Do Women Boast Enough?

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, it’s all about shortcuts. In case anyone is wondering and worried, no, I don’t have actual testicles.

So, I’m not sure that Lucy is right, that it’s a lack of boasting that can hold women back professionally. It’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 ‘being the baby-carrying gender’ thing to consider, and often do the lion’s share of the housework too, at least according to some (albeit dated) sources.

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 hasn’t given us the data to prove it. In the meantime, I think I’ll just stick with my great big balls.

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  1. So, I’m not sure that Lucy is right, that it’s a lack of boasting that can hold women back professionally.

    I think it’s partially true, but as you say it’s much more complicated.

    However, as a book author, I’ve got to say if you’re not out there tooting your own horn and pimping your books and yourself, no one else is going to do it for you.

    As you said, being in the right place at the right time does help but it’s the years of preparation that make you ready for the opportunities that pop up “out of nowhere”.

    A lot of wannabe authors think it is just luck, and they don’t realize the years of work that go into becoming an overnight success.

    I do think successful women should boast more.

  2. Yes, I think that boasting is just one aspect of the larger issue: self-confidence. I don’t walk around work bragging about how awesome I am, but I also don’t miss easy opportunities to prove that I’m worth my paycheck (and more!) and I don’t display false modesty.

    I’ve seen men and women miss out on opportunities for advancement because they didn’t speak up and assert themselves. I can see that that sort of thing could happen to more women than men, but I have no hard stats to prove it.

  3. I also agree. I’m definitely going through a process of learning how to be more assertive and focus my career. There are so many times I wish I didn’t have all my “nice” socialization to overcome.

    Oh, and working moms who also do most of the housework? I can totally confirm that one.

  4. Sheesh, yet one more thing that demonstrates what a poor example of a “man” I am. I don’t brag about my academic or professional success…in fact, I usually attribute any sort of ‘success’ to being mildly personable and capable of lying effectively.

    I certainly don’t tell people “I write and edit questions for a board game because I’m FRAKKING AWESOME at it.” I’ve always felt that, at each stage of the game of life, I’ve gotten away with essentially doing nothing at all. I’m not sure whether that’s sadder for the world, or for me…

  5. Flib already quoted what I was going to say.

    Opportunities present themselves to everyone. Only the prepared are in a position to take advantage of them, and thus become successful.

    At least that’s been my experience.

  6. Expatria, sometimes when women just say things that men would never hesitate to say, they are accused of bragging. Women are supposed to qualify their statements with “I think” or “In my opinion” and so forth in a way that men never are expected to do. If they don’t do this, they are considered arrogant and not nice.

    There’s definitely a double standard (hi Ryst) regarding what is considered bragging for men and women.

  7. Writerdd, I have to wonder how much of that depends on the type of job someone is doing.

    For example, I’ve worked in IT for almost two decades. It’s a culture in which the person who makes strong, positive statements is almost automatically assumed to have a higher level of competence over someone who throws in a wishy-washy “I think”. But that goes for both men and women – the women who make strong statements are as highly regarded as the men, and the men who make wishy-washy statements are lower down on the totem-pole.

  8. mulveyr, yes when I worked in IT, I found that to be true as well.

    Fortunately this trend is changing, but there are a lot of environments where it has not changed yet.

    It’s one reason where I often make bold, brash statements on this blog: Just to buck that trend. You’ll probably notice that I also do the “I think” thing way too much. It’s a very hard habit to break.

  9. I findf it a little surprising that no one has mentioned the inherent sexism in the use of the phrase “great big balls” to mean outward assurance and brash confidence. Apparently, you must have secondary male sexual characteristics to exhibit self-confidence.

  10. Here:

    “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, it’s all about shortcuts. In case anyone is wondering and worried, no, I don’t have actual testicles.”

  11. I prefer to call it “demonstrating return on investment” and making a business case rather than bragging. My boss is pretty used to me telling him how exciting it must be for him to come to work every day, knowing that he gets to work with me. Fortunately, he agrees.

    I’m lucky enough to work in IT, and I do think more than other careers I’ve had, that you either know your shit or you don’t. Code doesn’t care what is in your pants. The tech explosion of the late 1990’s really made a difference in gender and race relations in many businesses. The extreme need for qualified technical personnel at that time meant that most businesses didn’t have the luxury of picking and choosing (consciously or not) whom to hire based on arbitrary phenotypic traits. By the time the tech bubble burst, qualified people had had a chance to prove themselves and the “tradition” of gender/race/religion/sexuality neutral tech hiring had been established. At least here in the Northeast. Howsabout elsewhere?

  12. Seems like a cultural thing – though I am surprised its the British as they are usually a bit more reserved. In Oz if you go around boasting how wonderful you are – people automatically class you as a giant tosser and treat you with contempt (at best) regardless of gender or actual accomplishments.

    The theory is that if you are actually any good at what you say you dont need to advertise how wonderful one is, everyone should know. From the Executive Planet site regarding business in Oz -“ Don’t boast about yourself or your company’s accomplishments. Instead, let them judge you and your competence through your actions.

    This does have its downsides on ocassion (Tall Poppy syndrome) but flatly I would prefer one demostrates why I should respect them through actions, than listening to claims they have a supernova shining out their butt.

    Or to put it simply “Empty vessels make the most noise”.

  13. In much of academia (where there’s no shortage of women including my wife) you are required to boast on a regular basis. Every year a summery of your accomplishments, successes, articles, research, student successes and on and on are required by your department chair for your evaluation. Many companies also ask for self evaluations when assessing and evaluating employees. If someone is not willing to tout (assuming at least a somewhat honest self evaluation) their strengths and accomplishments then you may have more difficulty being considered for advancement, tenure or getting a good recommendation. As for letting your hard work and accomplishments speak for them selves, I’d be surprised if every boss or employer notices all the things everyone does without having them pointed out at times.

  14. That’s OK, I never read all of my posts either :D

    Feel free to discuss though – is it sexist to use ‘sexist’ male stereotypes to reclaim those attributes for women? I don’t think it is, but then I don’t tend to think most things are sexist. There are differences between men and women, including socially, that it’s OK to make reference to. ‘Great big balls’ is one of those. I’m not saying confidence is a male-only trait, I’m saying it’s always been seen as such and I’m proving that wrong.

    Plus, it sort of has a funny shock value and a nice mental image, too. Always with the funny.

  15. I don’t boast because I find it an incredibly annoying trait in others. I’d rather be modest and overlooked (which I am) than a big successful jerk :) There might also be a self-esteem issue :P

    Of course, there’s a line in the spectrum of self-promotion, and you don’t cross it just because you’re making sure people know you’re competent. I’ve written resumes before, and was still able to sleep those nights.

  16. @tkingdoll – my original thought was fairly superficial, that the term is inherently sexist in its origins. However I see your use of the term as reclaiming it for “fair use” – a bit like gay men using the word “fag” to take it back from the haters. Ultimately, I am a big believer of the evolution of language, and terms can mean whatever we as a culture choose them to mean.

  17. Personally, I just say I have giant hairy ovaries.

    I’ve been accused often enough of having an actual scrotum that I don’t like to claim it too much.

    Also, it scares my husband less.

  18. I’m a braggadocio and a blowhard. Also, I’m a narcissistic, egocentric megalomaniac. Most people who act like I do are universally reviled, but somehow, when I do it, people seem to think it’s charming. I don’t pretend to understand in the slightest. If I ever met me in the real world, there would likely be some sort of ultimate showdown deathmatch…

    I like to think it’s because I’m so pretty, but that might just be the narcissism speaking…

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