Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Baffled: confident vs. arrogant?

I've noticed this is an ongoing theme. A commenter on FSP's latest post said she finds comfort in knowing that even insecure people can do well in science.

I would argue that many insecure people are successful in science, but unfortunately most of them have developed coping skills that are damaging to everyone around them.

One common defense mechanism is the tendency to lash out when feeling threatened. Since confident people don't often feel threatened, I've learned that usually when people are defensive or playing dirty, it's because they lack confidence.

In support of this hypothesis, some commenters on this blog accuse me of being arrogant.

In my experience in real life, when people I thought were arrogant revealed their insecurities to me, I realized I was just jealous because they seemed so confident or otherwise successful when I am not.

In some ways, this is an issue that has long hurt women in the workplace.

Confident women are labeled as aggressive or bitchy.

To help clarify this discussion, I will paraphrase a couple of definitions of Confident from the free dictionary I found via Google:

Confident =

"Marked by assurance, as of success."
"Very bold; presumptuous."


Arrogant =

"Having or diplaying overbearing self-worth or self-assurance."
"Assumption of one's superiority over others."

So I have to wonder, is Arrogant the new Bitchy?

I was thinking about this because a friend was telling me how she realized her boss thinks she's a knowitall, and she has to fix this.

She's not a knowitall. At all.

I know this because she frequently calls me to confirm her ideas. Most of the time she's on the right track and doesn't need any help from me, but she does need that validation, that little boost of confidence. If she were a knowitall, would she need that?

But somehow her boss is threatened by her, I think, and so she has to make a point to reveal her doubts and sources more often to help alleviate this misimpression (I just made that word up, does it sound Bushy enough?).

In my experience, I can't win either way. If I give credit to my colleagues, I'm told not to because it undermines my Authority as an Expert.

But I get labeled "arrogant" or "knowitall" when I want to present my original ideas in papers or talks.

I have to assume this is partly because I'm female (oh yes, and "young"). I can only think of one female colleague who is outspoken about her original ideas, so I don't have enough data points for comparison. She is exactly the type who could be considered "arrogant" if you don't know her personally vs. "confident" (in a good way) if you do.

But being confident doesn't mean you never doubt yourself. Or does it?

What really baffles me is that my male colleagues who are similarly outspoken about their ideas are definitely arrogant. And even if they are not, they seem arrogant, which is effectively all that matters.

But contrary to the negative effects for women, appearing arrogant earns men more respect, not less.

This may not be true everywhere, but it is how I perceive the situation where I work.

Is this yet another thing that is worse in academia, I wonder?

Labels: , , ,


At 2:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Arrogant is much more of an attitude towards other people than is confidence which is an attitude about yourself. From being on search committees, men are far more arrogant than women. The best time I have seen to find arrogance is how candidates deal with the grad students during the interview.

At 3:30 PM, Anonymous opi said...

I was wondering if you could comment on the plight of women in sciences versus in other professional fields?

I'm an undergrad, and currently very sure of pursuing a career in science. Your blog has been both discouraging and really enlightening. It's really sad and discouraging to read about the realities of differential treatment of women in science, but at the same time it's definitely good to know about it rather than be ignorant. So thanks to your writing, at least I can try to mentally prepare.

Anyway, I accosted one of my successful female professors at one point (she has kids and seems to balance her life very well) to ask her about these issues. Out of many other encouraging and helpful pieces of advice she gave me, one that particularly struck me was: there's no more discrimination in science than there is in other professional fields; in any place where you need intelligence and assertiveness and have managerial power, women are discriminated against, and it is no worse in science than in other professions (e.g. medicine, law, politics, finance, corporate things, etc).

This struck me because I realized even if I did not go into science, I would absolutely chose some other professional career. And so my reasoning was: I should not let being a woman discourage me from science because it will be just as bad anywhere else I would want to work.

So I was just wondering what you thought about all this? I really enjoy reading your blog, and it's clear that you put a lot of thought into things. I'm pretty set on going into science, so honestly I don't think anything you say could change my mind :), but it'd be really nice to hear your opinion all the same!

At 3:41 PM, Anonymous a physicist said...

I had a good (male) friend in grad school who had a male PhD advisor. Whenever my friend asked his advisor a question, the advisor made it clear that he had just been on the phone talking with God, and God had given him the answer to my friend's question. Then my friend would go away for a week and think hard about the answer, and come back and tell his advisor that perhaps the answer was incorrect. In which case the advisor would graciously say "oh yeah, you're right".

Moral of the story: even confidence sometimes is misleading.

Just to make it clear, my friend (and I) think very highly of the advisor, but his confidence was sometimes a bit too intimidating. The advisor was very bad at clarifying his true level of confidence in what he was saying. The good thing is that the advisor was never arrogant.

At 10:23 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


Thank you! That is very nicely put!


You're exactly the sort of person who should go into science. Being stubbornly single-minded will get you a LONG way. I'm serious, it really helps to be set on your goals and not easily deterred. If I had a lab, I'd recruit you!

In terms of the 'it's bad everywhere' mentality, I think it's flawed. I had an advisor (a guy) who said the same thing to me regarding careers, though not about sexism it was essentially the same conversation.

Years later, after talking to a lot of people, I decided he was wrong. And how would he know, anyway?

Your best bet is reading blogs and comments from people in industry (like JR, who always says industry is much better and different).

My friends in female-dominated fields, like science writing, say it's a totally different atmosphere at work.

I know this has to be true because I've worked in labs that are majority male vs. ones that are about equal gender breakdown, and it really does make a big difference in everything from the day-to-day to the big picture.

I'm pretty sure that medicine is mostly better (more women in med school & getting MDs than there are getting PhDs); the other professions you mention are probably only slightly better/about the same (law) or worse (politics, finance, corporate). But in different ways.

Anyway I'm really glad if you find my blog useful! That really made my day.

a physicist,

That's a great anecdote (and reminds me a bit of Bush??). I think the interesting thing is how people respond to being told This Is How It Is. I know when I was a beginning grad student I responded differently than I would now. And many of my female friends from grad school quit science for precisely the reason that they knew their advisor was wrong in exactly the same kind of intimidating way, and they didn't want to put up with it anymore. They just saw more of that in their future and say, "no thanks, I've had enough."

At 10:36 AM, Anonymous a physicist said...

I think the thing that made the super-confident advisor be a tolerable person was that the advisor was completely fine with admitting he was wrong. Which is why my friend put up with it.

On a related note: I've heard that female students studying physics have a hard time working with male students. The male students will sound very confident even if completely wrong, and perhaps it can be discouraging to a female student who lacks confidence (but who may be completely right). As a physics professor, I'm discouraged by that thought. I don't have any solid evidence to back that up, though.

Speaking for myself -- I think I can appear confident when needed, but when I talk with students in my lab group, I try hard to make it clear when I don't know something, or when my opinion is just a hunch and not solidly grounded. But you'd have to ask them to really know where I fit on the confidence/arrogance spectrum.

At 4:13 PM, Blogger Lou said...

Insecure people aren't just in science, they exist everywhere.
I guess people in science learn to hide it better, because they are intelligent and they are taught to hide it. Insecurity is something that is frowned upon in science.

Being confident doesn't mean you never doubt yourself - you just know when to stop that train of thought, before you carry on.

At 9:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not sure how you can say that biomedical science is not female dominated. I'm male, and I've been in the distinct minority everywhere I've been. Every school I interviewed for my PhD (about 10 years ago), there were 1 or 2 male interviewees at most, vs. 10-15 females. My PhD program was probably 4-1 female to male. In my postdoc lab, there are more females than males. I've always thought it interesting that so few men are going into biomedical science. One explanation that was given to me is that American men are turned off from the field because they want to make money, and don't want to wait until they're 40 to do so.

At any rate, if you don't like the atmosphere, wait a few years. With the heavy preponderance of women getting phds, it stands to reason that you will be in the majority at some point.

At 10:26 AM, Anonymous JaneB said...

An interesting discussion! I have to say that my experience is that there is a gender element in how different behaviours are viewed in my workplace (I'm a faculty member in a science - I've worked in several departments and can also think about conferences, professional associations etc.). I have been told that I am 'too emotional', 'over-dramatic' and that I come across as 'aggressive', 'mouthy' and 'arrogant' - yet a male colleague of the same age with a similar background and similar temprement/mannerisms is 'confident', 'assured' and 'articulate'. This is feedback from multiple people in several different contexts. A male colleague who threw repeated tantrums - stormed into head of department's office, shouted so loudly he could be heard right down the stairwell, threatened to resign - over such minor things as his timetable allocation and the size of his conference allowance - is just passionate about his research - when I make requests I'm nagging or whinging. I'm loud, I'm not overtly feminine, I'm enthusiastic. I admit freely to all these things! And I suffer for it. But I think I'd suffer more if I tried to change...

MsPhD is right, the balance within an environment makes a big difference on the tone of interactions. Another thing to carefully check out at possible grad school destinations!

At 12:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i know several women in the workplace who are arrogant and not necessarily confident. i also believe the most arrogant and confident men in the workplace are in higher positions than all of the women here. this leads me to speculate that arrogance and/or confidence in men encourages self-promotion and actual promotions whereas arrogance in women will ensure they will stay lower in the ranks.

At 4:44 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

a physicist,

My point being that some of us get tired of having to constantly argue for our -thoroughly logical- point of view, especially since most super-confident male advisors are neither tolerable nor tolerant of argumentative (though logical) women!


I think the problem is that scientists never get over their insecurities, and while they try to hide it that's probably the source of all the misery. Repression! I'd much rather deal with people who are open about their self-doubt than these people who are constantly on the verge of implosion!

Anon 9:54,

That is very interesting! I certainly have noticed that the number of females decreases as you go up the ladder, while the discrimination increases. I've written here that it got progressively worse for me as I went on through grad school to postdoc and throughout my postdoc.

Let's put it this way- fewer men are threatened by female grad students than by female PhDs or postdocs.

My favorite recent examples are from men who reluctantly dropped out or were kicked out of their postdocs/tenure track dreams (for lack of funding), and left feeling like failures. Despite my lack of success, they hate me simply because I choose to persist.

But there is hope that we could have a, what would you call it? Groundswell? Uprising?

At 6:33 PM, Anonymous Helen H. said...

"On a related note: I've heard that female students studying physics have a hard time working with male students."

From what I've seen, it's the opposite: Some male students have a hard time working with female students, and behave like overbearing assholes to cover their fears. I really haven't seen any female students having a problem with other students "sounding confident", but I've seen plenty of problems caused by unbridled arrogance.

At 1:03 PM, Blogger Schlupp said...

Kind of nice of God to answer the question of a physicist's friend. Even if the answer was wrong, I mean, with a universe to run and all that intelligent designing to do, such things can happen.

At 7:28 PM, Blogger Unbalanced Reaction said...

Your post is right on the money. I'm actually quite frequently labeled arrogant or a knowitall, but it's only because I (usually) speak only when I know what I'm going to say is correct and helpful.

At 8:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I work for a large government contractor in business development. Recently I was told that I was arrogant at work for trying to help one of my male coworkers solve a problem. My lead told me that if he would have commented it probably would have been okay. I find that people don't know how to take me because I am young, blonde, petite, well endowed and hold an engineering degree. I really don't fit the mold. I don't know what to do fit in. I am going to continue to be my confident self. I think I will have to leave the company.

At 7:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

prospective of premed, med student..

I am a senior, undergrad, chem major, pre-med. I have observed many of my classmates in the view of arrogent vs confident. I have discovered a couple interesting things. The really arrogent sudents, enjoy drinking, partying, the social sceen. They also have a lot of self doubt, and are insecure. The confident students, are not as much into the social scene, are more serious about classes, and are very secure.

Arrogence comes from a lack of confidence that people want to hide. It is very hard for intulectual people to admit they are wrong or they don't know something. we are used to being at the top of our class and knowing more than others in the sense of science. This might make science minded people more probable to become arrogent? and confident. The competition in the field of medicine is very high, that is very stressful and that causes people to become arrogent and insecure.

This is what I have observed at my local university. I believe it is completly psychological and is a learned behavior.

At 1:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find it interesting that you declare yourself confident as opposed to arrogant but go by the pseudonym Ms.PhD.

Why didn't you use Ms. Jane or something similar?

Could it be because Ms.PhD gives an air of superiority.. this is a mark of arrogance and not confidence. People who feel the need to flaunt their credentials are generally insecure and hide their insecurity behind a arrogant front (Hey everyone I have a PhD, I must be really smart!!).

In my area of science most people with doctorates will ask to be addressed by their first name and not as Doctor XYZ. They are self secure and humble.

The ones that flaunt their PhD are seen as arrogant and are generally disliked by all.

I am also amused by the underlying theme in some of the responses "They think I am arrogant because I speak up when I know I am right"

There is a distinct difference between believing you are right and knowing you are right. The former is confidence and the latter is arrogance.

A good test is to replay a conversation with all of the genders removed "If a person said this in this situation would it be perceived as acceptable".

You really need to lose the victim mentality and take responsibility for your own outcomes if you want to get ahead.

By the way there is an even distribution of arrogance between the genders where I work. All of them are equally irritating.

At 3:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The irony is that the previous poster came across as arrogant. The young women on this forum are relating experiences similar to what I live each day in engineering (I'm in my 40s now), and not any different than my 73 year old mother can report from her career in the medical field. There is a clear and distinct difference, observed by both genders in the individuals that perpetuate it, in "confidence" vs "arrogance" as applied to women. I think the bar is lower for arrogance when a woman is the subject of perception.

At 2:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Although I am no longer on the science career path and am currently on the path of accountancy and finance, I wanted to participate in this discussion. I have worked in various industries within my current profession. I have found greater acceptance of my ideas, input, and team work in the higher education, government, and non-profit association sectors than in the manufacturing, and privately held (non-public) credit/finance/mortgage companies. Additionally, I found more women in leadership roles and whom were supportive of entry level and mid-career professional women in the higher education, government, and non-profit association organizations. I found manufacturing to be a brutal industry regardless of who was in leadership. In my role as an accountant for a local manufacturer, I reported directly to both the controller and president. Both were male. One day the president shared a piece of advice with me. He calmly and sternly stated that in business a person has to be tough. When I went to work for another local manufacturer after this role, I reported direct to both a senior accountant and the cfo. Then, just to the cfo. The SA was male and the cfo was female. One day while I was on the phone working with a colleague to collect on a delinquent customer account, the cfo forcefully took the phone to yell at my colleague that the collection needed to be made asap. While my colleague went to look up the account files, the cfo covered the receiver, looked at me, and loudly hissed that sometimes we have to be a b@$#% to get things done. Admittedly, I was shocked as I had not ever (or since) worked with a supervisor like her during my professional career. Apparently, my colleagues found it just as disturbing as the typing in other cubicles suddenly stopped and some colleagues even peeked around the cubicles to see us. The sa asked, through the cubicle wall, if we needed assistance with anything.

At 1:49 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Helen H,

I completely agree.



Unbalanced Reaction,

I could - and probably should - write a whole post on when to speak up and whether to speak up even if you're not sure.

Anon 8:43 pm,

I'm so sorry that happened to you, and I wish I had seen your comment sooner. Fitting in is so difficult and maybe overrated, but of course we all want at least to feel like there's someone on our side, even if being part of a 'team' is out of reach. If you see this, please write back and tell us how you're doing.

Anon 7:07 pm,

Makes sense to me. I'd argue that I wasn't arrogant, though, because I always had to work hard in my classes. I was never at the top of anything, and if I was, it wasn't for long or at much.

Anon 1:26 AM,

Sorry I guess you missed the early posts where I explained where the MsPhD name came from. It's sarcastic. The point is that I have a PhD, and I worked hard for it, but it didn't earn me any meaningful mark of respect from anyone (yourself included).

Anon 3:18 pm,

Thanks. Agreed.

Anon 2:10 pm,

Great story! Interesting to me since I've never worked in manufacturing, although my experiences outside of academia have thus far been approximately equivalent to those in academia. Some people are smart, respectful colleagues, and some are dismissive of, or threatened by me. Mostly people don't know what to make of me because there are so few female PhDs anywhere, even in areas where we are most likely to be employed and using our skills.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home