New study explores whether confidence is weaponised against women

Business | Thu 15 Dec | Author – Business & Finance
Women in the workplace

Women who want to get ahead in business face a paradox: they are invariably pushed to demonstrate self-confidence at work, yet when they display assertiveness or are being extroverted, they risk overdoing it and, ironically, being perceived as unconfident according to findings of a paper co-authored by Professor Darren Thomas Baker, UCD College of Business. 

Sometimes, they are also perceived as intimidating, forceful, or domineering. The bottom line is women tend to bear the blame for failing to achieve their career goals — an affront that other underrepresented groups face at work.

This can erode their self-esteem, catalysing a downward spiral that further lowers self-perceptions of confidence — and ultimately contributing towards the lack of gender balance in businesses and organisations.

New study

These are the key findings of a new paper published in the Harvard Business Review and co-authored by Professor Darren Thomas Baker, a Tenured Assistant Professor of Business in Society at UCD College of Business, and Dr Juliet Bourke, of UNSW Business School, Australia. 

Baker says the research dispels the myth that confidence is a general-neutral term. In fact, confidence is not only gendered — he says it is “weaponised against women”.  

“Processes of inequality that disadvantage women are obscured by these taken-for-granted terms like confidence that are seen as gender-neutral, rational and fair,” he explains. “They create a smoke screen for pre-existing inequalities in promotion, retention and pay.”

Despite a widespread belief that greater levels of workforce diversity are essential for commercial success, many organisations have struggled to tackle imbalances among traditionally underrepresented groups.

Radical solutions

To improve progress, the paper urges business leaders to think more consciously about their use of the word ‘confidence’ — or simply eradicate it from the corporate lexicon.

“We offer quite a radical recommendation: leaders should refrain from using this word when talking about women and career progression, as it is potentially leading to the solidification of processes of inequality,” Baker says.

The study went viral, demonstrating the societal impact of the work.

Baker says he received countless emails from women executives who have experienced first-hand the paradox the paper describes. The research is also feeding into wider conversations in organisations about how to tackle inequalities in the workplace, he says. 

Baker became interested in studying confidence after noticing its ubiquity in the world of business, and after feeling like he needed to boost his own levels of self-confidence to advance his career.

“I even thought about taking a course on how to be more confident,” he admits. “But is this a word that is healthy for us to use? Does it do us any good? The evidence shows confidence is a negative term.”

Analysis of challenges 

The study is part of Baker’s wider body of work, which provides an ethical and psychoanalytic analysis of the key challenges and opportunities in business and society — including sustainability, corporate social responsibility, and diversity across multiple sectors.

His interest in these subjects is driven by his own personal values. “I get really upset when things aren’t fair for individuals and groups, as it can have such a negative and profound impact on them internally, creating emotional and psychological issues,” he says. “I’m driven by the idea of being fair and decent” adds Baker.  

An expert on business ethics, sustainability, and psychoanalysis, he says such issues are becoming mainstream in business, reflecting a shift towards stakeholder-focused business models and away from profit maximization.

His work helps executives and future leaders to navigate this new world of changing priorities.

“Business has a huge role to play in society, for example in helping to tackle the climate crisis,” he says. “This is hugely important because the effects are becoming so overt and frequent that these are increasingly important risks for businesses to mitigate. That is my rather grim position.”

Educating leaders

But Baker is also optimistic that business, working with other economic actors, can effect positive societal change. He says that puts the onus on business schools to educate the next generation of responsible leaders.  

“If we get more students educated on these issues and they understand the science behind climate change, as well as the responsibility of business to act, they will go into the workplace holding that mantle,” he adds.

The academic lectures on both undergraduate and Executive MBA programmes at UCD, delivering sessions on the relationship between society and business — not just in terms of climate change, but also worker’s rights and the economic inequalities between countries.

Underlining his unique approach to teaching, he says: “I try to bring a global perspective to the business classroom. I also take an introspective approach and get students to visualise their ethical selves, which can serve as a compass they can use going forward.

“Finally, I get students to apply these ethical theories and models by solving actual corporate dilemmas through case studies.” 

Career background

Linking theory and practice is a speciality of Baker’s — something that is enabled by his background as a practitioner.

Prior to entering academia, he worked as a management consultant at Accenture and Deloitte, designing and delivering projects for large companies.

Having that experience under his belt means he can understand the issues that businesses face in the real world and communicate his research findings in ways that executives will understand.

Or, as he puts it: “I engage with businesses on their own terms about issues that matter most to them.”

He made the career switch from the corporate world into academia because he saw an opportunity to affect more change as a business scholar, a position that bestows a certain authority.

Baker has taught at several leading academic institutions but was ultimately drawn to UCD because of its genuine commitment to teaching sustainability and responsible business practices.

“It is a business school that is led from the top on these issues, they are taken very seriously in terms of the time and dedication devoted to them in the classroom,” he says. “Moreover, it’s also Ireland’s best business school.”