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. A woman Says:

    I was amazed that Shirky could address this issue without ever using the word “entitlement.” He is talking about a white man’s sense of entitlement for access, power and wealth. And, true, women, (and people of color and other disenfranchised people) certainly feel less of this and act accordingly. It’s seen all the time in the art, literary, academic, and business worlds, and certainly when it comes to issues of money, men historically negotiate for better pay. (I have always advised my women friends to role play the character of a straight white man when they negotiate their salaries. The results have been excellent). Perhaps, rather than chiding women for their inabilities to be arrogant pricks, he should consider his own patronizing and ignorant tone, the one that puts women into a naive subject position. Do you think that women are not aware of these gender dynamics? Come on!

    This sense of entitlement is ubiquitous and invisible, but given your intelligence, I was surprised that you didn’t get this. The system of power around us and the families we are born into privilege men and maleness incessantly in both subtle and direct ways. Of course, women don’t as often have that sense of entitlement, that same automatic “that is mine” thought and attitude. I agree, a re-training of minds and subsequent behavior is required, but to place that burden entirely on women’s approach to ambition is misguided and most certainly incomplete. I am not positing women as a victim of this dynamic of entitlement, but Shirky’s way of framing it in a myopic paradigm of cause-and-effect is reductive and simplistic. Its circular and pervasive.

    As a female artist/academic and exile from the interactive design world, to act entitled to success is great advice that all modest artists, academics, designers and business people should take. And white men (class and plenty of other dynamics play a role here) are not the sole owners this sense of entitlement, nor do all white men have it. I know plenty of powerful, confident, immodest women with this sense of entitlement (you may know them as bitches, divas or crazies), and even though they are well armed with professional assertion, confidence, certainty, they are ALWAYS fighting harder to get the same recognition as their male counterparts.

  2. Terri Senft Says:

    Hiya Clay,

    I made the observations below on my own journal at


    but wanted to post them here as well.

    Clay, I’ve known you for many years, and can vouch for the fact that as a teacher, a colleague and an all around guy, I know you to be an incredibly decent and deeply fair person. Maybe that’s why I am so surprised and frustrated by what you wrote here.

    You are probably right to suggest that a young professional who wants to get ahead in the areas like social media probably needs to be able to self-promote. Where you are wrong is in this off-the-cuff advice to women to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and stop being ‘nice.’ This advice isn’t just condescending as hell, it also exhibits a pretty massive blind spot to the historical lack of women role models in the tech sector.

    Yes, I know there were always women in computing. I also know that once computing became associated with programming and the ENIAC was developed, you could count on two hands the amount of women employed in computer programming. There’s an old saying that the children of cops want to be lawyers, the children of lawyers want to be judges, and the children of judges want to be on the Supreme Court. Until the last generation, the daughters of female tech sector workers at best hoped to move up from the typing pool. There were almost NO women we could watch laboring in boardrooms, backrooms, locker rooms, pool rooms—all the places corporate culture power plays take place.

    But rather than staying stuck in history, let’s imagine a future in which things for women in the tech sector move forward, rather than staying the same (or moving backward.) Let’s go one step further and imagine what a strong, secure, female role model in a computer-related industry might be like.

    In the Victorian Age, people became obsessed with the idea that technological history might yield a “New Woman”–independent, autonomous (and to be fair, often the site of derision.) Let’s imagine what a sort of “New Woman” might emerge from a tech sector with female leadership for more than a generation or two. What sort of statements would she be able to make about herself? What would be her ethical code?

    In the spirit of hippy-dippy hopefulness, and with a tip of the hat to Peggy Macintosh, I provide ten statements coming from such an imaginary ‘new woman’ of the future. Truthfully, I have yet to meet a woman (myself included) who has been fortunate to claim even three of the statements. I’d be interested in how other people react to this thought exercise, which I blame on New Year optimism as much as anything else.


    1. As a child, I had regular contact with a female role model–a grandmother, mother, aunt, sister, or older friend—who worked the industry in which I now find myself working (in a position other than support staff).

    2. As I grew older these women professionals became unofficial mentors to me. They offered me opportunities to observe their worlds at a safe distance or even officially through mechanisms like internships, demonstrating how one exhibits professional codes of conduct and effectively networks with those outside one’s own family.

    3. As a student, I routinely noticed that there were large numbers of female teachers and professors teaching subjects that interested me and were considered to be valuable and ‘job worthy.’

    4. As a student, I was fortunate enough to be counseled by a teacher, advisor, or internship coordinator who facilitated regular group activities involving myself and other young women training in my field. Rather than competing with one another, we began thinking of ourselves as an ‘old girls club.’

    5. As a graduate, I feel comfortable asking some of these women from my past to recommend me in at least two categories: as a rising ‘star’, and as a decent colleague capable of acting in a group’s best interest.

    6. As an employee, I’m pleased to say that the place I work employs fairly equal amounts of men and women in technical, ‘creative’, managerial AND service roles.

    7. As a work colleague, I believe I am where I am today as a result of others’ concerted acts of care and education on my behalf. I don’t think it’s a sacrifice to work for and with other people: I think it’s a gift given back in honor of those who got me where I am.

    8. As a spokesperson for my industry, I question moments when I seem the token women on a panel, or (even stranger) why so many discussions about ‘what women want’ seem dominated by men. No, it’s not something I like. Yes, I worry I won’t be asked back. I do it anyway, because it’s my responsibility. Let someone call me ‘that bitch’; I can take it. I was raised right.

    9. As a teacher, I understand that my students’ perceptions of their abilities often maps to larger questions regarding gender, sexuality, race, class, ability, and age (among others.) These aren’t topics reserved for classes called ‘identity politics’ and ignored in ones with titles like ‘information society’, ‘digital media’ or even (God help me) ‘universal design.’ If you really want to get to why someone undersells their technical prowess, you are going to have to engage with some basic facts of peoples’ histories; these personal facts are almost always the stuff of political discourse.

    10. As a grandmother/mother/aunt/sister/friend, teacher/mentor, I believe in holding out my hand to other women BEFORE it’s asked for, and keeping it out past the point it is self-effacingly rejected, or bitchily refused. I know that for most women, the only thing harder than asking for help is staying around to offer it after it’s been rebuffed.

  3. Chris Boese Says:

    There’s two sides of this gendered social adjustment, Clay.

    (no doubt others have pointed this out in the threads above)

    Aside from the con-man angle, you’d like women to assert themselves more, be more self-promoting, take risks to be more self-promoting. You believe women are socialized too much not to do this, unlike men.

    It’s actually worse than that, as any woman in academia, any feminist, could tell you (and as every grad school is advised by a mentor professor at some point or another, over the copier. I call it the “be the bitch” advice).

    Women are PUNISHED more for assertive behavior, and suffer disproportionately to men in annual reviews, tenure and promotion reviews, even student evaluations.

    The kind of assertiveness you advocate, so often rewarded in men, is cast as a negative for women, from boardrooms to assembly lines. Women who do it risk more than just not getting what they ask for. They risk their assertiveness becoming a direct cause in the LACK of advancement, or worse, going backwards, or losing jobs altogether.

    It’s a double standard feminists have documented well since the 70s, and it has only gotten worse (watch Mad Men, anyone? Backlash is worse than ever these days).

  4. Maria Mayer Feng Says:

    Since when is it the goal to become, and I quote “arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks. They are bad at behaving like self-promoting narcissists, anti-social obsessives, or pompous blowhards,…” ? I think women just have a different style. It might take them longer to get there, but at least you got someplace without feeling you ‘bogused’ yourself and the world into the things you want to achieve. I don’t think that the end justifies the means.
    What an American thing to suggest!

  5. Alex Says:

    You write: 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.

    Ah, if only it were that easy! As a woman who has been unafraid to dive in and offer help, solutions, etc., I can tell you it’s a crap shoot whether it works or not. Everything depends on the person you’re addressing, and their individual gender views. I’ve had managers who loved this approach, encouraged it, and made the most of my skill set and proactive approach – and then I’ve had managers who actually forbade me to use my skills (even for personal product, not public). That one recommended I not advertise my capabilities or ask to use my sklls, but simply do what’s assigned to me and quietly “let your light shine.” Not only does it fly in the face of logic to stop using or advertising your extensive skill set and expect people to come to you to use it, but I can’t imagine that manager giving a man the same advice. Nor can I imagine the same manager telling another man that the highly technical career path he’s been on for many years is meaningless (“anyone can do it”), and involuntarily changing/interrupting it for him without consultation – which has happened to me.

    You recommend women should risk more, including fraudulent behavior, to succeed. But women get paid less and risk more in such situations – it’s not just the particular assignment, it’s their career. And if they’re the bread winner, it’s simply not logical to take the extreme risks you advocate.

    Much research has been expended on this issue. In the United States (which dropped recently from 23rd place to 31st in the worldwide gender gap rankings, 1st place having the smallest gap), women are between the stereotypical rock and hard place. Aggressive, self-promoting women, particularly in male-dominated fields, are viewed as unfeminine – helpful, friendly women are despised and viewed as poor leadership material. Emotional women are viewed as weak (the same does not apply to men), and reserved women are viewed as cold or unsociable. These interpretations come from both men and women – women are conditioned to treat each other this way, too, and it take a lot of work to rehabilitate yourself from that.

  6. renata lemos Says:

    we each have our lenses. being male in a patriarchy is one kind of life experience; being female is another. what defines this male and female “beingness” is something else entirely (think of charlie jane anders (http://www.charlieanders.com) for instance – one of the classiest feminists i know of). gender is COMPLEX.

    but one thing is simple: the rules of the economic game were established by males.

    if women want to succeed within a patriarchy, so they must play by the book: be aggressive. scream and shout. be a guy. act like one. this will increase your chances of making it to the top. this is a fact – thanks for pointing that out, clay.

    your diagnostic is precise. but the kind of medicine you are prescribing comes from a male perspective. i had the exact same conversation with stowe boyd a few weeks ago on twitter (@stoweboyd vs. @renatalemos). he thought he was being funny by quoting p. samuelson, who said:

    “women are men with less money”

    so then, i, as the post-trans-poly-feminist that i am, started to evangelize him on the three waves of feminism:

    1st: break the chains.
    2nd: learn to walk.
    3rd: start to dance.

    so maybe if women follow your advice here, what we will have in the end is “female who act like males make as much money as males”

    well, we say no to that.


    the 4rth wave of feminism is about challenging patriarchy; facing patriarchy, not by playing by patriarchy´s own rules, but by embracing our FEmale power.

    softness, kindness, love: let these female traits come to the forefront of the ECONOMIC life of the world and then we will be moving towards a PLURIARCHY.

    not a matriarchy, but a pluriarchy.

    till then, it would be heplful if you could actually pay attention to what us, women, have to say.

    me too, just like venessa miemis, have tried to engage in conversation with you on twitter and i am still listening to the silence coming from your end of the network.

    but i must thank you for speaking about this issue – your intentions are good.

    namaste, and will see you here in Brazil for the CIRS conference.

    renata lemos

  7. Kris Tuttle Says:

    I’m not sure that gender is really the point. I’ve run into plenty of women how are shamelessly and tirelessly self promotional and many men who have watched a louder, more promotional but vastly less qualified candidate take something that should have been theirs. I bet that doesn’t happen as much at places like Zappos that actually look at both sides of the experience/personality coin.

    It may *seem* like more men do it but I think that is because there is a larger raw sample size of men who focus on this particular battleground.

    The future would seem to be an enemy of the dangerously self-promotional. And by the way if anyone sends me a recommendation from you now I’ll have to call to discuss!


  8. jesyke Says:

    My grad program is currently having an issue with this right now. Some of this is that women who are self-promoters (such as myself), get backlash from men and women for being seen as too aggressive. Believe me, most of my evaluations have nothing to say about my abilities but everything about my personality; if we went on ability I’d probably be the top student in my program instead of the middle of the pack. Some faculty appreciate it — usually younger members. But others have referred to me as “off-putting” in formal evaluations. I even once had a faculty member tell me I had an “unladylike” way of presenting myself, as if it were a bad thing.

    There’s no solution to it. Being a woman is a catch-22 at this point. If you’re not a self-promoter the above happens. If you are, most of the time you’ll still be devalued by some because well, that’s just not how a woman should act.

  9. SDC Says:

    This is a joke, right? Like Garrison Keillor’s essay where he pretended he hates Jews?

    This could be self-correcting. As more and more women achieve positions of power, this sort of lying and b.s.ing won’t fly as much anymore. Nobody’s going to cry that Madoffs and Skillings and Paulsons won’t have the opportunities they used to, except possibly the white supremacists over on stormfront.

  10. Are Women Too Shy About Their Accomplishments? « Attorneys On The Move Says:

    […] on Shirky.com on January 15, […]

  11. Halley Suitt Says:

    You must read “Women Don’t Ask” which addresses this same subject. Great post.

  12. Venessa Miemis Says:

    Hi Clay,

    I started to write a post in response to this rant, but I realized I wanted to speak directly to you, so I’m just posting here.

    You seem to suggest that women need to behave like ‘arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks’ in order to get noticed, but I wonder, is that how you think we must act in order to get noticed by YOU?

    I’m a grad student at the New School in a Media Studies program, and so of course have come across your work. I’ve tried to contact you via Facebook to discuss the ITP program at NYU and to find out the possibility of collaborating, but never received a response. I’ve tried to get in touch with you on Twitter, but haven’t received a response. I’ve tried to enter a conversation with you by building on some ideas of Jeff Jarvis’s and yours on algorithmic authority in a post (http://emergentbydesign.com/2009/12/07/the-next-evolution-of-the-web-on-immediacy-authority/), but didn’t receive a response.

    I’m currently on the homepage of Nokia’s IdeasProject website (http://ideasproject.com/index.webui), and share space with you on the “Ideator” page, sandwiched there between IDEO’s Tim Brown and sci-fi author Vernor Vinge. Douglas Rushkoff is looking forward to having me in his class next semester so we can share ideas, Howard Rheingold has said he likes the way I think, and John Hagel tells me he loves my stuff. On Twitter, I chat with Paul B Hartzog, Michel Bauwens, and Trebor Scholz. Brian Solis and David Armano retweet my posts and link to my work. I’ve written guest posts for Georgetown University’s peer-reviewed journal (one of my articles is actually on their homepage now http://gnovisjournal.org/), for unstructure.org, and businessgrow.com, among others. My blog has attracted over 30,000 visits in 2 months, and sparked interesting conversations in the comments sections, and led to new opportunities and partnerships in real life.

    I’ve done this all rather quietly, just by thinking deeply about things and putting in an effort to write in a fashion that is simple, approachable, and engaging. Never have I felt it was necessary to be “arrogant” or “jerky” or an “anti-social obsessive” or a “pompous blowhard” in order to display confidence in my abilities.

    I’ve managed to impress the people listed above by acting as an intelligent, capable woman.

    What do I have to do to capture your attention?

    – Venessa Miemis

  13. nichelle Says:

    Clay’s “rant” has some merit. Most women don’t like to brag about their success and achievements, but they should.

  14. Special Education: How to Use No Child Left Behind to Help Your Child Learn to Read Says:

    […] A Rant About Women « Clay Shirky […]

  15. Ofelia Says:

    And, thanks, Clay, for your purposeful provocation. Always good to get people thinking about such things – things that most of us would prefer not to acknowledge… I accept your challenge (and hope the same will go for all your other female former students).

  16. Ofelia Says:

    “Well-behaved women seldom make history” • Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

    “Women who seek to be equal to men lack ambition” • unknown

    While these quotes can be seen as founts of inspiration, they also point to the heart of this debate: the game is the game – some wo/men find success by playing it well (being a jerk) and others are remembered for rewriting the rules altogether. I vote for rewriting the rules. Pulling that off is a different kind of con artistry. Besides, I’d rather be unknown and kind than a famous self-promoting narcissist, anti-social obsessive, or pompous blowhard.

  17. Shirky’s Rants are Quirky, and let’s hope he’s got it wrong! « Scorchin Torah and Strange Thoughts Says:

    […] got it wrong! In Uncategorized on January 18, 2010 at 7:36 am Clay Shirky rants about women in a recent blog post. What they need, he surmises, is to learn how to over promote themselves by […]

  18. kurye Says:

    To make judgements just because Amazon is a corporation, as Thomas would, is to be blind to most of life, and to risk damaging not only the corporation-or person, or whatever-but yourself, in the process. my web page web tasarım

  19. Michelle Mangen Says:

    Go women!!!! So glad my super duper friend sent me a link to this post to read it. I have def had some opportunities slip me by because of not being assertive enough and tooting my own horn from time to time.

  20. Kristen Taylor Says:

    Thanks for posting this, Clay. Great to read a post early in a year that identifies something (still) broken, offering suggestions for fixing it.

    What’s tricky is that these interactions (requests for recommendations, volunteering oneself as an interview subject) are usually private messages, so the behavior that you identify as often leading to success isn’t modeled publicly–only the result is visible.

    It is the resulting job, interview, recognition, of course, that tends to lead to other recognition (conference keynotes, awards), so it behooves students to understand fully how networks perpetuate as they launch themselves and their work into the world, maybe as one of the parting gifts of a thesis course–

  21. Laura Says:

    One reason women don’t do this: we get slammed when we try. I am a female professor who came up for tenure a couple of years ago. As a part of my package I had to write up a “personal statement” guiding the readers through my dossier, explaining why things are in there and what they show. I wrote up a very thorough statement, highlighting what I had done, and remarking when the achievements were particularly spectacular, which they were in many cases, especially at my fairly mediocre institution. My female colleagues and most of the male ones reacted positively to my statement and dossier, telling me that I had done a great job. One male colleague flipped out — what, does she think she invented the job? She’s not really all that awesome. She needs to TONE IT DOWN. My sponsor talked him down from the tree and together we modest-ized the statement, a bit. Got tenure, but his reaction REALLY pissed me off. Didn’t want to be alone in a room with that guy for a good 3 or 4 months, mostly for his safety. Ironically, this year, the protester produced a dossier to get promoted to full professor that was lame, uninspired, and ultimately rejected by the department & didn’t get pushed up the pipe to official approval. He’ll be waiting a couple more years before tilting at that windmill again. Maybe he was just jealous that I’d mastered the game better than him. Oh well.

  22. Dave N Says:

    This was always going to be a controversial post, but I’ve seen the behaviour you’re talking about in almost all workplaces. While I agree women could definitely be more dominant and ballsy at work, the play at important role just being who they are now and maybe guys needs to adjust a bit too.

  23. katie Says:

    Hi Clay, Sorry to say that I don’t have time to read all the comments before I post. So going to risk it and say …

    Women are given advice to do what you suggest all the time. And very often we do. The problem is that when we do, the sacrifice we make is often greater than for men. Just one example is, when a man is a self assertive jerk, he is praised. When a woman is a self assertive jerk, she is vilified. This difference occurs in schools and homes, to both children and adults. It is happening on such a personal level, it is no wonder we are terrified of asking for what we want the way men do.

    Hillary Clinton is a prime example of this in public life. She acted like a politician, no better and no worse than anyone else, and she was criticized on very personal terms, as if she was a witch, the evil step mother, the shrew, etc. Obama acted like a politician too and he was spoken of as if he were a saint. Few people in America stopped and considered that they were reacting emotionally to these individuals on a deep seated level. Most people rationalized that their opinions were intellectual and well reasoned. And yet, if you tried to have a rational discussion with them about the policy or leadership styles and qualifications, they were incapable of doing it.

    A very interesting topic of discussion. Thanks for posting it.

  24. R. Jordan Says:

    Funny story, because when you asked me to guess the gender of the student who basically manipulated you into doing their work for them … I guessed female.

    Strange how that works.

  25. Tim Says:

    I imagined what it would be like if we started off assuming that women were the norm and men needed to change themselves to be more like women, and wrote this totaly awesome post:

  26. Ed Daniel Says:

    Before being influenced by reading other people’s comments, which I will take the courtesy to read after I respond to Clay, here’s my reaction to the post… in the absence of fact what do we have left to go on but what we witness and hear from those we trust and those we trust less, if at all.

    I am sad to see that really a lot of the rant seems to me to endorse an ability to lie, or perhaps better to use the term ‘bluff’ but… as a human skill the ability to imply one thing and do entirely another is very powerful and great for sports / games – the problem is that when misused it can have disastrous results – younger generations / less experienced bluffers will often take the challenge as they’ve not built up a risk profile to suppress the desire to ‘blag it’ (a great British phrase) whereas older and more experienced people are much more aware of this type of behaviour, have learnt from their own mistakes / successes using these skills and are usually able to spot the BS.

    Our societies are still re-balancing from a macho model to something more equal and fair, this post seems to endorse a return to the former model of male ethics and dominance though I could be over-egging that reaction. I long for a more transparent and meritocratic approach by all people and it pisses me off when I see that you, Clay, perpetuate a lazy and irritating trend being that of when people are asked for a reference their response is to ask “what do you want me to say?” You’re not that dumb that you could have figured that one out for yourself. Surely, it would have been better and more honourable to accept the request and then write something that was appropriate and honest rather than have your student play the bluff for which you were a willing participant, even though you had to re-edit the letter.

    I feel your word and your reputation may now suffer for such a foolish action, who can trust Clay to write something honest that has not been pre-cooked by a 3rd party?

  27. Marah Marie Says:

    What the author says is true of both men and women: you can talk your way into or through anything, *but* you have to have sheer confidence and belief in yourself, and you have to follow through with every ounce of effort you have, or you’re just going to run a con on yourself and everyone else.

    Putting yourself into situations you cannot handle is, in fact, the only way to learn how to deal with them; once you’ve done that, you can do it over and over again to get yourself into even more situations where you don’t have a clue what you’re doing and come out on the other side knowing what you need to know- and maybe more.

    My blog comes to mind; when I started it, it was just a single page, and follow-up posts were often just a few words. I didn’t know how to use the Web properly to find good information or how to write links. Some months into this, it occurred to me: Learn how to use the Web to find good information. Learn how to write links.

    After I started teaching myself, I started getting email that asked me questions I didn’t know how to answer. So I would look up possible answers, and if those answers weren’t good enough or didn’t help the askees enough, I would teach myself the best answers through trial and error, then publish them.

    To make a long story short, by taking a chance on expanding that blog, I taught myself how to use the Web, how to link, how to code in HTML and CSS, how to answer almost any question anyone could throw at me relating to what I write about, and I also learned a lot about computers in general and Windows in particular…there’s probably more that I’ve learned just from owning one small blog than I can cram into one comment, and all of it has helped me in more ways than I can explain here.

    In other words, if you take that first shaky step, maybe you’ll stumble a few times (or maybe you’ll stumble a lot!), but then what you do just snowballs on itself as you learn more and gain confidence from it. If you believe in yourself, you can’t go wrong – you’ll learn something whether you succeed or not, just in the trying.

    And yes, the qualities that lead you to such discoveries belong more to men than women, and I’m saying that as a woman who’s always thought, “The hell with that”. I pretty much *am* that arrogant, self-aggrandizing, self-promotional person the author describes – not because that’s my personality – but simply because it’s helped me get what I want.

  28. beaq Says:

    Kinda yes, kinda no.

    Brash, self-promoting women are often perceived as offputting. Female standup comics have a hell of a lot harder time getting laughs with similar material. Laughing is a submissive act. Comedy is a sort of one-upsmanship. “Who does she think *she* is? Bitch.”

    Initial reactions to a woman saying she’s the greatest? “Yeah, right. Let me check a little further into that.”

    I think this might work for certain kinds of personalities that can combine the usually *necessary* attributes of submission and self-deprecation with boldness. It’s cute or ballsy or remarkable. For others it may backfire much worse than it does for men, who are expected to behave this way. It may be especially detrimental to women who have truly impressive and intimidating skills and talents. I think individual women have historically been more likely to *survive* if they do *not* promote themselves.

  29. T.T. Says:

    You know that calling a badly argued essay a “rant” doesn’t make it less badly argued, right?

    “…not enough women have what it takes to behave like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks.”

    This statement is a special case of “women are Z”. Women are Z. They just are. You know that. You can make categorical claims because your experience is universal. If only we could all be so special.

  30. Liz Says:

    I find this post extremely unsettling. Clay criticizes the female students and faculty he has worked with over the years for not having enough arrogance. I ask what has ITP done to build women’s confidence? Many of the female alumni (myself included…) often speak of feeling unprepared, still missing that confidence necessary for the work world. Since graduating I have also come to believe that many of my male former classmates deal with similar issues. This is not so much an issue of gender but often one of age and experience. I found the female students in general to be slightly younger then the male students (although, I have never seen any statistics on this.) But, this is not even mentioned in the the post.
    Clay also does not take into consideration his own assumptions. He assumes before anything else that the male student can do anything they say they can. Does he make the same assumption for female students? I have often had men argue points with me when I knew for an absolute fact I was right. They assume I am wrong or simply not as knowledgeable as them. Our underlying gender stereotypes are so strong and so ingrained, I am sure Shirky is not free from them (as this post shows…). And it is this stereotypes that inform our attitudes and actions.
    One last point, Shirky also comes from a distinctly western view. In Asian societies, self-promoting is at times frowned upon depending on the culture. And people rarely say they can do things that they have not studied for years and are perfect at. It seems that men in those countries seem to do just fine.

  31. Andrew Cushman Says:

    Don’t waste the effort ladies – complete your profile on Sugardaddy.com today!
    Ha ha. funny academics. Ego is the root of all the world’s problems, not something one should try to cultivate in an attempt at “getting ahead”, whatever that means. Men should change to be more like women, not the other way around!

  32. Link-Tipps der letzten Woche | Leander Wattig Says:

    […] A Rant About Women […]

  33. kim sbarcea Says:

    Frankly, I’m amazed that this “rant” even occurs in 2010. Having said this, I think you are barking up the wrong tree. The fact that organisations or senior management might actually allow men to behave like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks (to use your words) is the problem. Not whether women can or cannot (or even should) act in the same manner.

    Maybe it’s just Australia, but I have worked with many women who can be described as self-aggrandizing, prone to extreme exaggeration, arrogant, nasty, back-stabbing, overly self-confident and so on.

    Amy Hoy has it right too.

  34. Eryn Says:

    This article actually sparked a huge epiphany for me…

    I’m currently not working while I homeschool our kids, and have been looking at ways to re-enter the job market. But in a way to meets the hours I want, and pays emotionally.

    My husband, a constant promoter of my work and abilities, comes up with these GREAT ideas, saying things about me that I don’t feel are true. But he is consistent and obviously thinks more of my abilities than I do.

    I just realized that he’s probably more right than I am on this, and that if I don’t even try, for fear of failing or because I feel I am lacking, and that’s my own damned fault.

    I am an exact copy of what you just said about women under-selling their attributes, even to ourselves!

    Thanks for the kick in the pants. But if he asks, I’m going to give the credit to my husband, he deserves it for all the years he’s put up with me 😉

  35. MW Says:

    If I understand this correctly, you’re not talking about women being assholes per se, but better at the game of bluffing, puffery, and not being afraid to seize an opportunity. A couple of points:
    * men engaging in this behavior are seen as masterful; women are seen as manipulative/aggressive/self-aggrandizing, and not in a good way.
    * most of the people with power are men, and dollar to donuts there are lingering elements of sexism in how women are expected to behave towards men in power. This is why it’s important for ambitious women to remain cute well past middle age. (better ‘cute’ than ‘beautiful’. less threatening).
    * I know all this firsthand as a women who’s bluffed her way into everything from free pitchers of beer from the local pub and store rebates to design jobs and grad school. I may in fact have pulled a fast one over on you, and chances are you’d never know it, because I’m more subtle than the average hammerhead yammering on about his qualifications.

  36. Amy Says:

    There is a theory, which I think rings true, that women do less self-promotion than men because it does not work as well for them. They might do exactly the same thing that men do and get an entirely different reaction. The socialization goes both ways in these interactions.

    I’ve always considered self-promotion to be a bit of noise to sift through when determining whether someone knows what they’re doing. I don’t hold it against people, but neither do I give it much credence. Results are what matter.

  37. What You Must Know About Car GPS Navigation Systems | #1# GPS Navigation System Bluetooth Says:

    […] A Rant About Women « Clay Shirky […]

  38. Stephen Hamilton Says:

    For me, the article boils down to self-confidence. Many people (men and women) will let opportunities pass them by because they are not confident within themselves that they have what it takes.

    The difference between these people and many people who do grab hold of opportunities isn’t a superior skill set – the confidence knowing you skills required – but is rather the confidence that they can work it out on the fly, pick it up on the run, improvise while progressing etc.

    Sometimes people mistake self-confidence with a confidence in their education/experience. Self-confident people actually have confidence in self.

  39. Patty Zevallos Says:

    I get real tired of hearing other people telling me what is going on inside my head because I am female. I have no problem promoting myself. I have no problem jumping into something a bit tricky to get ahead. I have been highly successful at doing the work I want to do in media production (see http://www.pbzproductions.com/resume/) for 31 solid years, and don’t have any problem explaining how good I am in my field. I currently am getting calls and emails about high-end web design jobs because you, Clay Shirky, have absolutely no idea what you are talking about.

    The problem is that you are so completely out of touch with what is going on. You have no idea that the Green Living movement (www.pbzproductions.com/green/) is up and running and initiated mostly by women, that women are getting organized and helping each other, that women-owned businesses are growing and thriving.

    Perhaps you should actually talk to people instead of ranting.

  40. Annalee Says:

    Obviously women need to speak up more. And men need to shut up more, especially when women are talking.

    I’ve definitely taken the “act like a braggart” approach to my career, and honestly it’s not just a matter of speaking up. It’s a matter of speaking up over and over again, even when somebody is interrupting you or telling you that you have no right to speak in the first place.

    I wish the problem were just training women to raise their hands more often, but of course it isn’t. It’s training men to notice when the women are raising their hands. And training the men NOT to raise their hands when they clearly do not have the answers.

  41. Elin Says:

    I’m not sure if you’re addressing the real issue. I’ve responded to your blog post with one of my own – http://madebymany.co.uk/a-rant-about-how-society-recognize-talent-002671

  42. A rant about how society recognize talent « Made by Many Says:

    […] Clay Shirky’s “rant about women” has been on my mind this weekend. Although the blog post is intended to advice women on how to become more successful, there’s something about it that made me feel very uneasy. […]

  43. Ben Tilly Says:

    Interesting. I have several thoughts on this.

    The first is that the effectiveness of the assertive strategy are predictable if you know anything about negotiation. See http://bentilly.blogspot.com/2009/12/learn-to-negotiate.html for more about the importance of learning to negotiate, and a couple of books to start with.

    The second is that the assertive “me best” strategy is a horrible trait in a manager. For a couple of books backing that claim up I would suggest Good to Great and First, Break All The Rules. The first is a summary of what it takes for companies to make lasting improvements, and in particular what kind of CEO does so. (Hint: not braggarts.) The second is a summary of research the Gallup organization (yes, the people who do lots of polls) about what distinguishes great managers from average ones.

    The third is that people who are proud of their own abilities tend to put implicit barriers that keep them from improving. This is because improvement starts with recognizing areas that need improvement. But if you’re proud of your abilities then cognitive dissonance keeps you from recognizing that improvement is needed. And therefore you don’t improve. See http://www.perlmonks.org/?node_id=270083 for a longer version of this explanation with more details.

    So thinking about it, what you’re saying is true, but I’m not sure that it is a good idea to encourage even more people to be overconfident of their abilities.

  44. Amused Says:

    Maggie mason said: “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.”

    Oh, I have to laugh. Women lie in the workplace just fine. They manipulate, they deceive and are in no way better than men. I have had the pleasure of working for a women who lied to vendors, partners and staff without blinking an eye and heaven forbid you questioned anything she did. All the while she played the role of your best friend. Please, ladies, get over the propaganda that women are better. They may have different styles, different methods, but they are not inherently BETTER.

  45. Jill Burrows Says:

    It really comes down to being able to sell what you have. There is a brilliant speech by Richard Hamming from Bell Labs in which he states:

    “I have now come down to a topic which is very distasteful; it is not sufficient to do a job, you have to sell it. `Selling’ to a scientist is an awkward thing to do. It’s very ugly; you shouldn’t have to do it. The world is supposed to be waiting, and when you do something great, they should rush out and welcome it. But the fact is everyone is busy with their own work. You must present it so well that they will set aside what they are doing, look at what you’ve done, read it, and come back and say, `Yes, that was good.’ ”

    Even though he says “scientist”, it applies broadly. Anyone can do whatever they want in reclusion — be it breathtaking poetry, audacious visual art, or stunning singing — but even if it makes it out of that room and into the real world, nothing big will happen. One has to hawk their wares and/or abilities; and devote considerable time to it.

    One can read the full transcript here: http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~robins/YouAndYourResearch.html

    And a shorter overview: http://measuringmeasures.blogspot.com/2010/01/you-should-waste-50-of-your-time.html

  46. Michael Alan Miller » I am so fucking awesome Says:

    […] | Posted by Chill on 17 Jan 2010 at 06:18 pm | Like a lot of true things, this will piss a lot of folks off. […]

  47. Eva Miller Says:

    Clay, I think it’s a fairly anti-feminist argument to encourage women to become better at misrepresenting their skills, use arrogance to get ahead, and heedlessly apply any other manipulative or self-promotional options they have available to them. It’s wrong for men, it’s wrong for everyone. Skill is the true, lasting measure. Everyone should advocate honestly for themselves when it is merited. But no one should divorce their own assessment of their talents from actual reality and just call it good marketing. By the way, I see just as much of this self-aggrandizing and entitlement crap coming from women as men lately, in various guises. Too many people seem to believe thinking makes it so these days. You may be observing a generational issue, not a gender problem. I’m hoping GenX raises its kids with more humility and self-awareness, frankly.

  48. Karen Feldt Says:

    Do you really believe that women need to be arrogant self promoters? What so that we can be like the arrogant incompetent men that run companies in the ground, take roles that they can’t possibly manage, earn millions while their peons make pence, destroy the banking system, because they think the are above it all?
    I do believe that women should be aware of, and confident in their abilities, and I do think women could seek more leadership positions for which they are qualified. However, even as a confident woman with a PhD, I have stopped believing that true equality will ever exist in this world, and I am not about to become arrogant to try to achieve it. I would much rather die as a respected member of society, having gone quietly about my business of helping others, teaching people to help others, with those around me having a sense of my integrity and intelligence, rather than being the “arrogant self promoter” that Mr Clay writes about in his blog. (I know, it’s a hopelessly Midwestern approach to life).

  49. Zo Says:

    “A certain weariness befalls me—jail? he makes a point about jail?— as I read the rest, but then I realize, Shirky really thinks the world brought about by men being assholes has anything at all to recommend it!”

    From my post on Humorlessbitch at http://bit.ly/8X8Tsv

  50. Women need to BS more « Geoff Canyon’s Appeal to Authority Says:

    […] January 17 tags: jobs, women by gcanyon Yesterday I read NYU’s Clay Shirky’s piece A Rant About Women, where he says men are far more likely to shade the truth, or just plain lie, in order to get […]

Comments are closed.