history behind this distinction? Arrogance has become synonymous with confidence for women starting at a young age. Further, gender expectations of being a complacent woman do not match the initiative required of a leadership role. A Harvard Business School experiment that found that women are less likely to self-promote than men. This study had participants take a 20 question test and, before receiving the results, guess what score the participant believed they totalled. However, there was a statistically significant difference between the hypothesized score and the actual score in equally scoring men and women. Women believed themselves to have scored lower than they did. Additionally, across all questions, asking about performance, women scored 27% below the mean. The study proved that women are more likely to downplay their own successes. Female confidence is often misconstrued with arrogance, thus, women have been taught to minimize their own accomplishments in order to make their male counterparts feel less threatened. 

This denial of female confidence directly correlates with lack of self-worth and the prevalence of imposter syndrome among women. Imposter syndrome is when one believes their achievements not to be based on hard-work or skill, but some other extraneous quality. According to a study conducted by Klynveld Peat Marwick Goerdeler (KPMG), 75% of women executives suffer from imposter syndrome. This feeling of not feeling worthy manifests in our vernacular. Being vocal about accomplishments and being happy for one another creates an environment of confidence and success.

Even the most accomplished women in their field suffer from imposter syndrome. Emma Watson said in an interview for Rookie Magazine, “It’s almost like the better I do, the more my feeling of inadequacy actually increases, because I’m just going, Any moment, someone’s going to find out I’m a total fraud, and that I don’t deserve any of what I’ve achieved. I can’t possibly live up to what everyone thinks I am and what everyone’s expectations of me are.” Billie Eilish won 4 Grammys in one night, and still, in her acceptance speech after winning album of the year she said, “Can I just say that I think Ariana deserves this?” referring to fellow nominee Ariana Grande. Even after being publicly awarded for their hard work, both Watson and Eilish still could not vocalize feelings of worthiness or accomplishment. 

The answer for combatting female self doubt is destigmatizing the vocalization and celebration of women’s achievements. What is considered arrogance and what is considered confidence depends upon gender bias. There is a perception that it is not feminine to know yourself to be ambitious or accomplished, but this blatant disregard for self-confidence has had notable consequences in female development. It is about time that women affirm their worth out loud and accept their success as due to personal skill.