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. alex Says:

    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. just sayin.

  2. Christine Korol, Ph.D. Says:

    One of my favorite self-help books written on the subject is Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office: 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers by Lois Frankel. I’m a psychologist who used to work at British Columbia’s Children’s Hospital and one of my colleagues came across it and was transformed.

    She started passing it and we all started to buy our own copies (our Department was about 90% women). We all had thought of ourselves and strong and confident – but when I read the book I realized where I had gone astray. It completely changed the trajectory of my career (and of my colleagues).

    I liked her approach because it was more about assertiveness than arrogance – and according to Dr. Frankel – simply trying to act like a man doesn’t really work for women. It’s meant for women working in the corporate world but I think every grad student should read it as well.

  3. Kaitlin Duck Sherwood Says:

    There have been numerous studies that have found, over and over again, that women as a population are more risk-averse than men as a population. (There are some women who are risk-seeking and some men who are risk-averse, but I’m talking about the risk-seeking profile of the *population*, not of an individual.) From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes perfect sense: you need some people to go explore brave new worlds, but you also need some people to stay home and get stuff done. As sperm is ahhh a much more readily available commodity than egg incubators, it makes sense to favour groups where the men take the risks and the women don’t.

    To say, “Women should take more risks” a very masculine value judgement. Men might end up more likely to make a bunch of money, but also more likely to end up destitute. If I, a woman, am given a 50% chance at enormous wealth and 50% chance of losing absolutely everything if I chose option A, and a 95% chance of being comfortable if I choose option B, you can’t tell me that option A is a better choice than B. It is different.

    Instead of calling for women to be bigger jerks, it would also be reasonable to say that society should not tolerate jerks — to punish people who fib on their resumes, for example. That would be a very feminine value judgement. (And one not likely to fly!)

    Someone told me, years ago, about an article that reported that startups with >40% women had a better success rate than those with fewer. Perhaps women were more cautious, more careful — and maybe that is a good thing!

  4. Liza Sperling Says:


    My work is awesome.

    Thank you,
    Liza Sperling

  5. Jenka Says:

    I read this post right after having just watched the documentary, Kurt and Courtney, the night before, and in it struck me that the kind of behavior being advocated for women here is basically exactly Courtney Love’s behavior. And if we’re talking about people who got famous through self-promoting, narcissistic, jerky behavior as a sign of some success, then Courtney love is as perfect an example as it gets. And she’s also a complete sociopath. Is that really the kind of attribute ANYONE should be encouraged to have? Sure she got the fame, and the recognition, and the blah blah blah, but –whether because of this behavior, or because of something bigger of which this behavior is a result — she’s a complete mess! And it’s not like there aren’t any other female musicians / performers that got their success in a different, less psychotic way.

    Taking risks, being willing to try and fail, and being socially strategic are by NO means the sole province of men. That there are many fields that still have a gender gap, or a gender salary gap is undeniable, but is encouraging pathological behavior really the way to change that?

  6. Kenny Mann Says:

    Seems to me, on the other hand, that women are more likely to create situations where we can all screw up without doing so much real harm. The arrogant males haven’t quite worked out how to do dissonance without disaster, and those rise to the top with all our “successes.”

  7. amy cross Says:

    Sad to say, but Shirky is right. Most women I know–and these are ambitious womens-college educated women are NOT good a the horn blowing. And banal as it may seem, horn blowing is important and people listen to it.

    When we do do it, we are called pr hounds etc. Maybe if everyone just got used to hearing such self-approving drivel from women, they’d accept more? We should all practice….

  8. Julian Dunn Says:

    Clay, while I completely agree with your rant, I hope what you were trying to say is that this is a horrible set of values to underpin a society. Maybe part of this is human nature and/or genetics, but implicit or explicit acceptance of this sort of value system completely undermines society as a meritocracy.

    Perhaps this is why I find so much of the “Web 2.0” technologies so distasteful. Tools like Facebook, Twitter and blogs seem to be 98% about being a tool for self-promotion, and 2% a tool for sharing one’s ideas and merits in a way that focuses on the ideas and not the person.

  9. karl Says:

    Interesting because there is the other part of the interaction which is not analyzed. The talk is made about people (men, women) looking for a position (arrogant liar), not that much about the person in position of granting the position (the one listening, reading the arrogant liar).

    I had to interview people and writing recommendation letters for others. In this position, self arrogant liars usually didn’t make it very far. I have also lived in Japan, where it is usually perceived as a bad quality to be self-promoting. In all this discussion, it seems there might be a cultural bias from North-America. “Being successful”, “Taking necessary” are not necessary good criteria to get what you want. It might have been successful for some people and kind of self-validating that “being arrogant works” when they didn’t get the positions where arrogance was perceived as a bad quality. It sounds like self-selection of communities, more than a rule.

  10. Olivia Says:

    Liz Henry said it perfectly. The consequences are different when a woman (or any minority) acts like a white man does. I’m sure it works for some people when they hit on the right target or choose the right circumstances, but there are still a lot of people in the world who find it completely distasteful when a woman asserts herself even just to a reasonable point, let alone an unreasonable one.

  11. Suzan Eraslan Says:

    Clay, I have to disagree with you that ITP supports females in any degree equal to males. ITP is very male dominant– the full time professorial staff currently consists of 3 women (3 times as many as when I was there!) and 6 men, while the adjunct staff boasts 49 men and only 22 women. In my class, there were more men than there were women– whether this is true of all or even most ITP classes, I can’t say, but I’d suspect that we were not that unusual in that regard. Traditionally “masculine” modes of thinking (mind over body, rational, unemotional, objective, individualistic) prevail, while the “feminine” (sensual, intuitive, emotional, subjective, communal) has little representation in either the curriculum or the work that comes out of it, despite the lip service given to “no competition” and collaboration. Whether this is symptomatic of the “field” in which ITP finds itself as a more technical than artistic program or the smaller percentage of women at ITP feeling pressured to conform to the masculine standard, thus creating a perpetual feedback loop, I’m not sure. I do know that it is easy to be intimidated and subordinate when you are so palpably outnumbered.

    Most of my female role models at ITP were students in the year above me who were compassionate, patient, incredibly creative women who were much more eager to share their knowledge and experience on their own time than many of my professors (and certainly more than their male counterparts). What I find strange is that none of those women were or are adjuncts, despite their clear talent at teaching and communicating. Whether they were passed up for consideration or simply weren’t interested, it’s really a shame that there are so few women like them in the ranks of ITP’s instructors.

  12. Laura Roeder Says:

    I will certainly not speak for all women but an experience I’ve had comes to mind that I bet other women have had as well –

    I simply have no desire to get into these pissing contests, I’d rather do things my own way and “lose”.

    I can think of many times when I’ve been talking to a man who clearly isn’t taking me seriously, and I don’t “stand up for myself” just in the sense that I view it as a lost cause. I kind of “uh huh” my way through the conversation and end it as quickly as possible. I have nothing to prove to the jerks that you refer to in this article.

    That being said, I’ve crafted my career so that I don’t need to win their pissing contests. I guess you could say I’ve created my own contest instead.

    You mention “are often lousy at those kinds of behaviors, even when the situation calls for it” and later “even when it would be in their best interest to do so” and I guess that’s the fundamental disagreement here. That’s YOUR prescription for how to succeed, but it is not everyone’s.

    P.S. I just want to add that I focused this comment only on what I disagree with but I agree with most of your post, and I think you did a great job presenting this issue in a respectful way that invites discussion. I just think you’re having a hard time seeing your own point of view.

  13. Tom Buckner Says:

    Brian Frank asks: “Won’t the most self-aggrandizing men just compensate by becoming even more assertive?”
    I think not, because the most self-aggrandizing men are already (pick your metaphor:)
    Turned up to 11; redlining; balls-to-the-wall; hulked out; at terminal velocity; loaded for bear; past the knee of the asymptote; the center of their own universe; etc.
    The sort of men you’re thinking of don’t have any extra ammo they’re not already using on each other. That’s my read, anyway.

  14. Chris Says:

    You’re part of the problem, Shirky. You could have called out the arrogant douchebag. Instead, you rewarded him. Then, you have the temerity to blame the majority of the population that DON’T have the problem. That, if you’ll pardon the expression, takes balls.

  15. BEMiller Says:

    But women are supposed to be sweet, gentle, non-aggressive and above all MODEST. We are brought up to believe that it IS important what others people think of our behavior. We are supposed to be like the Virgin Mary, accepting of our positions and not questioning God’s judgment and order.

    Only ‘bad women’ toot their own horns.

    Unfortunately I know way too many women whom were raised with such an upbringing, and it can be very hard for women to break out of the mold. Perhaps you could help by teaching your female students how to assert themselves. By telling them it’s okay to say “My work is awesome.”

  16. Cindy Gallop Says:

    Clay – I love this post. On the one hand, you’re absolutely right. On the other, I endorse those (fellow female) commenters above who point out that from the moment we are born female everything around us conspires to make us feel insecure about absolutely everything to do with ourselves – speaking as someone who, like Stella Omega, at 49 has no problem doing everything you say women should do but has taken a long time to get there. A survey on women in the workplace a couple of years back identified that women who played by female rules were seen as weak and ineffectual, while women who played by male rules were seen as aggressive, domineering bitches. The title of the survey summed it up – ‘Damned If You Do, Doomed If You Don’t’ – and the NYTimes article covering the survey stated simply, ‘Women can’t win.’

  17. Nancy Garcia Says:

    This is an interesting companion read to go along with this post and the surrounding conversation.

    From The New York Times:

    OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR: The Mismeasure of Woman

    Somewhere along the line, especially in recent years, progress for women has stalled. This isn’t simply a woman’s issue; it affects us all.


  18. navi Says:

    heh. Maybe most women’s inability to be assertive is because of sexism, in our culture, and in how we are raised?

    Because, often, a woman can say the exact thing as a man, and while the man will obtain praise, the woman’s a “bitch.” Assertive women, will, most likely, continue to get more “nos” than their male counterparts, but far more “yeses” than their quiet female counterparts, I think.

  19. Mayne Smith Says:

    As a male musician, I enjoy shifting between the roles of sideman and leader. I get uncomfortable in situations where I’m expected to overstate my capabilities or push others aside. Maybe that’s one reason why I haven’t been remarkably successful as a money-earner or popular entertainer.

    In general, I’m more relaxed and happy among women, I will avoid competition with others, regardless of gender, and I don’t particularly enjoy being perceived as a winner or superior performer. And you know what? I think my life has been happier this way. Maybe if I weren’t a blond, blue-eyed male with a good education and communication skills the price of my reticence would be unacceptably high. But as things stand at age 70, je ne regret rien.

    And I don’t like the idea of training girls to become more like macho jerks.

  20. A Rant About Women « Clay Shirky : Popular Links : eConsultant Says:

    […] post: A Rant About Women « Clay Shirky 15 January 2010 | Uncategorized | Trackback | del.icio.us | Stumble it! | View Count : 0 Next […]

  21. April Says:

    …to add one more point that I forgot: I do not equate your later examples of self-promotion and assertiveness as examples of trickery or oppressive tactics. These are things that women have not been socialized to feel comfortable doing yet, but they are not bad qualities to have. Assertiveness and self-promotion will always accompany trickery and oppressive tactics, but not always the other way around. One can be self-promoting and aggressive without perpetuating deceit.

    Ultimately, you’re complaining that women aren’t succeeding in a man’s world, while giving the impression that you actually think that the fact that the world in question belongs only to men isn’t sexist.

  22. April Says:

    Interesting article. One thing, though, that you failed to mention is that the systems in which “behaving like a man” is the most beneficial are systems that are run by men.

    Perhaps it would not be necessary “act like a man” in order to “succeed” if both men and women were included in the few who create and maintain the system in question.

    Furthermore, using con artist tactics and being deliberately and willfully dishonest is not a characteristic that anyone needs to have, or should be taught to have. A system which requires people to use con artist tactics and dishonesty is a system which should be dismantled and disposed of entirely. If one is conning and lying, then it logically follows that someone is then being conned and lied to. We can all reasonably agree that being conned or being lied to is a for of oppression, especially if it becomes systemic.

    That’s not to say that men are by nature con artists or that women are intrinsically more conscientious. However, complaining that most women haven’t been socially conditioned to oppress others in the path to their own success is a waste of time, at best.

  23. Molly Wright Steenson Says:

    Clay, as an educator, what can you do to teach all of your students to promote themselves appropriately, and to make sure that women’s voices are heard? You are in a community of women who do and have learned to promote their voices and their work: consider Caterina Fake, Jen Bekman, Farai Chideya–or your inimitable boss, Red Burns. Bring people into ITP when they’re in town. Invite CEOs, CFOs, CTOs, attorneys, directors, professors and scientists — people outside of interaction design and social computing’s fishbowl. Don’t stop with representing women, either– it’s actually a question of people who are not in the vocal majority talking about how they achieve success. Ask them to tell their stories and better than that– share their strategies.

    People learn to promote themselves when they see examples of themselves out there. Model the change you want to see.

    Oh: and? Ask me to speak. As a (woman) who’s navigated two sets of careers, dotcom and academia, for 15 years, I have a lot to say about speaking up.

  24. Aditya Says:

    I wonder how much of this has to do with women being biologically wired to avoid risk or anything that threatens survival of the race while men are biologically wired to be as aggressive as possible and take as many risks as possible to show they (and their genes) are even fit to survive?

    (cross-post from HN thread: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1056689 )

  25. Katrin Bratland Says:

    Great post, Clay.

    You need to read the book, Women Don’t Ask by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever. They cite numerous studies related to exactly what you’re talking about.

    I learned some fascinating things from their book. Most men and women underestimate the abilities of women while overestimating the abilities of men. Men ask for higher salaries and more promotions, and get them. It’s not as simple as a lack of assertiveness among women. Women are actually disliked more when they behave in the same way as assertive men, so they benefit more from different styles of assertiveness. Men are less inclined to recommend women than men unless they know the women to be excessively qualified. All this stuff isn’t only a gender issue. There are similar problems among people with different cultural backgrounds.

  26. Scott Carson Says:

    Clay, ranting at its best; and for good cause. I’ve got two daughters that need to hear this. However, this has been my experience with my wife; not putting herself out there – although fully, if not over qualified for anything she wanted to do professionally. Something instilled through childhood, I don’t know.
    Is it the generations gone by that have caused this? It seems that way from my perspective; My mother stayed at home, dad worked – climbed the corporate ladder. My mother did not assert herself. I am one of four males in our family, no sisters. My wife is assertive; we had fun growing together.
    I believe this will change over time; a bit after the boomer, then echo-boomer gen has raised their children and passed on, maybe the old ways will have lost their drag. But, is this because of gender roles or is it something more basic; traits – part of the genetic make-up, generally speaking. I mean, there are males that seemed to have switched roles if that were the case and vice versa.
    This is an American issue shared by some other countries; but as we become more global, what will women experience that aren’t even allowed to show their faces, or drive. It would be interesting to hear from women studying here from those cultures. What do they think about this phenomenon?

  27. Interprete » Being Bad-Ass w/o the Arrogance Says:

    […] but I decided to it was worth to come back to write a brief response to Clay Shirky’s “rant about women,” which I find pretty unsettling. So the basic upshot of his entry is that for women to get ahead in […]

  28. Molly Wright Steenson Says:

    Clay, as an educator, what can you do to teach all of your students to promote themselves appropriately, and to make sure that women’s voices are heard? You are in a community of women who do and have learned to promote their voices and their work: consider Caterina Fake, Jen Bekman, Farai Chideya–or your inimitable boss, Red Burns. Bring people into ITP when they’re in town. Invite CEOs, CFOs, CTOs, attorneys and scientists — people outside of interaction design and social computing’s fishbowl. Don’t stop with representing women, either– it’s actually a question of people who are not in the vocal majority talking about how they achieve success. Ask them to tell their stories and better than that– share their strategies.

    People learn to promote themselves when they see examples of themselves out there. Model the change you want to see.

    Oh: and? Ask me to speak. As a (woman) who’s navigated two sets of careers, dotcom and academia, for 15 years, I have a lot to say about speaking up.

    Oh. And while we’re at it, me

    sign me up. I’m someone

  29. Sarah Says:

    I came across this post via a little hubbub on Twitter and I have to say, it was extremely timely for me. I’m a woman in the creative industry and I am trying to make strides in my career.

    I’ve seen first hand how my husband has benefited from self-promotion and self-confidence. I don’t think he’s been a douche bag about it, he certainly knows when to use “embellishment” and take risks, and how to do so without sacrificing the personality that makes him all the more valuable. It was a learned skill – something he had to adapt to when he moved from England to the US. Self-promotion is somewhat of a foreign art in the UK, or at least it was to him at that stage in his career. In order to make something of himself, he had to go out on a limb and make sure he got noticed.

    I’ve learned from him and my career seems to be taking off too. My biggest lesson is that if you don’t ask (and ask again!) you won’t get what you want. Persistence is key. Like I said, you don’t have to be a total douche bag about it, but being ballsy enough to get in the scrum and battle for what you want is what it takes, and strong players get rewarded.

    My grandmother’s cousin is a shrewd business woman and I’ve learned a lot from her. She used to say to companies “I’ll work for you for one week for free if you give me the chance. I guarantee you’ll want to hire me.” A lot of companies turned her down (why, I’ll never know), but a lot said yes, and it certainly has paid off for her. I see being a possible employee or contractor much like being a crack dealer – the first one’s free (or at least discounted!) 😉

    Its a shame more women aren’t ballsy. I think part of the problem is that women are afraid to be called a bitch in the workplace. Assertive men are “strong” while assertive women are “bitches”. Personally, I kind of think its a compliment – women (and men) who call assertive COMPETENT women “bitches” at work do so because they feel threatened.

    I certainly don’t condone chucking in a charming personality and replacing it with cocksure, but there’s a way to balance being visible, persistent, and ambitious with being someone that employers, clients, and colleagues actually want to have around. More women need to push the threshold and find that its much higher than they may have previously anticipated.

  30. Stella Omega Says:

    I am fifty-three years old. And I can tell you that your prescription for success is correct.

    I have always been able to overstate my abilities in order to get a job. I have always been able to demand attention and bring the focus onto myself.

    I have also, as a result, been accused of being a bitch, or masculine, and some people are positive that I am borderline Asberger’s. My sister tells me that if I were her brother I would be easier to live with.

  31. Whatever Dude Says:

    Y’know what Clay? Back then if you had been a woman and attempted to snow your professor like that, he’d have laughed you out of your office.

    He may have even done so if you were telling the truth, because the general default assumptions about men and women are: a) it doesn’t matter if a dude is less qualified, he’ll work hard to measure up; and b) even if the woman is more than qualified she might not be able to hack it.

    This was definitely the assumptiong back then and it’s still lingers today. In part because it’s an economic advantage for guys to perpetuate it.

    In fact you’re perpetuating it with this little rant about how if women were only as assertive, they’d get more. Except not. I’m sure women are assertive around you all the time, except you ignore it, see it as still not trying hard enough, or dismiss it as being too asserive.

    Because if you already have the bias in your head the same behavior will read differently by gender. When a guy does it, it’s just right or something worth a positive spin, when a girl does it, it’s the wrong amount or somehow be found unacceptable.

    With that reporter, it’s likely he’s rewriting his own memory to fit his bias. Maybe he still sees men who use contacts to approach him as aserting themselves. Maybe he usually flat out ignores approaches from self-promoting women. Maybe he acts unapproachable towards women in his business while spending more time hanging with the men he covers. In any case, the pattern he’s observing has himself as the central factor but he’s blaminging it all on the girls.

  32. Fabian Says:

    I just want to thank all the people that responded that the solution isn’t women being more aggressive and assertive but that the problem is a system that values men and women different and think the solution is for women to act more as the men are. As many commentor have already pointed out in American society a women and a man can act EXACTLY the same and yet the women will be judged differently so to claim that women just need to act different is short site, simplist and do not no realize what the real issues are.

    As a guy in an industry that does have gender balance I still see after 20 years women be treated worse and or ignored even when they act exactly as you say they need to act. That is because the sexism, privilege and male chauvinism hasn’t gone away. It’s that same privilege that says women need to change to fit a “men’s world”, that says the problem must be something women are doing, that is the reason you can be an adult male and only now realize these things. It isn’t that men are naturally assertive but that we have been trained to be that way, just like our society trains us to think of the world as being male dominated one and as being male as being the norm.

    Instead of as a man telling women what they should do to change how about men look at what they are doing that is supporting only one kind of acceptable bahavior that only men are raised to do?

  33. Don Marti Says:

    You might want to read Valerie Aurora’s review of _Women Don’t Ask_ by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever


    “The authors assemble a stunning array of evidence showing that women indeed don’t ask and consequently get less, and review a wide variety of contributing causes.”

  34. Christine (aka Boomer) Says:

    Thanks for this post, Clay, and for the really respectful and thought provoking comments (to all those before me).

    I agree with Marina’s point that trying to focus on increased understanding and collaboration between men and women will help. One possible area for improvement is in teaching those in leadership how to set good examples.

    At ITP I *never* experienced any gender bias from the full time faculty ( and most of the adjuncts as well. Clay – thanks for setting good examples.) In contrast – my corporate experience (tech and media) has been a very mixed bag.

    I’ve had men managers who were outstanding, fair and very equal, and others who viewed women as arcehtypes – pushy bitches, the good yet quiet girl, etc. I’ve seen very competent women CEOs who were prone to wildcards such as squealing about my “cute new shoes” as I stood up in front of the staff about to give a presentation. And others who were tough, quiet, successful and alas under recognized compared to their male counterparts. One thing that they all had in common though was influence over their teams – so when a manager acts like a fair and balanced person, their teams notice. When a CEO acts like a teenager, other people at the company think that’s acceptable.

    Aside from focusing on leaders and managers to help influence and navigate these norms, there’s no real solution in my comment. I do think that posts like Clay’s, coming from someone like him (successful, intellectual, admired, and oh yeah – male), help start the right kind of conversation.

  35. McKenzie Wark Says:

    A lot of it rings true, Clay. But I have to say that as someone who hires people to work collaboratively and long term in an institution, I tend to avoid the self-promoting jerks. I would also have completely disregarded the letter you wrote (from the sound of it). Letter-writers who seem to be just promoting their proteges one can discount also.

  36. André Says:

    That women get pregnant and men don’t is still a major issue. Motherhood doesn’t work as a “plan B” for most women anymore (which is good), but it changes the balance of things in a crucial way. To be a mother is, and will always be, a huge burden, but it is also a position of power. Women are eager to share the former, but not the latter, and power is jealous. Men know that, and will always disproportionately increase their levels of risk taking in the workplace, or just get out of the game entirely, there isn’t a third alternative.

    Can motherhood be shared? That’s the question. I think it can, and that would naturally take a lot of competitive pressure from the shoulders of men. Will women be brave enough to relinquish part of their power as mothers? I think they will be, some day.

    See, I’m an optimist, but I think we must be very patient, very persistent.

  37. zannahlou Says:

    i’m what could be best described as outspoken or even, um, “mouthy,” but i frequently find myself in one of two situations: situation one: i’m in a mixed group, participating in a discussion. i’ve got lots to say, and i say some of it. but then i decide to shut up, so i can actually hear what other people have to say. believe me, this is tricky for me, but i’ve worked hard to learn to do it. am i shortchanging myself my not constantly taking the stage? situation two: in a mixed or mostly male group, during animated discussion, i make a comment or joke but get little/no response. five seconds later, a male member of the group makes the exact same comment and it’s roundly acknowledged. this makes me think that when we women ARE crowing about our accomplishments and talking ourselves up, we really need to add an extra sharp elbow jab to the ribs in order to be heard. and is it worth it? do i really have to join the flocks of pompous blow-hards and self-obsessed sociopaths to be successful? they don’t make good collaborators, they’re not good listeners, and sometimes (oftentimes) their work is lacking… and they’re the last ones to know, because they’re so busy acting awesome.

    my main issue with your rant is your notion that successful, forceful people must be arrogant assholes. why? you suggest that considering other voices and views, hearing criticism– necessitates undue, unreasonable restriction on yourself. this seems wrongheaded. why would putting yourself forth as someone who can do interesting things EVER make you a jerk, unless you were stabbing backs, shoving others aside, cheating, sabotaging your way there? it IS possible to be confident and outspoken while hearing others and inviting collaboration and cooperation. and we need role models of both/all genders who do this.

    back in ye olde riot grrrl days we reclaimed bitchiness and got aggressive, but we also wanted to hold on to the emotional freedom and flexibility we as women/girls got for free, while men and boys get the emotional shaft… i always think of some early bikini kill propaganda: “be a dork– tell your friends you love them.” in the very macho tough-boy world of DIY punk/hardcore, we didn’t want to “compete,” we wanted to make something new, define new models of behavior. cooperative, fluid, collaborative, pro-social, pro-community. i think it began to work in our little scene, a small-scale experiment. that’s the task: redefining pathways to of success. you’re buying into something quite different, and i can’t agree.

  38. Haddayr Says:

    Besides the fact that your conclusions are erroneous and sexist and your paternalistic concern for us women is annoying, your advice is horrible.

    Sure, I might run across the occasional man or woman in a hiring position who likes that I am an arrogant female (and I am — I have engaged in all of the behaviors above which you say woman are lousy at doing, and I am by no means alone). But mostly, I offend people.

    Since I was as young as six and up until now ( I’m nearly 40), I hear from nearly everyone a consistent message: that I need to tone it down. I need to appear less pushy. I need to smile more. I need to stop throwing my vocabulary around. I need to stop being “so intense.”

    I still remember with clarity the discussion I had with a well-meaning man at my university who had been on a hiring committee I failed spectacularly for. He was a very arrogant guy himself — VERY — but he seemed to feel no ironic guilty twinge at all when he told me that I didn’t get the job because I came across as “too confident” and “too arrogant.” He liked me, he said, but I needed to act a little less full of myself if I was going to get hired and get along with people.

    I laughed in his face; I am who I am and I can’t change it. I need to know I am in a workplace that will not freak out because I am outspoken and pushy. But I am under no illusions that this somehow puts me at an advantage. It doesn’t.

    Encouraging women to be someone they aren’t isn’t helping them get anywhere. Right now, in most fields, conforming to gender standards is the best way to get what you want, especially if those norms are your personality, anyway.

    The flip side of this is women who are, in fact, reticent to be arrogant assholes, having to hear from men like you that they are somehow deficient. Nowhere in this narrative do you appear to have a clue about the power of networking, of helping each other out, the power of subtlety and quiet confidence.

    Even assuming you are right about women in general, look at the stats: women start fewer businesses on their own, sure. But they have a much higher degree of success. Why? Because they aren’t, by and large, arrogant assholes. They do their research. They make sure they can do it first instead of blundering ahead, fists up, heart full of fire, like I and so many men do.

    I think you are failing to recognize all sorts of different types of success. I think you are failing to realize that the problem with the work world is not the fainting, delicate and oh-so-kind creatures you believe women to be, but with sexism that on one hand tells us to speak up and then on the other slams us down when we do.

    You are looking for a problem regarding gender in the work world. But you are looking in the wrong direction.

  39. this is rachelandrew.co.uk » On self-promotion, lies and being a woman Says:

    […] read with interest Clay Shirky’s post, A Rant About Women and a response by Tom Coates – Should we encourage self-promotion and […]

  40. Liz Henry Says:

    Oh, also, if you want an interesting counterpoint from the second wave, start here at The BITCH Manifesto. Ride some of that righteous anger, it’s got some truths in it.

  41. Liz Henry Says:

    Hi Clay. One thing I can say from experience is that it isn’t that women haven’t thought of maybe being pushier and more self-promoting. If only it were that easy. The blowback for behaving that way is different. Now, a lot of us do it anyway, with mixed results, but there is a lot of hostility directed at not just the nail that sticks up to be hammered down, but specifically gender focused hostility that makes us targets in a way I don’t think you have your head wrapped around. It’s like there are a thousand ways to be a bad or incompetent woman, a thousand ways to undermine us with a word or an implication, and only a couple of stories or pathways to ride it out and be something else. I would happily talk with you about this any time. You are making the point here, I think, that internalized misogyny exists. I agree with that, and it’s a huge problem, but it’s not the entire problem and not fixable by “just trying harder” or something — and you are skirting close to the edge of blaming the oppressed for their oppression, which I’m pretty sure you can see is too simple of an answer for such a complicated and pervasive problem.

  42. Rrrrohini Says:

    I am a woman but this will sound sexist. A difference between men and women that no one seems to bring to the fore is that men have a sense of purpose in life. Most men do. Most women don’t. I will speak with reference to my own culture i.e. India.

    Men have a basic freedom of thought right from childhood. They are allowed to just be. Little boys let their imagination run wild and explore dangerous territories both within and outside their heads. No one notices. No one cares. Little girls meanwhile are being conditioned. To cross their legs. To not whistle. To not sing in front of strangers. To not fix their hair in front of boys. To protect themselves. To be dignified.

    Every move that girls make is being registered and analyzed and measured on some ‘culture’ scale. Most girls let go of wondering and questioning altogether. They become mindless performers. Great performers, efficient doers but it all doesn’t really lead to some major goal in their life.

    The night before an exam, the girls will most likely be toiling away, the guys will most likely be strolling around or watching a match or just staring out of the window . Most people see this and describe girls as focused and boys as aimless wanderers. And boys will flunk. They might even drop out or lose a year. Sometimes they dont even wake up for the exam (i dont know how that is possible and how their brains dont scream EXAM the entire time) Most of them, however, have a better shot at knowing what they want to do with their lives – in totality – than any of the merit scorching women. I know very few women who have been clinically depressed with the question “where is my life going, what is myraison d’etre?”. I have been there and have only found men who could relate.

    The purpose is not even noble most of the times. It is more often than not just making shit loads of money. But its clear.

    The point is, that personal everest makes u frikkin hungry. And when you’re starved u dont wait to be served. You do what it takes to climb that mountain thats standing there mocking you.

    If women -or ANYONE who has gotten into the habit of performing and outdoing themselves without knowing their reasons for doing so – just invest some energy in drafting a vague outline of where they want to be headed, they will take all the proactive steps needed towards that direction without anyone shaking them up. Being a reserved person myself, i know for a fact that the force to make those moves comes from within. And all the other issues of trust, substance, content that have been addressed in this discussion will get taken care of when that drive is discovered.

    Also, the other issues cant be ignored. I have been called ‘pigheaded’ about my work becuz i pursued it relentlessly. It really did put people off. Nonetheless, I hope everyone who has not been very assertive in life first finds freedom of thought and then the fearlessness that comes with it.

  43. Teresa Nielsen Hayden Says:

    Do self-asserting women get hated more than self-asserting men? Absolutely. Not everyone reacts to them that way, but the ones that do can be frightening. That very ugly episode of harassment Kathy Sierra suffered a few years back was not an isolated incident.

    It’s common for women who are notably successful in fields perceived as “male” and “technical” to get that kind of treatment. It’s not constant, but for purposes of intimidation, it doesn’t have to be. And I really, really hate to say it, but as far as I can tell, the incidence and severity of harassment goes up if the woman is an attractive blonde. Srsly.

    You can see something like the mindset that gives rise to this in Yohami’s comment near the beginning of the thread:

    “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.”

    That is: [InsaneTrollLogic] Men compete with other men for the success that makes them attractive to women. Women compete with other women to be attractive to men. Therefore, attractive women who compete with other men are cheating. Moreover, since their success subtracts from the total pool of available success, they threaten men who are already marginal with being shut out of the game entirely. [/InsaneTrollLogic]

    Thus their resentment. It doesn’t usually stop women who are already successful, but the constant threat it represents frightens and discourages other women. Note Julie Poplawski’s assertion a few comments back that “Women are wired differently. We have heightened sensitivity.” That’s hogwash. Women aren’t “naturally more sensitive”; women are *scared.*

    IMO, the answer is to understand that this happens and that it’s not your fault, admit that it’s scary, expect that you’ll sometimes get hit with harassment, and go forward anyway. The trolls and neanderthals who gang up to harass women are less effectual when they’re faced with multiple targets.

    Odd note: if you want to see this hatred of successful, attractive women in its most pathological form, look at the bizarre and prurient stories told about women like Theodora of Byzantium, Messalina, Semiramis, Catherine the Great, Empress Wu, Anne Boleyn, and Hillary Clinton. There’s so much repetition in the elements of these stories that they deserve their own section in the folklore motif index.

    For notable counter-examples, see Elizabeth I, who made a public cult of her virginity, and Queen Victoria, who made a cult of her respectable married domesticity. (It didn’t hurt that they both inherited rulership, and thus didn’t come into power by competing with men.) But while I may admire their grasp of political realities, it’s not the sort of strategy that scales.

    And one other observation: People of both genders who grow up poor and powerless are similarly reticent about hyping themselves. They take fewer risks, and have lower expectations. Being able to imagine yourself being successful isn’t enough to make it so, but being unable to imagine it is a genuine handicap.

  44. Peter Keane Says:

    I’ve read & skimmed through the responses, and perhaps I missed it, but it seems to me one obvious takeaway is that a manager or organization that can see beyond self-aggrandizement or bold assertiveness (what my wife jokingly calls “male answer syndrome”) to find talent, perspective, and insight will be at an incredible strategic advantage. The art of (really) listening is *way* undervalued.

  45. Anne Wayman Says:

    Amen! When I was a head hunter in the high tech world, back before the dot com bust, I was successful when I acted like my male counterparts (what would Aaron say?) and my female candidates were successful when I helped them pump up their resumes – I noticed that men would claim they knew how to use a particular software expertly if they’d even heard of it; women, even if they knew it fairly well tended to say “not very well” when asked about their level of understanding.

    Good post, thanks

  46. Nancy Sims Says:

    This is a great piece, and says lots of useful things about problematic structures in our society. Calling it a rant “about women”, though, is seriously misstating the problem. While the post isn’t overtly discriminatory – in fact, is clearly from someone concerned about promoting equality – it resonates with limited awareness of the privileges that come with maleness and other kinds of cultural power (not necessarily through any active act by those benefitted from them.)

    A lot of other people have made a lot of the salient points that I would want to make in response to this post, which boil down to, yes, women don’t ask/self-promote enough, but that is largely/frequently due to structural inequalities that punish women for those sorts of behaviors.

    I recently read this piece (http://blog.melchua.com/2010/01/02/ceci-nest-pas-une-excuse/) that is a great introduction to the idea of privilege – especially for someone with a more systems- or engineering-based mindset, because it puts it in an almost game-theory context. Highly recommended reading.

    The link came from the Geek Feminism blog, which might also be good reading. http://geekfeminism.org/

  47. Philo King Says:

    Clay, “what works” in a hyper-competitive society may not be in a person’s long term best interest, nor society’s best interest.

    What works is defined by the past, and to be honest, it didn’t work very well.

    Society is evolving all by itself in response to the change from the 20th century and earlier culture of shortage, to a culture of abundance. “Winner takes all” got you three world wars, many financial bubbles and so on.

    I never taught my daughter to “do as the Romans do” because the Romans lost sight of what made them great and let themselves be diverted by bloodsport and debauchery. And the “star” model of education mimics gladitorial competition.

    Have we evolved very much from those days? It’s not a philosophical question so much as one of mutually assured survival.

  48. Jenny Says:

    Well, comments so far seem to be talking about advancement, respect, attention, etc., but what does this quality really mean in terms of actual money or other concrete benefits?

    I think Tony Oh’s comment above pushes this already very interesting discussion into a different area when he says “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.”

    Certainly there are fields where commanding attention (high-tech, media, etc.) is key, and style is as important as substance. But aren’t there also fields where actual content/output/productivity is what is noticed by colleagues and employers and what is ultimately rewarded with salary and job security? Project management, construction, research science, areas of law like wills and trusts, etc. I’m not saying that flashy self-promoters don’t exist or temporarily thrive in these fields, but that ultimately these areas of work don’t allow you to run on your own hot air forever the way a career in , say, punditry might.

    That being said, I think Clay’s point is a good one — it is in one’s interest to be self-promoting — but one has to be prepared to give up being “a real nice, sweet girl,” and that’s not easy.

  49. Brian Frank Says:

    Won’t the most self-aggrandizing men just compensate by becoming even more assertive? I think the situation calls for leveling-down assertiveness, not a leveling up.

    The popularity of the “douchebag” label for male self-promoters suggests there’s deep, widespread disapproval… But a “douchebag” isn’t just a self-promoter, he’s a self-promoter who lacks competence or common sense. In the same way, a “bitch” isn’t just any assertive woman, she’s assertive in an insensitive or unreasonable way. (Though there are lot’s of people around who use these terms out of resentment.)

    We should promote assertiveness that’s aimed at informed and appropriately aimed at making the right fits and creating value — not just “getting what you want.”

    If it comes down to a problem of decision-makers not having enough good information, let’s address that by making evaluations/self-evaluations more honest & effective, increasing awareness of common cognitive biases, “humanizing” the rules & rewards of institutions, etc.

  50. Jennifer Lindner Says:

    I had a talk with a few other woman programmers recently about something similar – the aggressive conversation etiquette in male persona-dominated tech spheres, specifically interrupting. It’s common practice in meetings, informal hallway conversations and the like, and we noted that we find it extremely annoying. The fact that it’s culturally ingrained however means that we’ve also discovered that at times this is simply the way one behaves and it works. Wearing a toga while in Rome.

    *However*, because I also think it’s appalling behavior and that the world has not been done nothing but unmitigated favors by agro acts, there are times I make a point of noticing when I’m doing it, and pointedly apologizing to the person I rudely interrupted. And I’ve seen others follow my suit and still others refrain from butting in when someone else is talking. Which goes to the larger point of the two-sidedness of this issue: I see a huge value in challenging what’s overly agro in our culture and institutions even while making our way within them.

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