My TEDx on December 3rd started like this: “Magali, she’s the only boss we’ve had that had balls”
I was referring the words used by some old members of my team – from the center I worked in 15 years ago – to describe me.
Except that… I’d been told that before!
One time, young engineer in Nigeria, we’ve been dealing with technicians on strike for weeks. We were going on a mission, two engineers to replace the three technicians – we were exhausted, but management wasn’t giving up. One day, we were in the base. I was the only woman. And we all agreed that we should go talk to the bosses about our tiredness and how desperately the situation had to change – they all stare at me and tell me, as one man: “Magali, you’re the only one with balls here – you should go!
In the dictionary, “having some” is defined as such: “being brave, having audacity, character, being energetic; having the courage to”
Therefore, I decided that being told that was quite a compliment. Because to me, above anything else, this expression means having the courage to question the established order. Which I always try to do. That’s how I worked in Nigeria on an oil rig at the age on 22, at a time where they weren’t hiring women.
I must admit, I also thought it was a nice way to introduce myself and draw the public’s attention during the TEDx. Impertinence is most likely one of the qualities that have allowed me to survive and progress in a very masculine world. After all, I don’t think the word “balls” is often used on stage – especially by a woman.
But although I appreciate the “compliment”, I don’t think that it makes me a man. And I’m not sure I like being defined by masculine attributes.
Yet, based on years of observation, there’s no shortage of women who’ve got some – maybe it’s because I work in an environment that is mainly masculine and has so few women that we notice them. But in general, most women I’ve worked with lacked neither courage, nor audacity, nor character.
So, maybe it would be time to rethink this expression. Because words matter. Because this expression can be taken with humor, but the truth is that when a woman is successful, we grant her male attributes.
However, when we say that mixed teams are more performing than teams where only one sex is represented, it’s only true if we have a true diversity and if women behave the way they want to, without trying to imitate men’s management style. They do it too often – and it’s understandable – to try and fit in without causing chaos.
So it would be good to find an equivalent expression for women – and since we don’t have to stay at the genital level, I wouldn’t advise a female equivalent (which I have, I must admit, used a number of times, but more for the pleasure of seeing my interlocutors’ faces than by personal belief).
So, next time you meet a woman who’s got some… tell her she’s got some… courage, audacity, or character.