Why women shouldn’t learn to exaggerate their achievements

A new study shows male scientists are significantly more likely to exaggerate the impact of their research and that this pays dividends. Should women do it too or is it better to reform the system?



An interesting study was published in the BMJ this week on whether male scientists were more likely to big up their research findings, using positive words such as “novel” or “excellent”, than women and whether this led to more citations, therefore aiding them in gaining promotion.

The study suggested that was, in fact, the case. It compared clinical articles involving a male first or last author with those involving a woman as first or last author.Articles in which both the first and last author were women used at least one of 25 positive terms studied by the researchers in 10.9% of titles or abstracts versus 12.2% for articles involving a male first or last author, ie those articles involving men as first or last author were 12.3% more likely to use the positive terms. This rose to 21.4% for articles in the most prestigious publications.  Clearly not all men exaggerate their achievements and I’m pretty sure some women do it too, but the figures are the figures.

They’re interesting because it is something that seems to me to happen generally in the workplace and outside it. Most especially in journalism, the ability to ‘sell’ your idea as extraordinary and amazing is often more important than the actual idea itself, putting the lie to journalists’ instinctive dislike of PR.  Bigging everything up as ‘ground breaking’ or ‘shattering’ or ‘world exclusive’ has become commonplace. Partly this is due to the impact of the tabloid press, known for its macho culture, and the cartoonisation of everything – the conversion of news into entertainment because entertainment sells, but it’s more extensive than that and more corrosive.

Pointing this out, of course, risks being called humourless. Why complain about a few exaggerations? It’s just a bit of fun, a game as it were. Now, of course, all of our lives have been turned into one giant game of chance. Bigging everything up is like the little boy who cried wolf. It distorts the news and makes it difficult for anyone to tell what the truth is. We live in such an age of spin now that we are regularly told to believe the opposite of what we see in front of our eyes.

So should women learn to be better at exaggerating stuff about their work? After all, that’s the way everything else has gone. We are constantly told to learn how to negotiate pay better, learn about promotion, learn to be more assertive, learn to lean in. While there is always room for education and you cannot get into a position to influence things unless you play the system to some extent, it is hard to believe sufficiently in a system which generally operates against you, praising you for being modest and diligent while using that very modesty to keep you down. Moreover, by playing the system you risk being sucked down by it.

An accompanying editorial to the research study by Professor Reshma Jagsi from the University of Michigan and Dr Julie Silver of Harvard Medical School calls on science journals to tackle bias rather than to simply expect women to big up their research more. For instance, they suggest establishing a set of standards on the use of positive terms. The more we are aware of how the playing field is not level and how that affects career progression the better, but that requires a willingness to confront all the many different ways that bias manifests itself.

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