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. Don Demarco Says:

    As one poster noted earlier, women have far less motivation to succeed than men. Here is one of the best articles on the subject:

  2. Mary H Ruth Says:

    What a fabulous post and brilliant comments, too!

    So sad to admit, but our world is enthralled by liars and cheats; and worse, the physical might of the male has corrupted the species through its treatment of women as second-class.

    My own experience: I’m a far more assertive female than many I know, and after 30+ years as a worker I have zero faith in my ability to be respected or even heard. Risk-taking has routinely resulted in hurt and failure. Better to gather in, hunker down, love as best you can. It is not possible not to care.

    That’s the big difference, male to female, isn’t it? Women care, men can take it or leave it.

  3. mir Says:

    I have two comments, one that engage with Marina’s comment and with Clay’s initial thoughts.

    First off: I agree pushing oneself forward is sometimes a reaction to internal self- criticism. Often the most arrogant among us have the least genuine self-confidence, and rely heavily on outside confirmation of their worth. Thus they have the most to lose if they don’t assert themselves. Which isn’t to say that quiet self-effacing people are secretly more confident than arrogant pushy people, but that the arrogant pushies choose to be that way to counteract their lack of confidence.

    Second point: Women tend to be assessed according to the context in which their role is a understood in a community ( a workplace a school etc). Ie she’s the hot one, she’s the friendly one, she’s the one we all secretly fear. Men tend be understood according to the value they bring to that same community. He’s the amazing flash programmer, he’s the guy who is always late with his deadlines, he’s the dude who made us 7 bills in the last quarter. It means arrogance has a hugely differently meaning in terms of social cohesion, group dynamics.

    It’s hard to be arrogant about the role you play in a community “I’m the hot one” sounds pretty weird as does “I’m the one who knows everybody’s business” but that’s usually the way ladies get ahead, it may not be the best way, but that’s the way it’s worked for generations, and that is something that I think also needs to change.

    I also think people like to play with cultural codes in ways that mean rants about gender need a lot of reservations. How does this argument relate to people who are LGBT, who don’t play according to typical codes of gendered behavior as part of their identity?

    I guess that was a third comment.

  4. Jennifer Says:

    Matt King’s point about lying is spot on.

  5. Jackie Dishner Says:

    I don’t think I’m a pompous ass, but neither am I afraid to self-promote. Does that make me a self-aggrandizing jerk? I don’t think about it that way. And I was curious about your statement here:

    “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.”

    After reading this line, I’m not 100 percent sure about this, but I think you’re saying women HAVE to care about how others perceive them–and men don’t? I don’t agree with that. As a women who is successful, I don’t have time to worry what others might think of me if I do something courageous or really cool or imaginative. I just do it, and then I tell others about it. Otherwise, what’s the point. Again, does that make me a pompous ass? I don’t think so. I just think that means I’m not afraid to self-promote.

  6. Michael Says:

    Just to add to the discussion, there is an interesting story that touches on this in the Washington Post from 2007:


  7. Jon DiPietro Says:

    Clay, you end this post by saying you don’t know what to do about this problem. As the father of four girls aged 3 to 15, I know EXACTLY what I am going to do.

    I am going to teach them…
    Teach them that invitations are rare and probably overrated (ulterior motives?).
    Teach them that the lack of invitations is not an indictment on their worth or abilities.
    Teach them the meaning of “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
    Teach them that they deserve as much as the next “guy,” but they will have to ask for it and maybe even tell a white lie here and there to get it.

  8. Jane Smith Says:

    Maybe we don’t need more of this behavior from anyone, male or female. I realize assholery / self promotion is a pragmatic move on the part of individuals but do we want to actively help perpetuate a world where strategic jerks win? It’s even worse when female jerks become even more self-righteous when notified of their transgressions and shout discrimination. It is quite possible for men and women to go overboard with this — of course *you* (whoever is reading this, not singling out Clay, etc.) don’t go overboard–no one thinks they personally take this too far.

  9. Julie Poplawski Says:

    Women are wired differently. We have heightened sensitivity. It is, and always has been necessary to sharpen our intuitive skills to protect the next generation. Notice the heightened sense of smell in pregnant women, notice how the mother of a teenage boy just “knows” when something is not right. We have 5 heightened senses and some argue a 6th sense as well.

    Women are more sensitive, so if we can harness those senses to make better “gut” decisions in business – acquisition, hiring employees, choosing partners etc. we will make our authentic mark in the world, true to our instincts and effective in business.

  10. Matt King Says:

    I (a male reluctant-hand-raiser) enjoyed the post and the comments. Marina made a helpful point about arrogance, and I wanted to follow up with a similar observation: of your three examples of “arrogance” (your male student, you, and your female student), it seems worth noting that the two male examples were also “lying.” You and your male student overstated your abilities while your female student summed up her (excellent) abilities quite fairly. While it is important in each of the three cases that “arrogance” led to the desired result, an equally significant aspect of your male student’s success was your willingness to go along with the lie.

    While the possibility you lay out for women to be more arrogant seems like a helpful one, I would ask you to consider another possible intervention into the situation: don’t reward lying. Or at least be honest about it. I imagine your letter of recommendation didn’t once mention arrogance, but if you really believe arrogance to be a deciding factor, your letter should have looked just like the blog post that came out of it. On the other hand, if arrogance doesn’t equal excellence, then we could all benefit from people in power not being so spellbound by arrogance that they are willing to perpetuate lies about someone’s excellence.

    I find your post helpful in many ways, but I’m not sure arrogance is the best term for what you’re discussing. Your one female example didn’t really involve arrogance, and in your two male examples, arrogance meant lying. I think you’re right that some of us (myself included) could be better hand raisers, but it also seems worth noting that some of us could be better at rewarding true excellence and not recommending a lie.

  11. Meme Says:

    The “feminine” view that you, Clay, as well as most commenters seem to be missing is this: The world in which being rude and lying about your capabilities helps you get ahead isn’t a gender equal world, but a male-dominated world.
    If I, as a woman, were in your position, and I got that self-boasting letter of recommendation, I would not just strip away the superlatives, I would be so annoyed I would strip away half of the true things, just to teach him a lesson. In the perfect “feminine” world, as opposed to what you’re describing, men will learn to follow rules and regulations and stop lying. Instead of women learning to stretch the boundaries, men will learn to stay within them.
    Perhaps you did benefit from lying to your teacher: but you could have just as well told the truth and said “no, but I intend to study it very hard”. In that same perfect world, that would be enough.
    It can be called a second-wave chauvinistic approach: assuming women are flawed because they don’t deal well with the system, instead of assuming the system is flawed because it doesn’t work for women.

  12. Emily Daniels Says:

    I’d like to thank my grandfather for teaching me to be a arrogant self-aggrandizing jerk and you Clay for reminding me to revel in it.

  13. Karl Staib - Work Happy Now Says:

    I’ve lied on my resume countless times. Many times it’s hurt me, but other times it’s helped. My last job was mostly a lie, but I knew I could do it. Over the past year I’ve tried to get a new job, but I’ve been too passive about it. I’ve actually tried to embellish my resume, but editor (wife) points out these discrepancies and l feel bad about lying, so no new job.

    Maybe it’s time to go back to my old ways of telling the world that I can do it then if they accept, just figuring out a way to get it done.

  14. Tom Says:

    Marina hit the nail on the head for me:

    “Both genders suffer from harsh internal critics, but women more often than men are taught to listen to that voice; men more often than women are able or conditioned to ignore it. I want to emphasize that we don’t need need to cultivate assholes (self-perceived or otherwise) getting what they want; we need more amazing women (and men) working well — and kindly — towards their goals.”

    I agree with your sentiment, but I don’t think the problem is only solved by women being more aggressive and self-promoting. That may be part of the issue, sure, but if “it’s a tough world out there, and you gotta be an asshole to survive”, why not work on changing the world? You’re in a unique position, Clay. You have the ear of many people who make it a “tough world”. Maybe you could spread the word to listen to the quiet folks a little more, rather than tell the quiet ones to become more ass-a-holic?

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  16. Stephanie McAuliffe Says:

    Great post Clay, thanks for noticing and caring. Nice to see thoughtful comments too.

  17. Karen Says:

    I’m a woman and I fail to push myself forward – but I don’t care. Winning isn’t everything. In fact, it’s hardly something. Not lying, not being the loudest and not putting effort into putting yourself forward isn’t just easier, it’s more likely to make you happy.

  18. Scott Says:

    I think many of the anecdotes might miss what’s really going on (especially in the classroom).

    The presumption is – if you raise your hand too often you’re a jerk. And that women will be judged more harshly if they do this. Certainly I observed that an older female friend felt this way in high school – that if she showed how smart she was, people treated her like a jerk. But she tried toning down her responses the next year, playing by the same rules as everyone else, and still felt that people were treating her like a jerk. Let’s assume her perceptions are accurate: that she was not, in fact, a jerk (in so much as she wasn’t doing anything to stand out). And that people did, in fact, treat her that way. Changing her behavior netted her nothing, except making her even more despondent about her lack of perceived approval.

    Unlike what Clay asserts you must do – I never raised my hand if anyone else did. And I rarely raised my hand even if no one else did. But I was still a jerk. Why? Because I knew the answers. And I knew I knew the answers. And pretty soon the rest of the class knew I knew the answers. And THAT is why I was a jerk 🙂 Even some of the teachers didn’t like me because I knew most of the answers.

    (ah see, this previous paragraph has now probably proven Clay’s theory in that I am, actually, a jerk 🙂

    So, to me the key insight Clay has is that men (typically) care less about this judgment (from others) than women. Statistically it seems likely to be true (and matches so many people’s personal experiences). And, among men, there are ways to settle your differences in high school. If someone really is making your life miserable, you can punch him in the mouth. Or sit on him and feed him grass (or snow). Of course, if you try this, you may be the one on the receiving end. But that’s life as a guy in HS (and earlier).

    I don’t accept that I have to act in a way that others perceive to be a jerk to be effective. However, I do accept that some people will think I’m a jerk no matter what I do, or for reasons I do not agree with. And you do have to take real risks to get what you want.

    Quick anecdote. So, lots of people thought I was an egotistical jerk, because I knew the answers. But in classes, the people sitting next to me always did better than class average. Usually they were among the best students in the class. But there were different people in each class. And they didn’t cheat off my tests or homework. It turns out, one of the things you can do is *actually help other people succeed*. You can’t imagine how surprised and grateful people were when I did this. When I’d agree to meet after school and help more. Or in study hall. Or at lunch. It “cost” me some time but it never seemed like a burden or a loss.

    If you want to go for the gold, but you don’t want to FEEL like a jerk, take time to help someone. take time to do something that doesn’t directly benefit you. but don’t back down and be mediocre thinking people will like you better. they won’t.

    Finally, I disagree that being a jerk is purely external – it is based on social norms but that doesn’t mean that those norms are all wrong. I actually think that some people are “jerks” by societal norms, but they either (a) don’t care (clay’s premise), or (b) are not self-perceptive or self-aware enough to realize that they are sending “i’m a jerk” signals to everyone else… including, mis-identifying the causes (raising hand == jerk) rather than the real cause (the smirk on your face that you don’t even notice yourself that says the person who tried to answer before you was an idiot). Ask yourself: who’s success do you care about? I mean, besides your own. Is there anyone else that you genuinely are rooting for, and really enjoy when they succeed? How about someone that isn’t a family member or a star athlete? If not, then probably, others are perceiving you for what you are.

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  20. Ann Miura-Ko Says:

    Thanks for the post. I mentor many young women and this is a topic I cover often. I discovered early on that working in a male dominated field meant being outrageously confident even when you’re not. I recall that I first encountered this when I was working on my senior thesis with a group of guys. I was in charge of a chunk of programming and didn’t defend my algorithm nearly as assertively as I should have. I said a lot of “I think”s and “maybe” because I wanted to represent the uncertainty accurately. I quickly realized that the guys I was working with took this to mean “I don’t know” and “clearly this is wrong”. It took some guys from a competitive team to reassure my team that my algorithm was a good one.

    Ever since then, I’ve promised myself that I would walk right up to the edge of my comfort zone and then take five steps beyond. If that means being louder, asking for things that may seem outrageous at the time, so be it. If others are being that way, it means that we’re fighting for resources simultaneously and I need to make sure that I get what I need to be more successful.

    From the outside, the perception of women really impacts why women tend not to do this. There is a fine line between being bitchy and being assertive. For men, this line doesn’t exist. They are “arrogant” (but in a good way) when they cross that line.

    Hopefully we can help make changes for women by changing how people perceive women who are promoting themselves and mentoring young women so that they know that this is a skill set they must learn early in their careers. This type of post helps do that!

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  22. Carol Silvis Says:

    You are so on the mark with regard to my own situation. I had a book published in July and have had a tough time marketing myself. I have the usual Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter connections but have hesitated marketing the book on any of these outlets. I do have it and other publications on my website but don’t get a lot of traffic there.

    So how can women improve this situation?

  23. Marina Says:

    I agree with Lemongrass, and want to elaborate.

    Clay have you been studying your Buddhism? Your description of suffering and understanding that you can only set intention and act, but cannot control the immediate actions is so directly related to having some balance about the differences between action and outcome.

    “I only told lies I could live up to, and I knew when to stop.”
    Isn’t there another way to describe all this?
    If you wanna change the culture of “ask and receive,” you have to start to change the terms and self-definitions. I agree with you that men are far more adept at getting what they want. And it’s personally painful to not be able or willing to do the same, using their methods.

    The idea that it’s arrogant to represent one’s potential as well as one’s accomplishments further reinforces the somewhat gendered divide (women often not only are taught to “no be a bitch” but also have been conditioned to find that ethically wrong, even as they envy the opportunities that may bring).
    Women need to find other skillful means to do so – not by being cock-sure (yep) or obnoxious. They are going to need to try something closer to an unembarrassed, cool assessment in their self-representation, some humor about the whole dynamic, and honesty that engenders trust in those who grant access/opportunity/employment.

    Both genders suffer from harsh internal critics, but women more often than men are taught to listen to that voice; men more often than women are able or conditioned to ignore it. I want to emphasize that we don’t need need to cultivate assholes (self-perceived or otherwise) getting what they want; we need more amazing women (and men) working well — and kindly — towards their goals.

  24. Restructure! Says:

    There are negative consequences when women try to contradict gender stereotypes by being assertive:

    The success of the strategies was mixed. Men’s strategy of behaving in a more conciliatory fashion apparently succeeded in producing a positive impression in the counterpart’s eyes. However, the women’s strategy of behaving more assertively failed to create a more positive impression. Instead, women who behaved more assertively, were judged more negatively.

    However, the article doesn’t compare judgments about assertive men versus assertive women, although I’m sure women would be judged more negatively.

    Nevertheless, we need to be bitches. Other people will judge us more negatively, but we will be seen as more competent.

    There’s also a study that showed people accept and even reward men who get angry but view women who get angry as less competent. Therefore, we need to be cold bitches, not angry bitches.

  25. kristine Says:

    Great post. Saw it on hackernews and found it plus the comments thought provoking. Each instance is an individual experience shaped by our surroundings. Personally, I’ve had a unique advantage as a young 26 y/o woman to play in the “women-only” field (I.e. All girl highschool, working in a female dominated industry, etc) as well as partake in a male-biased world (that of tech startups).

    As a result, the comments are neither that I am less of a woman or more like a man; but that I operate like a robot/machine. Is that really any better?

    Again, great piece.

  26. Tony Oh Says:

    Interesting rant, Clay. I had similar concerns when I was a university professor – despite my best efforts to try to call on everyone and draw every student out, I invariably was surprised at semester’s end to find one or two (or more) first-class papers written by young women who had been ever-present and always-silent in class. Their silence bothered me on three levels – basic fairness; the fact that the women usually had a different perspective or idea than did the more noticeable men; and the fact that I am the father of daughters (as I think are you, if I recall the details of some of your earlier posting correctly).

    I am wondering though whether there is not an even larger issue here (this thought prompted in part by your own answer in the comments) – the battle for attention in general grows ever sharper, as the means of creating and broadcasting information become cheaper and easier. In that battle it is the flashy, the outrageous, the challenging, the self-aggrandizing, and, yes, the flat-out mendacious that get attention. Even someone as thoughtful as Bernardo Huberman has lately been arguing that even in the scientific community style increasingly trumps content, and that – decry it though they may – the more successful scientists are having to learn how to game the search engines in order to get their papers higher up the search return lists, and thus get more attention.

    In a certain sense, I suppose that the battle for attention would not be too worrisome, if attention – once captured – could be held by substance, rather than style. Realistically, however, it seems that attention can be paid but not banked or invested – the person seeking attention has to continue to battle to keep it. In fact, one of the most interesting consequences of that (to me, anyway) is that there is a kind of slope down which the attention seeker slips, as he – or she – has ever more to modify whatever was the original quality to which the seeker wished to bring attention, so that ultimately the attention seeker ends up being owned, or defined, by the tastes and interests of those from whom she or he seeks the attention. That would mean quite soon that style BECOMES content, for which all of us will be the poorer.

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  28. Lemongrass Says:

    As an Englishman, I think this post has something to do with being American as well as gender. Being pushy does help with progression. It’s interesting that you emphasised your lie about being better at something than you were, rather than the bit where you put youself down by saying your drawing was not so good. I have learnt that the technique of enumerating upfront some things one is not so good at makes the listener believe one more, when moving on to the things one wants to promote.

    But I would encourage people to be less pushy and gentler. I like women more than men, and I think I aspire to be more like them in caring about consequences and including others in one’s responsibilities. Risking all and winning is a huge thrill and can be very satisfying when it works, but we all need people who don’t choose to act like that, to care for us.

  29. Florian Says:

    I’ll just throw something out there: couldn’t it be due to the fact that women much more than men are judged on their appearances ? I mean “appearance” in a broad sense: how they physically look, but also how they act, talk etc. And hence, not-caring becomes a risky strategy, as for every failure, there’s a risk of “image deficit”. So if women want to be successful in the society’s eyes, the possibility of failure and made to look the fool seems a losing strategy.

    BTW, I don’t want to sound as sexist, I don’t mean to say that women are frivolous and only caring about their looks, all I’m saying is that, it would seem that society puts much more pressure on women to look good than they do on men. You could simply compare the typical man/woman magazine sections in any bookstore : one is going to have plenty of health, fashion, design oriented magazines, the other sports, hobbies; i.e one is mostly about looks and appearances, and the other about entertainment.

    So if any of the above is true, then the solution resides in a shift in society’s metrics for judging women, and that’s quite an endeavour…

  30. clay Says:

    I don’t want to say too much about this — I’ve had plenty of time to talk in the post above — but let me say that not only do I agree with Eszter, it was she who talked me out of an earlier point of view, as part of the long-running ‘female representation at tech conferences’ conversation.

    In that conversation I suggested that since E-Tech (the conference going on at the time, and one I was on the advisory board of) had few women, that represented some natural measure of their interest, since it was an open call for submissions. Her reply was that women don’t *feel* invited to open calls, so putting out an invitation for a tech conference that says “Whoever raises their hands gets considered” will get men at a rate disproportionately higher even than the normal industry imbalance. (And Eszter, thanks for Women Don’t Ask — will check it out.)

    So I sat with that for a while, thinking we need to redesign systems like that so that the invitations are either less implicitly gendered, or that there are two sets of invites in two different voices, but there’s a lot of system to re-design, so Plan B, it seems to me, in parallel with rather than in opposition too Plan A, should be to explain the value of behaving as if you were invited, even if you don’t *feel* invited, and to present this behavior *as a tool* to get what you want.

    I also want to say that I don’t believe that this is the only solution, or even a fair one — as Gisela says, it puts a lot of burden on the women being discriminated against — but because I believe that it is a solution that produces short-term results, rather than waiting for generation change (I think I see this behavior, and it’s good outcomes, in Amy Hoy, and Caterina, and Catherine, and other women who’s strengths seem to include not being willing to give other people tut-tuting veto power over their actions.)

    And Amy, as much as I would like to believe this — “Furthermore, I don’t believe it has to be ‘aggrandising’ (in the sense of falsely portraying power/skills you don’t have).” — were true, I don’t. There will always be genuinely uncertain situations, where it’s not clear that *anybody* has the right power or skills to take on a problem, but someone still has to try.

    In addition, aggrandizement (or self-promotion or arroganze or narcissism) are social, not personal attributes, which is to say those are judgments made by other people about you. Women who act with the same level of self-confidence as men will be judged negatively for it, but, as Gisela says, asking for what you want helps, and the trick is to figure out Caterina’s point about hatred being tiring.

  31. Gisela Says:

    While I agree a lot of women could probably do with being a bit more assertive, as Eszter pointed out, it’s not always that easy. Calling this post a rant about “women” makes it sound like women are somehow the problem here and that women are behaving irrationally (not in their self interest). Which is a bit presumtuous. Think instead why women act this way. Women are to a much higher degree punished for acting assertive or “like a man”. There is psychological research that shows that the same behavior, described as being done by a woman or a man, will be percieved differently depending on what gender the person reading about the behavior thinks the doer has. Similarly, there is research showing that women who asks for as big a raise as a man will get a lower counter offer than a man will. So whenever talking about these things, please don’t make it out like women really have themselves to blame and don’t know what’s best for them. The same behavior will not give the same results, so it’s not strange that sometimes, women will choose a different behavior. However! The same research I mentioned above also showed that women who did ask for bigger raises got bigger raises than women who did not ask. So as a woman, what you can take away from it is: life is not fair. You will be discriminated against. But it’s still better for you as an individual to be more assertive & ask for bigger raises (but probably not as a assertive as a jerk man because men get away with that & you probably won’t). Although by all means try it if you can risk it. 🙂

  32. zitstif Says:

    “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.”

    I thoroughly enjoyed this article and let me add to what you are saying:

    Men in most circumstances are forced to be arrogant and self centered because this is what society dictates.

    Let’s think of this in terms of dating or courtship if you will.

    Generally, men have to seem overly self confident to get female attention. As for women, they merely wait for a male to approach whom shows interest in them. Granted that women have to ‘self promote’ through means of aesthetics, but the burden of entertainment and word play usually falls on the male. Yet again do we see the male taking a risk of public embarrassment if he is not accepted by the female.

    Also, take into consideration evolution as another paradigm that could be parallel to the world of dating.

    Does the nice gentlemen who is openly true about themselves usually get the women they want? In my humble opinion, no. They have a hard time because in evolution the title of ‘survival of the fittest’, is passed to the arrogant jerk who promotes himself through channels of deception that he may or may not be able to live up to.

    Keep up the good work.

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  34. Amy Hoy Says:

    Glad to see this topic getting more serious thought than the typical knee-jerk apologia. You’re bang on in your assessment.

    It’s a point I’ve been trying to make through my own writing — although every time I do, women rip me up for it. 🙂

    I got every full-time job I ever held by asking for it. Nobody invited me. I speak at tons of tech conferences because I submit – not because I was invited (85% of the time).

    It’s my opinion that actual sexism is much rarer than people think. We human beings often stop at the first, most obvious explanation — that guy who rips into some women online using sex-oriented words? The probability is that he also rips into men with the same type of attacks. When men are on the receiving end, they go “Bah, what a jerk” but women tend to think “I’m being discriminated against again!”

    I have also been a committee member for OSCON and denied poorly-formed, uninteresting talks – that happened to be submitted by women – only to later hear them in person ranting about how they were ignored because of sexism.

    Women who want to succeed in any profession have to take some responsibility for themselves: in figuring out why things don’t work out, and how they justify things, and considering it might possibly not be the way they think it is.

    And, if they want to succeed, they cannot wait, wallflowery, to be discovered by a Magical Business Prince.

    Furthermore, I don’t believe it has to be “aggrandising” (in the sense of falsely portraying power/skills you don’t have). It can be just honesty. So many women refuse to even say the slightest nice thing about themselves. You can say nice things about yourself – honest things – without being an arrogant jerk. And that can work — I + my public image are living proof.

    Bottomline, I don’t think that this is about making women act more like men. I think it’s about making them more whole as human beings. It’s adding back what is missing, not betraying a fundamental gender difference. Other cultures have a strong tradition of feisty, truth-talking women.

    Insert that quote from Marianne Williamson: “Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you…”

    Watch out – evil self-aggrandizement! – here’s an essay I wrote for O’Reilly’s Women in Technology series on this very topic. Note how some of the women in the comments are trying to rip me to shreds. One of them is the woman whose talk I voted down (and no, as far as I know, there’s no way she knows that):



    Caterina, I know you know this but forgive me for repeating it anyway: The only way people *won’t* hate you in this life is to be a flavorless doormat. You couldn’t be one if you tried. And it’s good for the internet that you can’t 🙂

  35. david karapetyan Says:

    This is really interesting and you are right that this practice is much more widespread among men that it is among women but people are aware of it and like you they compensate for it by toning things down kinda like you toned down your student’s letter. Every time I hear a man say “blah blah blah me, I blah blah blah” I automatically assume half of it is complete bullshit but if a woman says the same thing then I’m more inclined to believe her. I know from personal experience that women are more likely to follow through when they say they have worked hard or are willing to work hard at something whereas a man might say the same thing with more conviction but lose that conviction within a week.

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  37. Rudy Mansfield Says:

    I don’t think the author has ever lived in Hollywood. Women there talk very loudly about trivial mundane, silly, out of context things all the time trying to make themselves look smarter, more confident, more qualified.

  38. lisa Says:

    Eszter, you’re so right. Take note, Clay!

  39. Ash Herring Says:

    A great read Clay.

    The issue of self-promotion can also be a cultural impediment as well as a gender based one.

    Where I live, in Australia, there is a strong long rooted cultural imparted from colonial times around “Tall Poppy Syndrome”. Many of us – male or female – grew up in classrooms, where is was social suicide to “know the answer”. People got very good at exhibiting “mean” (i.e. average) class behaviour and intelligence.

    In my late 20s, probably as a result of travelling and living extensively overseas I learnt Clay’s insight that you have two choices – do (and achieve nothing) or aim to achieve plenty and stop giving a damn what other people think.

    As a result I’ve still got a good but smaller circle of close friends, a great family and I think a great list of achievements as a result. But it’s definitely a conscious choice I felt I had to make because of this cultural impediment.


  40. Sherri Says:

    It is tiring being thought a bitch constantly for daring to promote oneself, and it’s frustrating to sit in a meeting, express an idea, and have it ignored until it’s later repeated by a man. No question, women can and should do more self-promotion, but unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The women I’ve seen be most successful are the ones who can walk that narrow line between being self-promoting and non-threatening at the same time, usually by being a little flirty. I never could manage the balance myself, so I was either a bitch or ignored.

  41. Rich Mintz » Blog Archive » A plug for self-direction (in response to Clay Shirky) Says:

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  42. Catherine White Says:

    Thank you for ranting about this, its a topic that makes my head spin and not a good way. I hope that these comments from a current ITP student might help with thinking about how to improve things.

    A few points – principally on the importance of role models.
    Summary here – fuller explanation below.

    * Chicks need female role models

    * All timid students need to be told they are good to increase their confidence (assumption – their work is good)

    * As their confidence builds – this network or blanket of a confidence boosting ‘inner circle’ or team helps to them go out and put their work out there

    * That collection of constructive criticism and confidence-boosts means they’ll realize the world will keep spinning when they get hit in the big wide world

    * We DO care about what people post/say about our work

    * We DO need to toughen up – learn skills, be pushed, work on our weaknesses.

    * For chicks in a male dominated environment – learn the lingo or rise above it, ideally both

    Role models for females

    – The importance of role models is that they often give you the initial confidence to go knock on someone’s door and bullshit them and convince them you’re worth hiring. I would never have had the guts to do some of the things professionally that I’ve done without people I really respect suggesting to me that I can and should do it. As a guy as a freshman at Yale, you might not have needed it, but having someone I respected suggest it to me was a huge kick in the pants to go do it, it was the catalyst – some people need one, others don’t.

    – I canned one career because I had few female role models. I hate to think that – but it is true. That said, I embarked on another career largely because of the most amazing female role model. At ITP we have them too. So am not sure why there’s an issue there. That stumps me a bit. I think as much as it kills me to admit it, female role models for female students are important though, even if the evidence at ITP might not support my argument. There’s a disconnect somewhere between that hypothesis and your observations in female behavior at ITP, maybe they need to be more visible – I don’t know.

    Toughen up – learn skills, even if it hard, we all have to do hard things we don’t like BUT there are rewards

    – Chicks need to toughen up. I can see you cringing but, ok, the quiet boys need to toughen up too. I agree with both Eszter and Caterina that sometimes you have to stick your hand up, be hated, keep going.

    – The world out there in any field, artistic, academic, tech – let alone corporate, is a tough place, professional life is. Not in the sense of dog eat dog, but you HAVE to get in that hypothetical conference room, and talk. Its skills like any others – and the classes that do that at ITP are beyond wonderful at teaching those skills – how to work in a team, how to assert yourself, how to present, make a pitch, apply for a grant. It should be compulsory.

    – One thing also, as an issue for women, is that sheer bloody minded success in a woman is sometimes commented on as a lack of femininity. I have been complimented by being called “a machine” several times. To me its a huge compliment, and I understand what that means – ie pushing out a large amount of error free work quickly. Still though – to some females, I’d imagine that might not sit so well.

    Network of Confidence Boosters and Constructive Criticism – and finally realizing your shit is good

    – I think we all care about the reactions to our work when we do put ourselves out there. Perhaps because you have heaps of experience of it, you maybe can ignore harsh comments more effectively. On some level though, this this issue of enough confidence coming from those we respect – eg our mentors and peers should weather us through the criticism, and realize the criticism can either be bollocks, or helpful – something either to discard or embrace – either way, its ok. The more good experiences we have of something, the more it shows that the whole world isn’t going to stop if something bad happens. This kind of reinforces our experiences of “jeez I did this and it was good,” which then enables us to confidently describe our brilliance on paper.

    In the workplace as a female: learn to speak Man – or be revered by them, ideally both

    – When you are in a world where men are more dominant, as a chick you have two routes – either learn the lingo and embrace the male culture, or rise above it and revered. If you are smart you’ll manage both. I am learning Internet memes right now because I am fed up of not being able to share in the joke about your wolf t-shirt in class, yet I am also in the process of trying to have a Xeni Jardin style hair do at the moment. Its both. Am not sure men have this issue in a male dominated environment.

    I think that’s it. Your observation is true that the females at ITP are less forthcoming in self promoting. But the solution, I still really think boils down to dealing with all people with a lack of confidence rather than differentiating between men and women (because I want it to – clearly, still hating to acknowledge the issue).

    Remember, your classes naturally attract people who want to talk. I realize last semester’s class was often dominated in conversation by me and a bunch of quite confident men But, if you go into a room of graduate lawyers, I’d bet my fur coat the chicks would dominate. So much is in the subject matter. Which – if you want to solve that issue, you have to nurture confidence that females can talk Internet and computers. Will be fascinating to see the male-female class discussion ratio in this semester’s poetry class.

    Surround all of them with positive criticism, shove them gently, and teach them to be boisterous. We learn by watching and trying to emulate our role models – and slowly, as we realize we have good stuff, that people want to listen to us, and then we start to make that call to the journo to tell them we have something to show them.

  43. yohami Says:

    Why arent women as agressive as men? because they dont need to.

    Men behave like that because they are competing other men towards women.

    As basic as genders can be.

  44. Caterina Fake Says:

    Thanks for this post, and I’d like to agree with what Eszter said above. I know myself to be assertive and confident, and able to say “Hey my work is awesome” when I think it’s awesome. I keep talking, and louder, when someone interrupts me, and don’t back down when given the look. It takes a certain willingness to be hated to do what you describe. Being hated actually takes a lot of effort, and can be tiring.

  45. Susan Buck Says:

    I second Kari – challenge accepted.

  46. Rich Mintz » Blog Archive » Entrepreneurs and risk tolerance: Gladwell does that counterintuitive thing again Says:

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  47. Krissi Dallas Says:

    Thought-provoking post… I do wonder, though, if “arrogant” self-promotion by a woman is more successful when it is received by a man (versus another woman)???

  48. Eszter Hargittai Says:

    This post could easily be called A Rant About Everybody given its topic. Let me explain.

    An important issue you didn’t really cover that is probably responsible for holding women back at least in some situations is the imbalance in how aggressive or self-promoting or even just plain self-confident behavior by men is perceived as compared to such behavior by women. Behave even remotely in such a manner as a female and in many contexts you will quickly get labeled a bitch (by both women and men), which is generally not pleasant. I recently asked some of my students why none of them raised their hand when I asked whether they knew what x meant (it turned out most knew what x meant) and one of the women said: we don’t want to seem like we’re boasting. Oy. I also recall being hated in an American math classroom in high school when, as a girl, I constantly had my hand up to answer pretty much every question the teacher asked. The two boys with a similar pattern didn’t get the same hateful looks as I did.

    Point being, you’re definitely onto something and a lot of women really could use more self-promotion (some men could, too). That said, it’s not just all coming from within, some of it is in reaction to how such behavior is sometimes treated when coming from women. In addition to encouraging women to change their behavior in this respect, it is also important to educate everybody about not being critical toward women who behave this way. Plus to counter this imbalance, people could also do a better job of promoting the work and virtues of their female (and shy male) peers.

    A more elaborate discussion of many ideas related to the ones you discuss (although not so much from the “male jerk” perspective) is presented very nicely in the book Women Don’t Ask, which should be required reading not just for all women, but a lot of men as well. Seriously, check it out if you haven’t yet.

  49. Kari Says:

    I think I love you, Clay Shirky. I accept your challenge, and commit to trying things I ought to fuck up royally. I shall be defeated, decisively, by progressively stronger foes.

  50. clay Says:

    First comment, from Clay, with one note and one rule.

    The note is that all comments are moderated, and I’m traveling, so approval is likely to be bursty.

    The rule is Kathy Sierra’s old moderation rule from Java Ranch: be nice. You can make any point you like, but it has to be civil.

    If you would like to avoid that stricture, I also have trackbacks and pingbacks on, so you can be as uncivil as you like on your own site, and it will show up here.

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