I was just reading a BBC News article (well, an opinion piece really) about how Brits boast more than they used to. I think there’s some truth to that. However, the writer, Lucy Kellaway, then claims
“In this brave new bigged-up world, women are struggling a little. A recent piece of research from London Business School shows that by far the biggest difference between men and women at work is their attitude to boasting. If you ask a successful woman why she’s good she will mention luck; a man in the same position will blow his own trumpet. This is becoming one of the largest obstacles to the advancement of women in the corporate world. If they could big themselves up a little more, they would do a bit better.”
OK, I’ll bite. When questioned about the secret to my professional success, I will generally say “I have great big balls and a smattering of luck”. And it’s also true that I add the luck part to not appear like an egotistical maniac, when in reality ‘luck’ has little to do with it. So does she have a point?
There’s some twisted logic behind Lucy’s assertion, because the women who aren’t blowing their own trumpet in the study she cites are still ‘successful’ women. So what need have they to ‘do a bit better’? It’s bordering on patronising and a little bit silly, because the men and women in the study are, according to Lucy, ‘in the same position’. So it doesn’t matter a whit what they cite as the cause of their success, they’re obviously all doing something right.
My own experience tells me that the secret of success is firstly the great big balls that I mentioned (having the confidence and the brashness to jump feet first into daunting situations, tackling something head on even if it’s a unknown quantity, shouting “yes, I’m here, I can do that!”). Secondly it’s being prepared to work like a cart horse, having no shame in getting your hands dirty, being the first to arrive and the last to leave, and never, ever resting on your laurels. Thirdly, it’s about spotting opportunities, and this is where the ‘luck’ part comes in. It’s almost never the case that an opportunity turns up entirely out of the blue. No-one has ever approached me in the street and said “Hi, I’m Bill Gates, do you happen to run a marketing company, cause we need a rebrand!”. But I do have an ‘uncanny’ knack of being in the right place at the right time, or having fortuitous conversations with people that lead to business opportunities. It’s not actually an uncanny knack. I work hard at it, consciously. And if I see the seed of an idea, I have to put in a lot of effort before it sprouts, let alone bears fruit.
And this is no different to what any other successful person does, man or woman. How we boast about it afterwards is irrelevant, because to other successful people, words like ‘luck’ are just shorthand for what I described above. Being articulate, passionate and enthusiastic will open more doors than explicitly saying “I am brilliant, lookit”. I think Lucy overlooks that what you say is generally far less important than how you say it, and that boils down to confidence. And so we’re back to having ‘great big balls’, not a male-oriented cliche for nothing. Men have traditionally been seen as the braver sex, and I have no issue with borrowing their nether parts to make my point. When I say it to people, I’m really saying “I have the attributes that are traditionally associated with men, but for no good reason. Anyone who works hard and is gutsy can succeed”. Again, itâ€™s all about shortcuts. In case anyone is wondering and worried, no, I donâ€™t have actual testicles.
So, Iâ€™m not sure that Lucy is right, that itâ€™s a lack of boasting that can hold women back professionally. Itâ€™s far more complicated than that, and there are factors like traditional attitudes, work/life balance, etc, to consider. For example women have that pesky â€˜being the baby-carrying genderâ€™ thing to consider, and often do the lionâ€™s share of the housework too, at least according to some (albeit dated) sources. http://www.statistics.gov.uk/CCI/nugget.asp?ID=288
The obvious flaws in the study Lucy cites makes it impossible for me to have an opinion on the boasting claim. If women should be boasting more for professional success, then she hasnâ€™t given us the data to prove it. In the meantime, I think Iâ€™ll just stick with my great big balls.