A Rant About Women

So I get email from a good former student, applying for a job and asking for a recommendation. “Sure”, I say, “Tell me what you think I should say.” I then get a draft letter back in which the student has described their work and fitness for the job in terms so superlative it would make an Assistant Brand Manager blush.

So I write my letter, looking over the student’s self-assessment and toning it down so that it sounds like it’s coming from a person and not a PR department, and send it off. And then, as I get over my annoyance, I realize that, by overstating their abilities, the student has probably gotten the best letter out of me they could have gotten.

Now, can you guess the gender of the student involved?

Of course you can. My home, the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, is fairly gender-balanced, and I’ve taught about as many women as men over the last decade. In theory, the gender of my former student should be a coin-toss. In practice, I might as well have given him the pseudonym Moustache McMasculine for all the mystery there was. And I’ve grown increasingly worried that most of the women in the department, past or present, simply couldn’t write a letter like that.

This worry isn’t about psychology; I’m not concerned that women don’t engage in enough building of self-confidence or self-esteem. I’m worried about something much simpler: not enough women have what it takes to behave like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks.

Remember David Hampton, the con artist immortalized in “Six Degrees of Separation”, who pretended he was Sydney Poitier’s son? He lied his way into restaurants and clubs, managed to borrow money, and crashed in celebrity guest rooms. He didn’t miss the fact that he was taking a risk, or that he might suffer. He just didn’t care.

It’s not that women will be better off being con artists; a lot of con artists aren’t better off being con artists either. It’s just that until women have role models who are willing to risk incarceration to get ahead, they’ll miss out on channelling smaller amounts of self-promoting con artistry to get what they want, and if they can’t do that, they’ll get less of what they want than they want.

There is no upper limit to the risks men are willing to take in order to succeed, and if there is an upper limit for women, they will succeed less. They will also end up in jail less, but I don’t think we get the rewards without the risks.

* * *

When I was 19 and three days into my freshman year, I went to see Bill Warfel, the head of grad theater design (my chosen profession, back in the day), to ask if I could enroll in a design course. He asked me two questions. The first was “How’s your drawing?” Not so good, I replied. (I could barely draw in those days.) “OK, how’s your drafting?” I realized this was it. I could either go for a set design or lighting design course, and since I couldn’t draw or draft well, I couldn’t take either.

“My drafting’s fine”, I said.

That’s the kind of behavior I mean. I sat in the office of someone I admired and feared, someone who was the gatekeeper for something I wanted, and I lied to his face. We talked some more and then he said “Ok, you can take my class.” And I ran to the local art supply place and bought a drafting board, since I had to start practicing.

That got me in the door. I learned to draft, Bill became my teacher and mentor, and four years later I moved to New York and started doing my own design work. I can’t say my ability to earn a living in that fickle profession was because of my behavior in Bill’s office, but I can say it was because I was willing to do that kind of thing. The difference between me and David Hampton isn’t that he’s a con artist and I’m not; the difference is that I only told lies I could live up to, and I knew when to stop. That’s not a different type of behavior, it’s just a different amount.

And it looks to me like women in general, and the women whose educations I am responsible for in particular, are often lousy at those kinds of behaviors, even when the situation calls for it. They aren’t just bad at behaving like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks. They are bad at behaving like self-promoting narcissists, anti-social obsessives, or pompous blowhards, even a little bit, even temporarily, even when it would be in their best interests to do so. Whatever bad things you can say about those behaviors, you can’t say they are underrepresented among people who have changed the world.

Now this is asking women to behave more like men, but so what? We ask people to cross gender lines all the time. We’re in the middle of a generations-long project to encourage men to be better listeners and more sensitive partners, to take more account of others’ feelings and to let out our own feelings more. Similarly, I see colleges spending time and effort teaching women strategies for self-defense, including direct physical aggression. I sometimes wonder what would happen, though, if my college spent as much effort teaching women self-advancement as self-defense.

* * *

Some of the reason these strategies succeed is because we live in a world where women are discriminated against. However, even in an ideal future, self-promotion will be a skill that produces disproportionate rewards, and if skill at self-promotion remains disproportionately male, those rewards will as well. This isn’t because of oppression, it’s because of freedom.

Citizens of the developed world have an unprecedented amount of freedom to choose how we live, which means we experience life as a giant distributed discovery problem: What should I do? Where should I work? Who should I spend my time with? In most cases, there is no right answer, just tradeoffs. Many of these tradeoffs happen in the market; for everything from what you should eat to where you should live, there is a menu of options, and between your preferences and your budget, you’ll make a choice.

Some markets, though, are two-sided — while you are weighing your options, those options are also weighing you. People fortunate enough to have those options quickly discover that it’s not enough to decide you want to go to Swarthmore, or get money out of Kleiner Perkins. Those institutions must also decide if they will have you.

Some of the most important opportunities we have are in two-sided markets: education and employment, contracts and loans, grants and prizes. And the institutions that offer these opportunities operate in an environment where accurate information is hard to come by. One of their main sources of judgment is asking the candidate directly: Tell us why we should admit you. Tell us why we should hire you. Tell us why we should give you a grant. Tell us why we should promote you.

In these circumstances, people who don’t raise their hands don’t get called on, and people who raise their hands timidly get called on less. Some of this is because assertive people get noticed more easily, but some of it is because raising your hand is itself a high-cost signal that you are willing to risk public failure in order to try something.

That in turn correlates with many of the skills the candidate will need to actually do the work — to recruit colleagues and raise money, to motivate participants and convince skeptics, to persevere in the face of both obstacles and ridicule. Institutions assessing the fitness of candidates, in other words, often select self-promoters because self-promotion is tied to other characteristics needed for success.

It’s tempting to imagine that women could be forceful and self-confident without being arrogant or jerky, but that’s a false hope, because it’s other people who get to decide when they think you’re a jerk, and trying to stay under that threshold means giving those people veto power over your actions. To put yourself forward as someone good enough to do interesting things is, by definition, to expose yourself to all kinds of negative judgments, and as far as I can tell, the fact that other people get to decide what they think of your behavior leaves only two strategies for not suffering from those judgments: not doing anything, or not caring about the reaction.

* * *

Not caring works surprisingly well. Another of my great former students, now a peer and a friend, saw a request from a magazine reporter doing a tech story and looking for examples. My friend, who’d previously been too quiet about her work, decided to write the reporter and say “My work is awesome. You should write about it.”

The reporter looked at her work and wrote back saying “Your work is indeed awesome, and I will write about it. I also have to tell you you are the only woman who suggested her own work. Men do that all the time, but women wait for someone else to recommend them.” My friend stopped waiting, and now her work is getting the attention it deserves.

If you walked into my department at NYU, you wouldn’t say “Oh my, look how much more talented the men are than the women.” The level and variety of creative energy in the place is still breathtaking to me, and it’s not divided by gender. However, you would be justified in saying “I bet that the students who get famous five years from now will include more men than women”, because that’s what happens, year after year. My friend talking to the reporter remains the sad exception.

Part of this sorting out of careers is sexism, but part of it is that men are just better at being arrogant, and less concerned about people thinking we’re stupid (often correctly, it should be noted) for trying things we’re not qualified for.

Now I don’t know what to do about this problem. (The essence of a rant, in fact, is that the ranter has no idea how to fix the thing being ranted about.) What I do know is this: it would be good if more women see interesting opportunities that they might not be qualified for, opportunities which they might in fact fuck up if they try to take them on, and then try to take them on. It would be good if more women got in the habit of raising their hands and saying “I can do that. Sign me up. My work is awesome,” no matter how many people that behavior upsets.

511 Responses to “A Rant About Women”

  1. Sarah Says:

    I was reminded of this article when I read “No One Knows What the F*** They’re Doing (or “The 3 Types of Knowledge”)” by Steve Schwartz last night. (Linky: http://jangosteve.com/post/380926251/no-one-knows-what-theyre-doing)

    The executive summary is that knowledge falls into three broad categories:

    * Shit you know,
    * Shit you know you don’t know, and
    * Shit you don’t know you don’t know

    In Steve’s pie charts, the shit you know gets the smallest wedge. In terms of all there is to know in this world, we really don’t know all that much. The next, slightly larger wedge is the shit you know you don’t know. For example, I know I don’t know how to perform brain surgery. And the largest wedge, by a long way is the shit you don’t know you don’t know – the most “dangerous” form of “knowledge”. (Read the article for some good examples).

    Steve suggests that we ought to strive to make the second wedge, the shit we know we don’t know, the biggest of the three. We can only know so much, and trying to know everything, well – thats just not going to happen. But if we know we don’t know something, we probably know where or how to find the answers or at least realize our limitations.

    I think his point can be related to success in business. For example, arrogant assholes probably act more within the realm of shit they don’t know they don’t know and are only successful because they weaken others’ self confidence. Successful assertive people, on the other hand, leverage their understanding of what they know they don’t know.

    For instance, in the original article by Clay he lied to the professor by saying he knew drafting when he didn’t. It was a calculated risk. Because he knew he didn’t know drafting, he had the tools to go out and prepare himself – to move drafting from something he knew he didn’t know, to something he did know.

    Alex on Jan 16 commented: “i’m a woman and “lying” — whether that’s meant saying i knew Final Cut or Pro Tools — has gotten me every job i’ve ever had.” If the job relied on Final Cut, she knew she could go out and learn it so as not to have the calculated risk in claiming she knew it blow up in her face. I’ve done the same thing many times and it’s landed me jobs as well. So far it hasn’t backfired on me because I knew my limitations – I knew when I could learn something quickly and be good at it. And if it does backfire some day, it’ll only be because I wasn’t actually good at something, and not for lack of trying. That’s the calculated risk.

    I think a lot of women who aren’t willing to take risks are probably operating entirely within the self-limiting realm of “shit you know”. They have this idea that if they don’t know something, they just don’t know it and therefore they’re not qualified. Period. Successful people leverage their understanding of what they don’t know, and actively take steps to adapt.

  2. Raymon Daniel Says:

    I certainly agree with the validity (without assessing morality or justice for a better approach for all) that those who self-promote, ask more, are bold, and daresay sometimes bluff have a statistically upward edge (and an associated risk), and there is, as some commenters subsequent to Shirk pointed out, a fine and undefinable line between that and being considered “less nice,” a trait that people are accustomed to forgive a little more in masculinity. Anyone who is good at bluffing knows there’s an art to it, plus a developed discretion to anticipate the possibility of the bluff being called, and necessary follow-through on the effort to quick-march the gap of risk: between the bluff and being called on it (hopefully before it’s later called)… to adapt “putting their money where their mouth is”.

    I admit my own distaste for chicanery, and strive for the virtues of genuineness and authenticity in my own life and others whom I am fortunate to choose to bring closer. Maybe those of us (myself included) who have found within us that which began to work in computing-oriented roles enjoys the fairness of ones and zeros, of impartial machines, and just because the High and Mighty want to demand the computer divide by zero, seeing their waves break on logic’s jagged shore. But I would be blinding myself with nobility if I hadn’t already observed in life the results often achieved by big talk. Nothing in life is as ideal as a perfect example, but all other things being equal about two potential candidates, the one who asserts more strongly, who employs more art of persuasion, who dares, wins, more often than the other.

    I recognize the unfairness when the societal differentiation is considered. But I have also noted the worth of taking for your own the strength of “not caring about” …so much. A good example is in your average male bonding: it’s not that men don’t have their limits, and certainly can trigger the threshold whereby an outright fighting response is provoked with another man, but that bonding almost universally includes a higher threshold for taking cracks, jabs, humorous insults, swipes, etc, and, when you learn how to give them well and in a good-spirited way (I cannot emphasize the second modifier enough), the joy shared by all. The essence of success in this comes from that differentiation learned over time from men’s interactions to develop in-sensitivity, “to not care so much”. Individuals can wisely adapt for themselves virtues learned from the stereotypical schools of women’s sensitivity and men’s insensitivity, suited to taste. In the above case, it’s about our feelings, but the callous of not-caring-so-much also becomes a tool of confidence for other things.

    All this being said, hopefully the true difference between an asshole and an admirable person is prudence of application. Sadly, that too is an art not so easily learned, except by falling down, getting up, and reflecting.

  3. Oral Mastery: Discover How To Please Women Beyond Belief. | 7Wins.eu Says:

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  4. Laurence Says:

    I just say that the male assertiveness/self-belief that Clay espouses has been running the planet for the last five (or so) milllenia, and look what a fucked up job we have done. And we want women to learn how to behave like us? Pleeeease.

  5. Piney Says:

    Thank you for this rant. This is a phenomenon i’ve noticed for years and it is affirming and fascinating to see it all written out.

    As I filtered through resumes to interview candidates for a number of positions over the years, I noticed the difference in tone between men and women. At one point, I decided to cover the top of each resume and read it without knowing the person’s sex. Every single time I guessed correctly if the resume was a man’s or woman’s. Men were completely over the top, filled with bravado and practically claimed to be golden gods, even if they’d dropped out of school at age 12 and their only job had been a 6-month stint at the local slurpee hut. Women were tentative and almost apologetic about their skills and achievements, it was depressing, as if they were saying “don’t worry, I won’t make waves.”

    As a guy’s girl, I have rarely run into an actual glass ceiling. Oh, i’ve learned that they do exist and sexism is alive and well in America (especially the corporate world), but we broads often do it to ourselves. I used to think it was only the women that perpetuated bad stereotypes, coming to meetings in halter tops and tentatively speaking in low, soft tones. Unfortunately, it is also those of us that believed we’d get ahead through hard work that would speak for itself. Our work isn’t going to do the talking, we need to speak for ourselves.

    We’ve all worked with total tools that are useless at actually getting a thing done, but DAMN, can they self promote. While we sweep up the messes, they climb that ladder, rung by rung, big titles, company cars and the respect of those around them.

    It IS possible to be confident and know your own worth, without becoming a total bitch-bag jerkwad. Basically, we need to man the fuck up, instead of pathetically asking “please sir, can I have some more?”

  6. georgen Says:

    Yes, but….

    Yes, women don’t act like self-promoting narcissists, and it is to their detriment, absolutely.

    But… who else acts like that? Directors, CEOs, people in charge. People who have ambition and confidence. I remember asking freshmen (both genders) to give speeches on what they wanted to do after college. All the men said something specific: accountant, pharmacist, etc. Half the women said they just wanted to be happy. Great, but it’s not a plan that requires steps or striving. It revealed no ambition, and no confidence they could be something special.

    Being a self-promoter requires confidence, something that’s whipped out of women if they have it and not helped along if they don’t.

  7. open letter to clay shirky (and to all the ladies) « Going Solo in 2010 Says:

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  8. I’m Calling Out Clay Shirky On His Rant About Women « Borderless Thinking Says:

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  9. Amy Says:

    As more than a few commenters have pointed out, one of the reasons why women are generally less assertive than men is because we are penalized for it; I too have been told by superiors that being “less direct” will help me get what I want, while working in a nearly all-male environment.

    Moreover, this is a socioeconomic issue. The most assertive women I’ve met are those who come from wealthy backgrounds. They believe they are entitled to larger salaries, more respect, etc., just as many (more?) men believe they are entitled to such things.

    Which brings me to my main point: Entitlement. Harmless behaviors like fibbing a bit to get your foot in the door, or faking it till you make it, are necessary strategies in a competitive labor market, but when it comes to being promoted or getting a raise, those who believe they are entitled to more will ask for it. Unfortunately, these people are often “arrogant, self-aggrandizing jerks”. Rewarding these individuals for this behavior, and not for the work they do, is simply lazy management. It perpetuates a broken system, where those who feel entitled to privileges receive them, therefore preventing qualified and hard-working individuals from moving up.

    There is an easy solution: Making all salaries public. It will become clear who deserves their salary and managers will not be so willing to give women (and men) less than they deserve lest they are called out on their sexism/racism/classism/whatever. Claiming that it’s impolite to talk about money has succeeded in keeping people in their place, and it’s time for a change. (We can talk about it. It is just money, after all.)

  10. SarahGlassmeyer(dot)com » Blog Archive » Libpunk Mentorship Says:

    […] been men?  GOOD QUESTION.  One of these days I’ll write response to Clay Shirky’s Rant About Women that gets more heavily into professional gender politics.  But near as I can guess, it’s […]

  11. Carrie Says:

    I partially agree with this post, but not all of it – but Clay, I would LOVE for you to check out the articles I’ll post links to below and then perhaps write a follow up to this….

    First off, I’m a pretty direct, “I don’t care” personality type (hence my screen name of “thealphafemme”) and I’ve recently been given the opportunity to speak and present at certain national events simply because I put myself out there and asked.

    However – to Amy and all the women who are all up in arms – yes, there are some VERY different, difficult, and sometimes IMPOSSIBLE obstacles we face as compared with men (keep reading & check out my links at the end also) BUT, we certainly are NOT without fault and I’ll also argue that we cannot take ZERO responsibility for our own role in not getting certain jobs, certain opportunities, etc… especially given so many women’s willingness to placate and cater to others because we DO tend to be the nurturers who want what’s best for everyone else (sometimes at our own expense), we worry about what other people think and we DO tend to take less risks (we don’t have to go the lengths of con-artists, but I can see he was drawing the analogy to make a point) and we ARE inherently NOT as selfish and sometimes, we pay the price for that. But it most certainly does not behoove us to get our panties in wad, and get so defensive that we come across so brash in defending “who we are as women” vs. using that energy and brashness to I don’t know, maybe take some valid points from this article and take out our frustration with the situation in trying to prove Clay wrong?

    Each of you may be the exception to the rule (as I am in some cases), but for every one of us women who are brazen enough to truly take charge of our careers; there are likely 1000 women who do not. We are still the minority. However, as Clay does fail to acknowledge (or likley didn’t research as this was a rant and not a case study), for every one of us who have taken charge – we’ve also likely been knocked door more times than any man who may be so bold as we have been. I know I have been.

    NOW – that being said… There are a few other articles I’ve read recently that both stand in stark CONTRAST to what Clay is stating – but perhaps, they could be used to supplement Clay’s theory if he were to take this a bit further and perhaps formally case study…. because there is validity in every one of these!

    (Your spam filter won’t let me post links, so I’m given you titles and pubs to look them up if you choose)

    1) “Why James Chartrand Wears Women’s Underpants” (Copyblogger)
    James Chartrand reveals HE is actually a “SHE” pretending to be a man… because, let’s face it… getting freelance work as a man is a lot EASIER… less negotiating, less hassle, implied respect and credability and not surprisingly; James wins bids that he also submits for as himself (as a woman) and does not get… This is a FASCINATING case study on just how deeply held the stereo-types about women are and perhaps, just how deep discrimination does take hold even if people (women included) don’t realize they are discriminating…

    2) Article: Can Nice Girls Negotiate? (Harvard Business Review)

    3) Referenced in above article are two others:

    * Salary, Gender, and the Social Cost of Haggling (Washington Post)

    —This one very much supports Clay (also with some perspective from an instructor) in which the WOMEN DO NOT ASK and THE MEN DO! Yet, then goes on to discuss studies about the different responses given to men and women when they do ask…

    * Sometimes it Does Hurt to Ask: (Science Direct: Org Behavior and Human Decision Processes)

    TAKE AWAY: Both men and women were more likely to subtly penalize women who asked for more — the perception was that women who asked for more were “less nice”.


    Suddenly, I feel myself between that proverbial rock and hard place…

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