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”

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  3. Yan Xie Says:

    In Lisbon, there is a big unbalance between men and women. At least in my program, only one, that’s me. actually I face such questions and I learn something from this rant.

  4. Gloria W Says:

    Excellent post, thank you for this. I generally agree, with some caveats, of course.

    Honestly I have gotten far ahead of many women in tech by stretching the truth about my skills when I was younger. I don’t have to do much of that now, thankfully.

    I never committed to things I thought I could not accomplish. But then again, it was still a huge risk, because I was young, inexperienced, and felt that invincibility of youth (“I can accomplish anything, damn it!”). I generally did a great job, except in environments where they simply wanted to use women as a cheaper, more socially unaware labor force.

    In those environments (very prevalent in the early 90’s in the US) managers would work me harder and harder, because (1) I wanted feedback to make sure I was doing the job I promised I could do, and (2) they could save a lot of money if I would stay late/on weekends and do the workload of two people.

    Managers would give me mediocre feedback, while peers congratulated me on how I overhauled the companies tech procedures, and saved time/money/etc. Managers used their crappy feedback to justify not giving me raises or recognition, and to demand that I work longer hours. Once I would catch on and announce that I was leaving, they would suddenly, urgently want to take me to lunch, talk to me about promotions and raises, etc. It was too little too late, and I’d leave anyway, never looking back.

    To make matters worse, on subsequent interviews, when asked how much I made, I was forced to lie there as well, and state that I made as much as my male colleagues made. It was the only way to get fair pay, equivalent to what all of my male friends and peers with similar experience said they made. Once I discovered how I was grossly underpaid and overworked at other jobs, I really had no problem being an arrogant jerk, and demanding everything I thought I should get.

    So the double-edged sword is that you may get some great new learning experience this way, but unless you’re aggressive about pay and work hours as well, your employer gets dirt-cheap labor compared to the arrogant guy who asked for 40% more money than you did, and would often do 25% less work (because the woman had to work harder to prove herself, even after landing the job).

    Some companies, not all (but many in the 90’s) are looking to make a profit off of you, play upon your weaknesses and strengths, to get the most work out of you for the cheapest cost possible. There’s only two ways to deal with this: (1) Avoid these companies, (2) Be a jerk, get the job, treat it like a learning experience, and get the hell out. Ever wonder why the tech turnover since the 90’s has been an average of two years? I didn’t. I knew exactly why.

    Some companies really do want real people, not hot air, not this power play crap. I have sought out those companies when the economy is good, and unfortunately stuck with the shitty companies when the economy is bad. They got great work from me, very cheaply, the bastards.

    This “conform or fail” way of breaking into jobs really sucks. Screw that. We need to revolt against any organization that functions in this manner. Freelance, pave your own way, work for fun start-ups that recognize your potential and appreciate your brainpower, dedication and skill. Form your own start-up. Change things, don’t conform.

  5. Claudia Woods Says:

    Clay, thanks for your tongue-in-cheek rant. It was amusing and does contain nuggets of truth.

    It has been my experience that sometimes women who are assertive and self-confident are interpreted as being arrogant or some other negative. Some also have our skills and credentials challenged. Usually men and women who challenge a swagger already doubt the person’s ability anyway. Many times a man’s swagger, however, will not be challenged. Therefore it is imperative for a woman or minority that they actually deliver the goods. They may not be given a second chance to prove their worth.

    You are fortunate, Clay, that your professor mentored you. You don’t mention it, but probably your professor realized at some point that your drafting skills weren’t as good as you stated. But this person probably also decided that you did have at least some skill, that you were trainable, and that you were determined to learn. Not all people would have reacted the way your professor did to your little white lie.

    A note to Jenna McWilliams who seemed peturbed about writing that women behave like men. She rhetorically asks if it would be okay to publish an article in which Black people are advised to act more like white people. And the answer is “yes”. Happens all the time. Nowadays it may not be stated so bluntly, but it is still there. Whenever there is mention of minorities not assimilating into mainstream America and such, it is simply a coded way of saying that we are not embracing and behaving according to the norms of white America.

    Thank you for your article, Clay. I do not interpret your words literally to mean that women should behave like pompous jerks. Women should also keep in mind that just because a man talks himself up, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he actually is more skilled, or that the woman is less capable.

  6. Ruth Says:

    And we need more people behaving ‘like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks’?

  7. drea Says:

    Well, the problem lies mainly in the fact that if a man fails at something people just think that that particular man couldn’t do it, but if a woman fails at something people think that women can’t do that thing. Men are more likely to be judged on an individual basis where as women are judged as part of a whole. I believe this is what makes women more timid. No one is ever going to say “well of course he couldn’t do that, he’s a man”, but that sentiment is at least implied about women on a regular basis.

  8. John Scott Says:

    @Amy Hoy Brilliant and spot on.

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    […] Tim Cavanaugh | January 17, 2010 World’s Most Magnificent Supergenius Clay Shirky can extrapolate Women’s Problems from a single data point: an overly pushy male grad student who bullied Shirky into giving him a better recommendation than he deserved. From this experience, Shirky propounds a General Theory of Maleness that is (we’re happy to report) fully adaptable to the female subset of maleness: […]

  11. Nancy Cummings Says:

    Some of this is insightful but it all boils down to this. The writer doesn’t understand women.

    Why are men always trying to define us? Stop it. There is no one definition.

    Put simply, women are programmed for survival. We just pick and choose our battles carefully, depending on what we want. If it seems we aren’t working hard enough for something, it just means it’s not our top priority. When we want something badly enough, however, get out of our way, because nothing will stop us.

    Ladies, I admit we have confidence issues, but you all have your own unique power for getting what you want. It may be more subtle at times, but it can be just as deadly. We excel at manipulation. Most of the time, men don’t even know we’re doing it. Granted some of us are better then others, but women have been working men for centuries to get what we want. We have ways of making you believe it was all your idea. Call it what you want, but the fact is, men can be slow, simple minded creatures and if we didn’t light a fire under you now and then, nothing would get done.

    They say that behind every great man there is a even greater woman. Sometimes, she the one who never gets noticed, just prefers to blend in. Never underestimate her. Don’t think for one second that she doesn’t know what she’s doing. The art of manipulation requires one to be less obvious on occasion, otherwise your inflated male egos will run screaming. You can’t stand thinking you are being told what to do even if it is for your own good.

  12. Leslie Poston Says:

    I love this post and Amy’s reply above. This mentality that I am GOOD, and that I will do whatever it takes to help people, and that there is nothing wrong with being vocal about my abilities and goals, has driven every success for me.

  13. Tom Buckner Says:

    Amy Hoy’s comment above, especially the parable of the Extra Nose Syndrome, is the most awesome thing I have read today.

  14. Klintron Says:

    “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.”

    Women may now have that in Esther Reed, “the girl who conned the Ivy League.” http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/31770765/the_girl_who_conned_the_ivy_league/1

  15. brIan Says:

    It looks like some people commenting are throwing the sexist card. I guess there’s sexism that is good? Maybe theres racism that is good? I don’t know? I found the article quite fun. Very Malcolm Gladwell Tipping Pointish. And for the people arguing about effectiveness of the idea. He mentioned assertiveness. I can point out the flaws to any idea. But this is an idea that is illistrated pretty well with a little bit of value to it. My favorite part is his Cynical language. Hopefully he writes more on this with more specific observations. I’d buy the book. I don’t like Ancient Greek blowhards all that much but I ran across something Aristotle said about how you can avoid critisism by saying nothing, doing nothing, being nothing. Which is bullshit because you’ll get the worst critism for that from others and your self. Aristotle what a dumbass that moron was. I’m sorry I ever shopped there. Where’s the Greek Girls at?

  16. Paula Krebs Says:

    I know that labeling something a “rant” may be seen to absolve one of the need to do research, but feminists have been writing about this kind of thing for a long time. As others have mentioned, Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever’s WOMEN DON’T ASK offers practical strategies as well as compelling analysis.

  17. Itsasuprise Says:

    When women lie and some rightly do, will they be able to admit thier mistakes. Men seem to recognise it’s alright to make mistakes and move on. I’m not sure this is true for some women.

  18. Edna Piranha Says:

    I am disappointed by the quality of this rant and here are the reasons why:

    1. You are an academic and as an academic you *should* write rants that don’t spew off like a drunk, bitter teenager. Your rant *should* at least attempt to provide counter arguments (doesn’t have to be a 10-page formalized essay or have footnotes necessarily).

    2. First story about the student who wrote some excessively narcissistic letter that you had to tone down. When you say “can you guess the gender of the student involved?”, I can actually say “No I can’t. I don’t know what the letter said in detail so I can’t just make a random judgement based on some generic assumption of academic reference letter experience”. You say in ‘theory’ it should be ambiguous but in ‘practice’ it isn’t. In ‘practice’ means ‘In your perspective from your department’.

    3. Your thesis is “.. not enough women have what it takes to behave like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks.” Do you know every woman in N. America? That subset of women is actually a small percentage of women around the world and I’m pretty positive you don’t. Logical flaw for using a smaller than reasonable subset of experiences with women to generalize a greater majority of women.

    4. You say “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.” What does that even mean? What kind of risks specifically (if the risk example is about you lying about your drafting skills then I think that’s a really weak example to apply to the majority of people in a particular gender)? Again point #3, but applied to men – do you know every man in N. America? No you don’t.

    5. You say “They [women] 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.” Again you are using the small subset of your experience bubble and likely not interacting with many women who do act like that to get ahead.

    6. You say “.. 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”. Yes, people not women. Inconsistent argument flow .. first talking about women now switching to people.

    7. You say “men are just better at being arrogant, and less concerned about people thinking we’re stupid”. That might be true for some guys but I also know a lot of guys who are opposite of that. So I think it is unfair for you to paint that on all men, regardless of the historical patterns of gender culture.

    Conclusion: Your rant would be more respectable and readable if you said ‘A rant about people in highly structural environments such as big corporations and academia who have a tendency to not take risks, and only a few people who play the social manipulation game really well get to the top.’ At least in that context, we would have a rant that was more specific to your area of experience. Although I guess that title doesn’t sell as well as ‘A Rant about Women’ and the only credit I’d give to you is if you had wrote this as an ironic piece, placing yourself in the role of arrogant asshole male writing about what you think about women and men.

  19. Randy Fischer Says:

    Clay, your essay really resonates with a particular argument some evolutionary psychologists have with gender-specific strategies.

    The idea is that we’ve evolved in an environment where reproductive success is almost guaranteed for women, but not for men. Thus men *need* to take more risks – greater rewards possible, sure, but greater potential for failure as well. We’re wired for this behavior.

    (That’s not to say encouraging passivity in women what we want to do as a society, nor am I saying it is appropriate in our society today – it’s just a possible explanation of where we’re from, and why.)

  20. Jen Ashmen Says:

    I can do that. Sign me up. My work is awesome.

    I am an artist and a woman. If I did not think I was an artistic genius I’d be pretty stupid to try to make my living as a painter. This attitude has made me some enemies over the years, but in truth I am a very kind person. I simply refuse to understate my worth. This attitude which I’ve seen admired as “proffessional” and “ambitious” in male colleagues often gets me called “arrogant” or worse.

    That said.

    I can do that. Sign me up. My work is awesome. If you need a visual artist (web designer, muralist, portrait artist, anything beautiful) contact me.

  21. [M]etabrain [E]ntry [L]og » Blog Archive » The world is patchable. Says:

    […] right, I think I’ve figured out what bothers me about Clay Shirky’s rant about women. It’s because I read it as saying […]

  22. Judy Prince Says:

    Quite right, Clay Shirky, and especially your continually morphing echoing that females must risk being rejected, laughed at, and mortified at their own behaviour.

    Reminds me of a 1970s quote [wish I could remember the quoter]: “Women will never achieve power until they’re willing to face rejection.”

    A few years after that, in full-throttle memory of the quote, I asked a man out on a date, picking him up at his place, choosing the restaurant, paying the bill, dropping him back at his house. One of the most hilarious situations I’ve ever been in! Even yielded up a play writ by me and winning a competition. The competition judge, a female, commented to me and the audience: “I never would have dared do such a thing!” (I assume she meant asking the man out, not writing the play)

    I like your writing, Clay—-and of course you like mine.

  23. pamela vitale Says:

    “Marcus Brody” said it loud and clear and simple…thx!

    and I will say it again myself…if people need to be that way to be successful then there is something wrong with the system…change the system because we might actually preform better and have no waste and gross bubbling of industries that always leave so many people behind because of those few super selfish egomaniac bastards that should have never been hired or funded in the first place…who makes these decision should be fired. We have a general issue in business and the economy because of this excepted behaviors…you are a systems guy Clay why not help change the system for good, a system that actually works for the betterment of life and the support of quality people. NOT to perpetuate status quot…be innovative.

  24. Dorte Toft Says:

    Women tend to underestimate their intelligence by 5 IQ Point while men overestimated theirs by 5 IQ point. Source: professor Adrian Furnham, University College London.

    Guess what effect that has for self confidence. It’s not just about: ….”not enough women have what it takes to behave like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks.”

  25. Rachel Says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful post.

    “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.

    Raising my hand, saying “I can do that. Sign me up. My work is awesome,” at my former workplace resulted in a demotion, then termination of my job. I was ostracized by management and my peers for any public recognition of the ideas I put out in the world.

    Action is difficult, but living with the consequences of action is by far the toughest part.

  26. Teresa Nielsen Hayden Says:

    Jessica Margolin: What’s your point? There will always be women who present themselves as luxury goods, and men who fall for their routine; but that’s got nothing to do with the rest of us.

  27. Anjali Says:

    I have to disagree with Clay here. There’s a difference between the bluster that Clay is touting here, & self-confidence that will naturally emerge from a thinking mind applying itself to a skill. The former student that managed to get a great reference letter from Clay through self-aggrandizement achieved just that: a letter that may or may not finally get him what he wants: discerning employers as well as discerning university admissions officers are increasingly able to see through all this verbal swagger, thank god for that.

    Bluster is short-lived, period. This article is way off about cause & effect: what we all need is more critical thinking & more thoughtfulness, & less reliance on bluster, & I may as well say it, the excessive touting of social networking that is so baked into ITP. I respect Clay enormously, but I do believe ITP takes all this social networking business too much to heart, producing more group-think than one would like.

    Lastly, I wouldn’t worry about not having gotten famous in 5 years; read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers to understand that real lasting achievement is a gradual process typically spanning at least 10 years! So keep at it, all you right-thinking men & women out there, all is not lost!

  28. Traci Browne Says:

    Great post Clay! We women could definitely learn a thing or two from men about self promotion. I’ve seen this a lot in job apps. Men tend to ignore the qualifications for the job whereas women tend to go through them with a fine tooth comb and if anything doesn’t match up we automatically disqualify ourselves. Some of the best advice I have gotten from highly successful women has been “your next job should be one you think you’re not yet qualified for” the lesson is to push yourself forward. I own my own business and have definitely taken this advice and have grown because of it.

  29. Casey Says:

    I started to write a response, but it got a bit long so I made it a blog post

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  31. Simon St.Laurent Says:

    There are two basic problems with this piece.

    First, telling other people that the way to fix their problems is by being more like you is rarely a good strategy. It might work one-on-one occasionally, but the larger the cultural boundary this approach tries to cross, the less likely it is to produce much besides sparks.

    Second, the behavior prescribed is behavior that a lot of us – men included – would like to see reduced rather than increased, punished rather than rewarded. That the first two examples both involved telling lies, however white they might seem from this perspective, doesn’t help make the case.

    Stepping back and asking about how people listen seems to me a lot more likely to work than telling people they need to change how they talk.

  32. Flow » Blog Archive » Daily Digest for January 17th - The zeitgeist daily Says:

    […] Shared Not enough women are arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks. […]

  33. “Arrogance” is when men lie and women tell the truth. « Restructure! Says:

    […] is when men lie and women tell the truth. January 17, 2010 — Restructure! In A Rant About Women, Clay Shirky’s example of male arrogance is a man who lies about his exceptional abilities, […]

  34. sylvie Says:

    I came here via metafilter and this is a provocative rant, to be sure. But your general premise is unsound. A few days backstage at a dance company or spending time with a sorority, or a women’s field hockey team might disabuse you of the notion that women are unable to be self-aggrandizing, full of themselves, or fiercely competitive. Furthermore, the notion that the world needs to prescribe a paternalistic solution to fix poor, helpless, unable-to-write-a-decent-cover-letter womanhood is not, in fact, the curative of the problem (as though any such issue existed) but rather, its source.

    Here’s a radical idea: how about judging a person by his or her work, his or her potential for growth and contribution, rather than by his or her self-promotion?

  35. Amy Hoy Says:

    Wow, what a lot of calm, thoughtful comments! I can’t help but chime in again.

    A lot of people are saying that something is wrong with a society/world that values and rewards outgoing people, who talk up their strengths, over good or even great people who do not.

    I contend that those statements are like the naming of the No Child Left Behind Act. How could one vote against it? Do YOU want children to be left behind?

    But I know nobody is being disingenuous and that this comes from a real sense of social justice, and hurt.

    I’d still like to challenge you to take a moment and look at it in the opposite direction:

    What kind of hubris does it take to think that everybody in the world should spend their time investigating *you*, without you making an effort?

    We all want to be valued for who we really are and what we can really do. Every single human being on the planet wants that. We want to feel special and, if we don’t work to make people recognize us and they recognize us anyway, that makes us feel even more special — because it’s not “forced.”

    However, there are nearly 7 billion people on the planet (according to google) right now. Conservatively, most of us encounter hundreds of people a day if we count casual contacts.

    Think about what would happen if we spent 10-15 minutes a day, evaluating every single person down to the last detail, in order to be fair. It wouldn’t work. The world would grind to a halt, and nothing would ever get done.

    Naturally – and by necessity – we focus on people who HELP us make those decisions about who to call, who to trust, and who is good at this or that. How could it be any other way?

    To continue this backwards thought:

    If you’re wonderful at something, your skills will HELP people. Change their projects, their jobs, their companies, maybe their lives.

    Do you want them to go *without* that help, all because you personally hold the belief that it’s sleazy to say “I’m good at this, I can help you”?

    Aren’t you then, in fact, hurting them — in favor of protecting your delicate disposition?

    Imagine you’re a doctor with a ground-breaking solution to the debilitating Extra Nose Syndrome. Nobody else comes even close. Think of all those poor, depressed people with Extra Noses, living without hope, who’ll have to go on being depressed and double-nosed because you think self-promotion is sleazy and therefore don’t write about it, don’t talk about your work at parties, don’t put ads out there, etc.

    They don’t CARE about your beliefs about self-promotion, they just want that ridiculous extra nose gone.

    And Clay, you disagreed with my premise of it not having to be untruthful, writing:

    “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.”

    I absolutely agree with what you’re saying, but not the final conclusion.

    There’s a difference between being confident in a single ability, and confident in your ability to do whatever it takes, using research, your social network, sheer bloodymindedness, etc. etc.

    Saying “I can do it” can be taken two ways: Yes, I already have all of those skills now to a good degree of confidence… OR, Yes, I know myself well enough to know I can and will do the work required to MAKE it happen, regardless of my specific skills right now.

    If you knew for a fact that you were awful at drafting, would you have told that little white lie? What if you just didn’t believe you’d be able to do it at all (but not based on any particular experience)?

    Did you not have a belief that you could make it work, *somehow*?

    That latter confidence is the one that so many women lack. Many men have it (some unreasonably), few women do (to everyone’s detriment).

    Here’s the kicker: If you are confident in the sense of #2, that *doesn’t mean you are lying or being false*. You *can* turn it into a lie, but it can also be used without the tiniest hint of the littlest white untruth.

    Of course, there really are arrogant, self-aggrandising assholes out there who build themselves up, lie, and especially, don’t deliver (or don’t deliver as good as you could). They often get what they want, when those of us who could do a MUCH better job fume silently.

    We can look at this two ways, as well:

    * Society is wrong and should change, or…
    * Those freakin jerks are taking advantage of innocent people. I’ll show them what good work REALLY is.

    Pick #2, people. Pick #2.

    You get to HELP people: by not only aiding them in their decision to put your skills to use, but by saving them from choosing the lying jerk out of ignorance.

    When in doubt, act.

  36. Karen Wilkinson Says:

    Why am I so terrible at self-promotion? I am 41 years old now and while it is still really hard to say ‘hey, I am good at this’ , it is impossible to lie!
    So deeply ingrained is the need to be nice and especially, modest.
    My partner is a very successful male. He has achieved much in his life and will continue to do so. He has no shame! His ego is enormous. He is utterly fabulous at EVERYTHING. I may know differently but indulge him.
    I am a talented artist but I never even sell, so backwards am I in coming forwards I am embarrassed to shine.
    I am working on it………..

  37. Jeff Says:

    Self-aggrandizing jerks and arrogant narcissists are the very people who’ve been engaged in stomping women with sexism for centuries – and now you want women to act more like the people who knocked them down? This doesn’t make sense to me. Any rational observer ought to see that when self-aggrandizing jerks are the only ones who get ahead, it’s not just a fact of life to be accepted – it’s a sign that sexism is still alive and well, and we should be fighting it with all the strength we have left.

  38. Angela Says:

    Two words: THANK YOU.

  39. anonYmouse Says:

    It seems more favorable for all to quit the bravado and lying and schmoozing and all that other nonsense that men cling onto (because of who knows what they lack in their lives that causes them to be that way) and change the way the world works.

    We aren’t in the ruling majority yet, but we will be and it won’t be like it is now.

    Maybe your tactics don’t work because the industry is still super engineering biased and engineering is still super male. I wouldn’t advocate a woman lying about her coding ability (like your drafting) to get the big chance at the big time.

    Your argument is small, naive and outdated.

    Women don’t need to behave any differently than they do. Its men who need to give up the grip on status auctioning.

    And guess what? It STILL doesn’t matter. Men project their mother fixation, daughter issues, grandmother problems (insert women role projection here) and are threatened by our ability to NOT be nurturing to NOT be their soft social side non-threatening nurse or mother.

    The problem, Clay, is with the men, and the mothers who raise them to be aggrandizing arrogant lying idiots.

  40. Marcus Brody Says:

    You’ve got the problem backwards. It isn’t that more women (and men) should act like hierarchical assholes, it’s that those assessing performance shouldn’t be so lazy that they only notice assholes. Your argument boils down to: people who assess performance are lazy and don’t bother to think critically so they are easily swayed by false aggrandizement. If you want to change the assessors opinions you should lie because the assessors don’t put in the effort to tell the difference between falsehoods and reality.

    And you know what, most assessors are lazy, so lying does pay off. The call to action, though, shouldn’t be for more lying, but rather, less indolence on the part of those who are in a position to judge others.

  41. olga sanchez saltveit Says:

    My husband Mark Saltveit & I share a blog and he posted a similar “rant” in June, 2009, entitled Women Need to be More Evil: http://boysareretarted.blogspot.com/2009/06/women-need-to-be-more-evil.html

  42. Maggie Mason Says:

    Men use these tactics because they’ve been rewarded for them, but is it possible they mostly work with other men? I find that type of behavior distasteful. As women gain further access to the workforce and particularly positions of power, perhaps extreme self-aggrandizement and outright lies will fall out of favor. If so, men will certainly adapt.

    Instead of questioning why a woman wouldn’t write the type of letter you describe, why not question your response — writing a glowing recommendation in response to the student’s manipulative sample.

  43. b0rsuk Says:

    You may be interested in this article. Some of your thoughts overlap with it. It states that motivation is what makes *the* difference in success of men and women. He says women evolved to avoid risk-taking, and has many good points and eye-opening insights. One of my favourite is how more geniuses among men and the same average intelligence of women is not at all mutually exclusive ! Hint – there are more idiots among men, that’s why average stays the same.


    The author is a professor of psychology in Florida.

  44. SaraB Says:

    Three quick-ish thoughts:

    1. Many comments have noted how different the environment is for a confident man vs. a confident woman. I’m reminded of facts and ads I’ve recently seen for “The Girl Effect;” that is, you invest in a “girl,” you thereby support her family, her village, her country. Does this situation work in reverse? That is, is the fear of risk associated with speaking up, being a dick, and/or possibly failing connected to this responsibility/opportunity women (somehow) have to their family, their village, their country?

    2. I wonder, too, about the specific environment at ITP. As other ITP students and graduates point out, it’s confusing. I’ve spoken at different lengths to different members of the community (where I’m a current student) and I agree with Catherine that while there “shouldn’t” be an issue, there somehow is. Even considering the numbers that Suzan Eraslan points out, I feel both as if I have had positive role models at ITP and that there’s still a gendered divide.

    I wonder if it’s because there IS no issue. That is, ITP is a fantastically equal community with solid role models and a sensitivity towards feminist education. And yet, it’s never talked about. We’re (men and women at ITP) just not used to such an environment. I, at least, don’t quite know what to do. Just talking about how whatever gender divide was overcome could make a world of difference. I still need to learn how best to act in a “fair” environment (let alone an unfair one).

    3. If Clay calling for women to be more “dickhead-ish:”

    A. I’m concerned about the negative connotation of the kinds of behaviors Clay describes. Can calling someone a “dick” just be descriptive, not necessarily negative? It’s one thing to be “someone who can do interesting things,” as Zannahlou points out, it’s another to lie about being one. It just sucks that we have to be “bad” to get ahead.

    B. How can the greater society/culture adapt (instead) to feminine thought?
    As Haddayr notes, “Encouraging women to be someone they aren’t isn’t helping them get anywhere. ”

    Are we asking BOTH men and women to change to work best together? If “we” are organizations and companies run by men, are we asking women to change for the worse? If we are asking men to be more “sensitive,” it isn’t quite a fair trade to ask women to be more “dickhead-ish” in return.

    (P.S. thanks to my awesomely sensitive (male) fiance for his thoughts on this article, too)

  45. Matt Steinglass Says:

    Clay, as an ITP grad (’96) I know what you mean about promoting yourself by claiming to be able to do stuff you really can’t, and then going out and buying the manual. I got a job at Comedy Central for some time after graduation by claiming I could program in Javascript. After a while I sort of could, but I was never anything like a real programmer. I didn’t belong in that job, and in fact I didn’t even like it.

    Overall, though, I just have two notes on the rant:

    1. This is not universal male behavior, but it is widespread American male behavior. Someone who behaves this way in the Netherlands would not get the job — the overconfidence in one’s own abilities would be a disqualifying characteristic.

    2. When people like Americans, it is for their eagerness to try new and challenging projects. When people dislike Americans, it is for their exaggerations and salesmanship in trying to convince others that these new projects will work.

    3. One woman who behaves in the way you’ve described as prototypically male is Sarah Palin.

    That is all. Other than that, recently read “Here Comes Everyone” and liked it a lot.

  46. Anna Says:

    I have a theory about blogging, that the content has to be extreme for anyone to notice. I think this plays well in this post. I don’t think Clay is advocating for all women to suddenly throw off their general charm, but rather to up the anti in how the present and promote themselves.

    I agree with this sentiment quite whole-heartedly. While, I am young in my career, I have far exceeded the normal trajectory for women. How have I done this? By knowing my strengths and making sure others knew them. That doesn’t mean I was a bitch, but it does mean I took opportunities to show my skills. I made sure everyone was aware of how I could in turn use them to succeed. And when I was hungry for something, I took leaps of faith. I believed enough in my skills to have faith I would succeed.

    I find I fall in the rare female category of generally having confidence in my skills. Sure I could be smarter, fitter, or more alluring, but at the end of the day I see human composition as a poker game- it’s not the cards you have but how you play them. Sure some of the time I am bluffing, some of the times I lead strong, and other times I fold. The key is knowing when to play what cards.

    I suppose this does little to ameliorate the argument at hand. But as Socrates said, “I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think”

  47. JennaMcWilliams Says:

    Can you imagine a society in which it would be okay to print something like “this is asking black people to behave more like white people, but so what?”

    Yet it’s somehow appropriate to write “Now this is asking women to behave more like men, but so what? ”

    And this fact answers the “so what?” question beautifully.

  48. DRST Says:

    I think you rather desperately need to Google “Unpacking the Invisible Backpack” read it. Then think about it for a good long time before you post again.

  49. Raina Kumra Says:

    Clay, As an ITP Alumni I can say that the environment at ITP while I was there was completely supportive of both sexes, and also completely lacking in the education of marketing one’s self – I think for men and women there it was about the work, and the projects. You became your project. And when it came time to talk about yourself, and how to do it, there wasn’t much guidance. Left to our own devices, I guess we could be totally arrogant or we could be overly dismissive. This is exactly where an experienced voice would have come in handy. I’m staring at the cover of the Economist from last week “We Did It; what happens when women are over half the workforce”. Obviously women’s lack of arrogance and ego swinging hasn’t really affected us in the long run.

  50. Jessica Margolin Says:

    Sorry, Clay – great observation, wrong conclusion.

    “A-list” women lie and con and self-promote, just not with words. They feel entitled to the worship of a man they have no interest in, taking free dinners and gifts and trips… whatever necessary to land THEIR job choice: wealthy dilettantism focused on maintaining their beauty.

    And men buy into that.


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