When women fail to achieve career goals, leaders are prone to attribute it to a lack of self-confidence, say Darren T. Baker and Juliet Bourke for Harvard Business Review. And when women demonstrate high levels of confidence through behaviors, such as being extroverted or assertive, they risk overdoing it and, ironically, being labeled domineering.

Confidence is a highly gendered word aimed at and adopted by both women and men to explain away the slower progression of women at work. Research not only exposes the gendered nature of the confidence critique, but it also disrupts the positive association between confidence and workplace success.

Baker and Bourke found that the therapeutic effects of focusing on confidence are only temporary. Confidence was linked to more detrimental, longer-term effects, such as self-criticism, self-doubt and overall poorer mental health.

Plus, a focus on self-confidence is an individually oriented strategy that tends to distract senior leaders from addressing more entrenched organizational barriers to gender equality, including stereotyping, work design and the privileging of line roles over functional roles, which are more likely to be filled by women.

When organizations take the steps below, they can help put an end to weaponizing confidence:

  1. Declaring a moratorium on the word confidence.

Until leaders can be certain that the confidence narrative is not gendered and weaponized against women, the focus on confidence be suspended, particularly in feedback sessions, performance and promotion reviews.

  1. Valuing vulnerability.

A more diverse workforce is calling into question old styles of leadership behavior and normative standards that have privileged incumbent groups. Placing more value on demonstrating humility and vulnerability can help to correct the overweighting of value placed on exuding confidence.

  1. Redesigning training programs.

Some organizations offer “women only” confidence building courses, reinforcing confidence as a gendered need. If individuals do require help in building their self-esteem, then as a bare minimum we suggest that such courses are based on individual needs, i.e. not limited by gender identity.