Here's hoping this is the year of girly swots
A view from Patricia McDonald

Here's hoping this is the year of girly swots

It should be a badge of honour.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year for 2019 is "climate emergency". As pedants among us may point out, that is in fact two words, but a worthy and important winner nonetheless. I can’t help but feel, however, that the real word(s) of the year were "girly swot".

They say a week is a long time in politics. Right now, 24 hours can feel like a lifetime. So it may be hard to cast your mind back to more innocent times (September), when it was revealed that Boris Johnson had referred to his old school friend and predecessor David Cameron thus.

In a febrile political climate, where facts, evidence and expertise can feel like relics of a bygone era, women seized on the apparent slur and embraced it as a badge of honour. In our industry, too, it feels that the hour of the girly swot has come.

Girly swots, it is important to note, are not the same as good girls.

I have written in the past about the "good girl trap". The good girl trap, for the uninitiated, is the danger that successful women become trapped by the very behaviours that led to their initial success – diligence, conformity, agreeableness. 

Women learn early in their school careers not to raise their hand unless they are thoroughly prepared. Recent data shows that girls in the UK have one of the highest fear of failure levels anywhere in the world. They learn quickly in their professional careers that challenging the status quo can be seen as disruptive. Strident. Shrill.

As a result, many become trapped in a cycle of doing their diligent and dedicated best to make a broken system work, rather than make a change. This takes these brilliant women a long way – annual reviews will describe them as hard-working, meticulous and dedicated – but not all the way. Because, at a certain point, the ability to constructively challenge and creatively disrupt becomes more important than following the rules.

Girly swots share many characteristics with good girls. Girly swots have a plan – and a plan B. Girly swots do their homework. Girly swots know what the data says and – yes, thank you – they know the sample size and the methodology. Most importantly, girly swots don’t have to be, well, girls. Some of my very favourite girly swots are boys.

The difference is that girly swots are not afraid to raise their hands or their voice. Angela Merkel, Elizabeth Warren, Greta Thumberg? Girly swots all. Hermione Granger? The patron saint of girly swots.

In a world of heightened rhetoric and vitriol, of polarisation and clickbait, girly swots bring much-needed nuance to the conversation. That’s needed in our political discourse, but it’s also needed in our industry.

We, too, live in world of polarisation. Brand purpose is dead. Brand purpose is king. Data is the new oil. Data is the scourge of creativity. Content is king. Content is wallpaper.

Moreover, we live in a world where trust is scarce. Where our credibility as an industry is compromised by fake news, fake views and fake influencers.

So, across our industry, regardless of gender, perhaps it’s time for a swottier style of leadership. Where we value preparedness, nuance and thoughtfulness over bluster and blagging.

So what can we all learn from copying the girly swots’ homework?

Complexity is not a bad thing

No-one ever lost a speaking gig or a byline by taking a polarising position, but the reality is almost inevitably more complicated. Girly swots know that. They may be excited about the new, but they understand the power of "traditional" channels and the enduring power of a story well told. Most importantly, they know the power of "and".

But obfuscation is a bad thing

While we may embrace complexity, we must reject obfuscation. Girly swots love explaining things. They love bringing others on the journey. They embrace the complex and they make it simple.

Curiosity is invaluable, passion is cool  

We talk a lot as an industry about restless, relentless, paranoid cultures. Perhaps a more positive, more inclusive way to think about it is curiosity. Curiosity about the new, curiosity about the old. Curiosity about theories, curiosity about people. Girly swots embrace curiosity, disappear down rabbit holes and come back with inspiration from everywhere, from poetry to politics, physics to stand-up, Blake to Bauhaus.

'I don’t know' is not a weakness

As an industry, it can sometimes feel that we are terrified to admit that we don’t know. To our colleagues or to our clients. Just as we’ve learned in recent years that it’s OK sometimes not to be OK, let’s agree that it’s OK sometimes not to know.

There is enormous credibility in admitting, in a post-truth world, that we don’t know something but we’re going to go away to do our research. There’s powerful vulnerability in admitting to our colleagues that we don’t know something (or anything) about their area of expertise and asking them to teach us something.

So, will girly swots be the word(s) of 2020? Who knows. But let’s try, at least, to make it a little of the spirit of 2020, building a more thoughtful, nuanced, fact-based and curious business. Swots, raise your hands.

Patricia McDonald is managing director, strategy and insight, at Weber Shandwick