Brow Beat

The Great British Baking Show Beats the Gender Confidence Gap

On the feel-good PBS series, women out-bake men by focusing on themselves.

Cathryn Dresser.
Cathryn Dresser, a contestant on this season of PBS’s The Great British Bake Show. BBC

On the first episode of Season 5 of PBS’s The Great British Baking Show—or GBBS as it’s known by its fans—we met Stuart, a handsome 26-year-old PE teacher from Staffordshire, England. Speaking directly to the camera, he declares his intentions to destroy the competition. “I just want everyone to know how great I am, as cocky as that sounds.” Moments later he forgets to add the essential ingredient to his tomato upside-down cake, resulting in a finished product that, according to celebrity baker and judge Paul Hollywood “could look much better” and tasted like a “dense ginger cake.” Poor Stuart, all brawn and no brains.

Meanwhile, a few stations behind Stuart, motorway service station employee Cathryn paced frantically between the fridge and the oven, questioning her every baking instinct while whipping up an apple, hazelnut, and Calvados upside-down cake. As Paul Hollywood and fellow judge Mary Berry neared her counter, Cathryn furrowed her brow and gulped in anticipation of what she was sure would be bad news. “The texture, the flavor, the crunch—it’s all gorgeous. I think it’s a beautiful cake,” said Hollywood as he attempted to catch the crumbs falling down his goateed chin. Fast-forward to the fifth episode, where Cathryn once again impressed the judges with her English Wellington in the first round and her first-place finish in the second round of the competition. Still though, self-doubt nipped at her heels. In reaction to both of her victories, a visibly gobsmacked Cathryn responded, “I’m honestly, like, really, really shocked.” But maybe not as shocked as Stuart, who having been voted off in Episode 4, was now back in Staffordshire, icing his ego.

Decades of research have confirmed that men have higher self-esteem than women during competition, even when they perform equally. It’s a phenomenon known as the gender confidence gap, and psychologists and academics like UC–Berkeley’s Cameron Anderson have offered it as one explanation why women hold only 10 percent of the top executive positions in the United States. “Confidence matters just as much as competence,” Anderson told Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, co-authors of The Confidence Code. That may be so when it comes to boardrooms, but the theory collapses when applied to The Great British Baking Show.

On the past four seasons of GBBS, four women have overcome their insecurities and won the competition while another three have finished as runners-up. Who can forget Season 3’s winner, Nadiya, and the moment she accepted her cornucopia of flowers and declared, “I’m never going to say, ‘I don’t think I can do it’ again!”? Inside the show’s famed white tent, it’s competence, not confidence, that counts, and GBBS’s focus on baked goods and pastries and its unique competitive structure have allowed its female participants to triumph and uncover in themselves the kind of confidence we all crave: that of a heterosexual, cisgender white man.

As Stuart has so hilariously taught us this season, a charming lopsided smile bookended by dimples won’t save your ass if your tart has a soggy bottom. Baking is a precise and merciless pursuit. A teaspoon too much or a tablespoon too little and your biscotti bends instead of snaps, or the burnt caramelized cover of your crème brûlée fails to crack when struck by a spoon. In baking, fortune doesn’t favor the bold, nor does it reward the risk-taker. It favors the skilled and rewards the careful.

GBBS’s prioritization of craft, skill, and consistency levels its playing field and keeps the outliers off the podium, setting it apart from other popular cooking competition shows like Tom Colicchio’s self-aggrandizing Top Chef or Gordon Ramsay’s testosterone-fueled MasterChef. On the latter, random advantages gifted to winners of the first round’s mystery box challenge are used to either enhance the contestant’s chance of winning the upcoming elimination challenge or to kneecap the other home chefs: force the vegetarian to work with pork tenderloin, give the ramen expert a basket full of traditional Mexican ingredients. Motivated by spite, competitors form alliances as viewers witness MasterChef transition from a traditional cooking competition to a prisoner’s dilemma in which the most conniving contestant takes the cake, regardless of how well they baked it. While this kind of cockeyed structure may not play in either men or women’s favor—in fact, five out of eight MasterChef winners have been women—it reduces the need for competence and puts a higher premium on traits like competitiveness and decisiveness, which are often found in confident people but have little to do with knowing how to sous vide a rack of lamb.

Notably absent from GBBS, despite being a staple of other cooking competition shows, are team and head-to-head challenges. Instead, GBBS chooses to put its contestants in competition primarily with themselves via a grueling series of tasks known as the signature bake, the technical bake, and the showstopper bake. Under this setup, the goal has more to do with doing better than you did in the previous bake than it does defeating the competition. After all, who has time to worry what the other contestants are up to when you have a disastrous attempt at a banana cream pie to come back from? As Nadiya said in the Season 3 finale, “I feel like I’m battling myself more than anyone else.” And this focus-on-yourself structure might have had as much to do with Nadiya’s come-from-behind victory as her clear mastery of baking did. According to a 2017 study, when a woman competes against herself, the gender confidence gap dissipates, and she displays similar levels of confidence as a man competing against others. This means that whenever a female contestant improves, regardless of how her competitors perform, she gains confidence, which she can then use to bake her way to the top.

In her critique of The Confidence Code for the Guardian, Jessica Valenti wrote, “If we truly want women to be more confident … then we can start by creating a culture that values self-assured women.” Whether or not it intended to, The Great British Baking Show has done just that. On GBBS, women thrive not in spite of their insecurities but because of their competence. Contestants like Nadiya and Cathryn have revealed that a woman’s confidence is rooted in skills and self-improvement and when faced with it, a man’s bluster is simply no match.