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. Laurie Says:

    “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.”

    And that right there is part of the problem. You yourself are rewarding lying and exaggeration. You could try not doing that and see what happens. I see little to no awareness that you both benefited from and now perpetuate male privilege.

    How fucked up is it that is that what you think is “wrong” with women, so much so that you need to “rant about women,” is that *we’re not dishonest enough in a world that privileges male dishonesty*. Why not rant about a culture that rewards men for lying about their abilities? Or about the fact that if a woman lies about her abilities and get caught, it somehow taints not just her, but women in general?

    It’s clear that you think of yourself as an ally, but you seem woefully unaware of all the societal pressures working against women and all the ways in which men are rewarded by other men for the behavior which would get most women punished.

  2. Clay Shirky’s ‘A Rant Against Women’ | Inside the Nerdery Says:

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  3. Aidan Kehoe Says:

    A corollary to that is that men do the approaching in romance, in general, so we get rejected more, so we learn to care less about what other people think, so we have more self-confidence in other contexts. Swings and roundabouts, as they say.

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  6. M101 Says:

    You have to be supremely naive to think that women aren’t already professional liars.

    The difference between men and women is that men are conscious of their lies. Women on the other hand will defend their lies to the death. This is why women are notorious for remaining in denial or distorting the truth to backwards rationalize their failures.

    Men lie to get ahead. Women lie to protect their self-esteem. You’re just missing the point here.

    Ask these same men and women whether they’re good people or not. The men will suddenly become very truthful because there’s no career at stake whereas the women will become extremely deceitful– their self-esteem is under the guillotine.

    Men lie because they erroneously follow the “by any means” rationale, assuming that as long as the end is good (being able to eat and not end up homeless on the street), then the means to get there be damned. Stepping over crippled children to get to the front of the line may get your hands dirty, but it becomes a justifiable evil. Thus, lying serves as an ugly, embarrassing tool to get the job done.

    Women, on the other hand, lie through legalism; as long as they don’t officially, obviously or otherwise forget to bribe their conscience along the way, it’s possible to entertain ANY end, no matter how morally bankrupt. I.e., the destination can be over a cliff for all they care, just as long as they’re driving a pristine BMW on the way down.

    I would say that either approach will eventually result in disaster. But one will get us there sooner than the other.

  7. Sceptical Says:

    Was this written in the early 80s? You may have had a point once but hasn’t our world changed since then?

    Men NEED to be aggressive in the workplace because, despite how modern and fair we think our society is, they know they still need to be the breadwinner to considered successful. Us women demand fairness and equality when it suits us (like expecting promotions in th eworkplace) but then we really don’t want to share it when it comes to owning the domestic world (an no, I’m not talking about doing domestic chores, I mean who is the boss in the home).

    Basically women want the boys to share the authority in the boardroom with us, but we won’t share it at home. For too long we were preached to that we are the same as men and can have anything, be anything and we should fight them for it.

    But we’re not the same. We’re equal. And there’s a BIG difference betwen equality and sameness. I think the sooner women decide what they actually want the better the world wil be. Its a woman’s world now and I’m afraid the pendulum will again swing the other way.

  8. tim (Radio Clash) Says:

    Someone early on in the comments asked about a LBGT perspective – we’ve had the T and here the G (gay – a gay man) – like women, you tend to see the gender divide a little more sharply as an out gay man, although not as sharply as women do but certainly the ‘boys club’ of football/women/certain clubs etc. is mostly denied (yes I know there are football/rugby fans of all types, but I am a complete self-avowed sissy – do not like sports, sensitive arts grad type etc.).

    I also work as a freelancer – which ironically although I am bought in on my skillset (and can I also say I’m fucking awesome also! Well on occasion, if need be 😉 Great to read the ladies and men saying that, made me smile!) I do tend to get treated like ‘who does he think he is?’ and lowest of the low – by men and women alike actually…it’s like as the hired help Ive had situations where I can actually further the organisation through contacts or advice and it’s been actively ignored…so +1 on that…and yes I am terrible at self promotion.

    Took me years to realise I was good at what I do (interactive design and development) – especially Flash development, I’d almost have panic attacks about ‘how good I was’ and feeling a fraud. I wasn’t, and did the work well and sometimes incredibly fast and nearly every time – happy client. But that self doubt is endemic, and sadly not gendered, although I’m sure inculculated more in girls and women with the whole ‘Nice Girls Don’t Do That’ stuff…but I’m aware of the syndrome Clay talks about (even if he does come over a bit paternalistic and language could be better) in women I work with. The industry is quite mixed in gender, racial and sexuality terms, and the women rarely take the driving seat, even when most of my bosses are women, it seems like they are unsure of their own talents – confidence is really important for a manager cos indecision or unconfidence, even imagined can spread like a virus among staff…leaders need to appear confident, even when shitting it inside? That’s not bullshitting or being a jerk – quiet confidence is a powerful thing, even if illusory!

    Interestingly I’ve worked for one or two older women who do combine the hard ‘bitch’ approach with the caring side – one who I’ll never forget who actually switched into that mode at work when I found out my mother had died. That really helped – I could not imagine a bloke ever doing that, probably not even the gay ones…but Clay’s assertation that women should follow men is troubling – I don’t want more arrogant idiots who make ‘phobic jokes and act all boorish – they actively endanger the workplace, for me anyway. Depresses me….

    So i think you should combine the both – yes women (and poor, and minorities) should try to be more confident and organisations should encourage them to build support systems – and more importantly fight it’s own inherent racism/sexism/homophobia etc. I’d rather the system was changed rather than urge people to buy into it – but before that happens the realist advice is to act more confident and push push push…and fight fight fight – but don’t become the monster.

    Oh and the cultural differences are very true – confidence != arrogance those in the UK – as I’ve struggled to promote myself and realise my talents I’ve been called arrogant by friends by just saying I am good at what I do – yup Tall Poppy Syndrome, depressing also. The US approach might not work here.

    Also the social pressure thing reminds me of my partner’s sister, clever as her brother, working class, but decided not to go to the Grammar School and stay with her friends…he went onto University and onto a academic and political career, and onto other countries and international stage. She stayed and eventually became a housewife…her choice, but that socialisation can have a bad side re: taking chances and improving yourself, especially in teenage.

  9. Digitalia – Links For Wednesday 20th January 2010 Says:

    […] A Rant About Women « Clay Shirky Clay Shirky opens up a serious can of worms, noting that women do not push themselves forward in the way men do. Part of me wants to say "well, *duh*". Shirky suggests that if women behaved in a more self-aggrandising manner, they'd get more equal treatment. I'm just not sure that I want to encourage any more people to behave like some of the self-promoting male pricks I've met. (tags: gender culture business feminism) […]

  10. JD Says:

    I sort of wish there was a better way to succeed than to be a jerk. That’s a societal revolution that is not likely to occur, though. One of the maxims that most guys learn in about high school is that you need to be a jerk, because girls like jerks. Turns out, being a self-promoting D-bag is the model for success. I wish it were different. It’s related to confidence, though it’s not entirely the same thing…

  11. j_king Says:

    … and we’re still only talking about gender in binary terms.

    Honestly, what would you say to an FTM person who has been having trouble getting their work noticed?

    I wouldn’t have the faintest clue. “Buck up, and work harder?” is probably all I could offer. I have lots of friends at different places on the spectrum of gender and I still don’t know what to say around them sometimes. However what I have learned is that I have to stop assuming I know how the world works.

    The real reason why all of this kind of stuff happens IMO and everyone gets offended is because I think our brains like to categorize things and stick them in a hierarchy of importance. I don’t mean in a literal linear way such as, “men are more important than women.” It’s more of a web along many axis such as, “men have such attributes that society finds more favorable,” and thereby assign a subjective value for importance based on many factors. As soon as you encounter something new, your brain has to create a new category, readjust the hierarchy, and determine a new set of attributes. And all of this gets mixed up when we try and talk to other people about these kinds of problems by the hierarchy we use in our heads. Your hierarchy may classify women as passive and incapable of self-aggrandizement, and it might be true, but then you assume it’s a problem because it puts them below men in your hierarchy. That’s the real issue I’ve found in my experience.

    In your model of the world you assume it’s true and classify it as a problem… a problem of inferiority.

    And also, generalization.

    What I think needs to happen is to start teaching people about tolerance and stress the importance of public behavior. If equality really is important to you (as in, everyone, not just you, Clay), own up to it and stop classifying people. Focus on the real problems and not the ones in your head.

  12. Erin Says:

    Female here. I make 3 times what my boyfriend makes. I schmooze and network. I bust balls. Meanwhile, he’s too shy to pick up the phone and order pizza.

    Your imagined gender differences are just that – imaginary.

  13. UnderTheRadar Says:

    This is interesting. I work with a woman who exhibits all the qualities you attribute to men, except the overt “jerkieness.” If she wants something for her own benefit, she frames it as a universal problem and tells everyone that “something should be done” or, to her superiors, who tend to be male, that “you should fix this”. In response, it gets fixed to her benefit and her superiors or co-workers spend their time doing her work for her, instead of their own. She also gives herself titles that don’t exist in the organization, or aggrandize minuscule parts of her job that no one else does, putting that above the parts of her job that benefit the organization. I have to admit, before I sound bitter, that it works, and without the effort Clay had to take to learn the task he boasted he could do. As her female co-worker, it is infuriating that I end up doing the work, but I think I can learn a few lessons from her behavior. Her view I think is that I’m a schmuck for doing the work, and not manipulating others to do it for me. And maybe she’s right, in a way. I don’t need to be a jerk, but I could learn to “play” people a little more to get what I want. Maybe that’s more female.

  14. Beeline Labs » Blog Archive » Sisters, Raise Your Hands Says:

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  16. todd Says:

    I think it’s more about showing desire and energy, that you WANT to do something more than you Can, and that you’re driven to do it, and show Honesty in this.
    If you’re trying to convince but come across as dishonestly desiring the position, the energy is misplaced and seen through.
    Men just show the energy and desire, the skill is secondary. If a woman displays the energy of desire to get the position, maybe it’s reacted to differently. This might be instinctual, reaction being that the woman might not be trusted to be rational or clear-thinking.

  17. Sisters, Raise Your Hands | Bloghound Says:

    […] Clay Shirky, of New York University and author of my favorite social media book “Here Comes Everybody,” writes a thought provoking rant on his blog this week aptly titled “A Rant About Women.” […]

  18. Jennifer Says:

    This article really touched a nerve with me. Everything you have written feels right on the mark. I’m a PhD student, share an office with a handful of other students. The two males in the office were talking the other day, and what did they decide was the key to basically everything?


    And in a lot of ways they have a point. Overconfidence (or just a healthy amount of confidence, really) means being able to ask for what you want, what you expect, and get it. It means assuming that what you have to say is important, that people will want to listen to you. And these would be really useful self-perceptions to have, I think.

    Anyway, just wanted to say thanks for writing this. I will try harder to master the art of overconfidence!!

  19. Barce Says:

    I applaud Clay’s bravery in tackling gender issues and getting ahead.

    Here’s the thing and where I agree with @Emma . Let’s say we stripped the article of any gender. Then really it’s an article about folks who get ahead by unethical means, and those who don’t.

    Even if everybody was a con-artist, still some folks would get ahead disproportionately to their “need.”

    The real question is, “Why be practical when the practices are corrupt?”

  20. Nick Naranja Says:

    Women in general are more risk averse than men. I would actually say that women tend to overestimate the risks involved while men underestimate the risks. When I met my wife I was driving a POS camaro that would run quick quarter miles while paying for the minimum legal car insurance, while my future wife was driving a newer camry with the cadillac of insurance plans. In general, I think men are more inclined to be entrepreneurs, because of the risks involved. No matter all the gender equality business over the past decades deep down women are nest builders and nest protectors.

  21. jobo Says:

    I think there is one area being overlooked. Men get the assumption of competence till proven otherwise. Women do not. Women have to prove their competence every single time.

    I don’t have time to pull the research – but there are a number of studies around these kind of issues. The WSJ also ran an article about trans-gender scientists and how the perception of their work changed with their gender. One notable quote “His work is much better than his sister’s” All work was done by the same person. Peer reviewed articles with female names are reviewed much harder. The list goes on.

    Others issues that have research behind them – women that negotiate are negatively perceived by both men and women(this is just depressing).

    Women that represent themselves as as extremely competent/knowledgable are viewed as having poor social skills. Women that don’t represent themselves as such are viewed as weak.

    In other words – women can’t win. There is no line of action that gets the desired outcome.

    Eureka Alert is great resource for tracking these studies.

    Bottom line – most women are perceptive and quickly discover they aren’t allowed to BS like the guys, they are penalized for salary negotiations, and viewed as socially inept if they go toe-to-toe. But if they don’t then they’re viewed as doormats.

    There’s a great deal of cultural perception that needs to shift.

  22. Mike Says:

    More demonizing men. Men are jerks – self-promoting narcissists, anti-social obsessives, or pompous blowhards.

    I watch this kind of media. There is so much in our society about what jerks men are. To men, it’s only *other* men who act that way. To women, it’s a general prejudice that men are jerks, and women goddesses. Because sexism is only what happens to women, we completely overlook this.

    Yeah, this will make all the boys growing up in America – you know, the ones who commit suicide at a rate far, far greater than girls do, the ones who get their educations in a educational world run by women, where they fail much more often, to the point where far more women attend college – feel good about themselves. It’s ok; they can get job training by joining the service. 98% of the soldier fatalities in the foreign wars are male. Imagine if that were women.

    Our meme is that we only need to look at women’s lives, that males have it made. You people are @#$%^& blind.

  23. eric orchard Says:

    I have no idea how everyone being a total boor will improve the world. Maybe if men weren’t expected to be so aggressive and weren’t underestimating women as an automatic response things might be better for everyone.

  24. RGK73 Says:

    Your post is really bang on target. The point is , woman think too much about what the world think about them.They are much worried about what others want from them than what she wants.And that’s the main reason why she can’t promote herself the way man does.

  25. JennaMcWilliams Says:

    Amen, sisters (and sister-sympathetics).

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  28. Emma Says:

    An interesting article with some bang-on points, but by couching this in gender terms, you’ve obscured the main message and incited what will inevitably degenerate into a huffy, spluttering flamewar. Since moving abroad I’ve noticed that gender relations are to the US what race relations are to the UK — a topic on which popular furore and outrage are so diligently manufactured and regularly whipped up that all you have to do is lightly caress that hot button to reduce the average citizen to an incoherent frothing loon.

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  30. Haakon Says:

    Wow, you’ll always get in to trouble if you slice and dice by gender… 🙂

    …anyways, I’m a dude.

    I am not very responsible. I don’t REALLY plan for the future all that much, well, at least not in the health insurance, savings, kind of way. I dropped out of college. I’ve moved around a lot. I’ve frequently spent every last dollar to go on a trip, or to buy a saxophone… see, I’m a musician, so I frequently drop everything to hop in a van, sleep on couches, and carry amps around.

    … but I’m doing alright. Because I’ve frequently been broke, I’m always having to find a new source of income. I’ve worked a bunch of jobs, from building recording studios, to managing pasta shops, to working at fish factories…

    …and I got every single job by convincing myself and whoever was going to pay me that I could get it done… and I always have… that how I got in to music as well… “hey, I could do that! that looks easy!”… famous first words, it should be said!

    It is how I got in to software development. I mean, I’ve been programming since I was 13 years old and I remember back when web applications were tossed in to /cgi-bin, but I had never done it professionally, until I convinced a friend of a friend that I was the man for the job.

    What is the most convincing way to get a job? Ask for enough money that it seems like you must know what you’re doing. It works pretty much every time. The difference (and Clay, you miss this) between a con-man and myself is that I have NEVER made anyone feel like I ripped them off. They’re always incredibly happy with the results! That’s how I’ve learned to ask for more money. 🙂

    I’ve stopped calling it “hustling” because I’ve actually found myself in a career all of the sudden, with you know, experience and references and what not, but it doesn’t really stop me. I took on an iPhone development job without knowing the first thing about Objective-C, Cocoa, or XCode (but I did learn C++ in AP Computer Science, so… not technically a rookie). Needless to say, I do now and the client was happy. I’ve also learned that you can charge a lot more for iPhone development than web development… 😀

    This is a good thing. I feel completely justified every time I play it off like whatever task I’m signing on for is going to be a walk in the park. I don’t have any problems saying that I’ve done it before, either. Yup, that’s right, I don’t feel bad about lying to people to get money from them. I just make sure that I do whatever it is that they want done. Perhaps I know what I can and can’t do… it’s not like I’m signing up to be a field-goal kicker. It’s like when I signed up to build someone a recording studio… honestly, how hard is it to do construction? Being an alcoholic almost seems like a requirement. Oh, and I love busting my ass. You probably won’t do well in construction unless you can unload 140 sheets of drywall in an hour and LIKE doing it.

    Anyways, it’s not about being an asshole, or a liar, or a self-pompous jerk, it’s about convincing yourself that if you know maybe 20% of what you need to know to do something, that it is probably enough…

    … as for the gender issue, damn Clay, you’re on your own with that one. I learned to keep my mouth shut on that subject while I was busy not having a girlfriend in my highschool days… whatever subjective path I’ve led through life and whatever gender-based traits that I’ve noticed, are really much better off left in my brain, and not talked about… 🙂

  31. Steve Witham Says:

    Here’s where I think the rant goes off track: “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.”

    The important question– which you start out asking at the beginning of the sentence– isn’t whether to risk or avoid being considered a jerk by others. A confident person risks. Being a non-jerk involves risks. The question is whether to be a jerk in one’s own estimation.

    Without showing you understand what a jerk is, you’re not making a case for being a jerk.

  32. Susan McGowan Says:

    He was trying to enroll in a design course in college and the professor said “how’s your drawing?”. WHAT??? I have never gotten into any course, job, etc. without showing a portfolio. Nobody has asked me that. I had to show it. Could it be because I’m female?

  33. K Says:

    I loved your post. I’ve been thinking about this lately as well. I recently wrote about something similar in one of my recent posts: Geeks drive girls out of Computer Science.

    “I once sat in a group of female heads (principals) of boarding schools. Each woman talked about how it was that she decided to go after the Head of School job. Out of 8 Heads of School, only one of them admitted that she had wanted the job and pursued it. The other seven all talked about having a friend, coworker, or administrator who encouraged them to apply for the job. And every one of them was more than qualified for the position, but was timid about seeking it without some encouragement.”

  34. Cat Says:

    You are so totally right in this article. No, women don’t need to be arrogant bastards, but I’m learning more and more every day that the reason that less-talented male artists have more attention and success than my work is only because they do the things that the people in your examples do. Many of them do it to an annoying extent, but I’m realizing that I need to get the balls to do it myself. Talk myself up, promote myself, and ask for others to recognize me as a successful artist.

  35. quiet is ok « dComposing Says:

    […] to Comments I’m having a hard time understanding how anyone can defend Clay Shirky’s A Rant About Women, a blog post that’s receiving a tremendous amount of attention in the blogosphere and on […]

  36. Vicky Nguyen Says:

    This is an interesting rant. I don’t have a solution either. But I will say this, you should check out my personal blog and write about it. http://www.vickynguyen.com. It’s awesome.

  37. Vicky Nguyen Says:

    This is an interesting rant. I don’t have a solution either. But I will say this, you should check out my personal blog and write about it. It’s awesome.

  38. nparmalee Says:

    I appreciate the intent, but I’m tired of hearing about what’s wrong with women. I’m tired of characteristics that run a gamut in both genders being assigned as weaknesses in women.

    I’m nothing like what you describe, so where do I fit in this model?

    This is, in fact, my serious answer to your serious question. I’ll play with the boys any day of the week, and I’ll bring my best game, no matter what the game.

    My answer is: Stop telling me why I am a problem.

    I take your point in seriousness, and I am giving you a serious answer. Women are not a problem. Stop trying to solve us.

  39. ace9415 Says:

    Great post. It’s sad to see that most people who commented here don’t have the capacity to look beyond their own egos to understand it. The irony is delicious.

  40. Amy Jenkins Says:

    I had to laugh out loud! How many opportunities have I missed because I didn’t want to be that asshole, even though I was fully qualified for the task… how many times have I looked at a friend who “made it happen” and thought, “Wow they had to behave like such an asshole to do that!” How mysterious!

    I don’t think this rant is a put down at all- I think it’s saying something that isn’t normally addressed so clearly. From my own experiences, I’d say that at some very critical moments, I chose to be liked by my peers rather than admired for my ruthlessness. Is that definitively female? I’m not particularly girly, so I’d say it’s more my personality, and how I prefer to relate to other people. Getting stuck with gender accusations is always a drag.

    Some of those “choosing not to be that asshole” experiences created trusting and deep relationships for me, and some of them cut me off from advancing in my creative endeavors. I think what Clay is saying here is that those opportunities exist for everyone, but only some have the personalities to choose the aggressive path or techniques. Reading this rant helped clarify some of those mysterious leaps I’d like to make.

  41. Anne Says:

    Hahahahahahahahaha. Oh, man. Awesome. I needed a good laugh.

    Oh, wait, was this a serious assessment of what women should be attempting to do? Or what we aren’t doing? Wow. Okay. Well, all I can say is, women can be as assertive as they want. We often are. I’m in uni classes right now, as a film student. In the classes with equal numbers men and women, the hand raisers tend to be equal parts both genders.

    But then we, as women, start hearing stories. Stories about film graduate schools. Where the teachers start the women down the fast track to being Producers instead of Directors or Cinematographers. You might not care about the psychology of it, but the fact that many women tend to know just how much history and patriarchy is working against them both overtly and subconsciously, it definitely begins to play a role in our “self esteem” and “assertiveness.” Especially when an author tells me it should be obvious what gender an assertive student is, and I imagine a woman. I’ll give you a hint: It’s not as obvious as you think it is unless you’re you.

  42. Do women need to be jerks to succeed? « Jame Ervin’s @ Work Says:

    […] be on TechnoGirlTalk’s podcast!  And the buzz of the week, Clay Shirky’s post, “A rant about women.”  We all know how many people spew off nonsense day after day on the internet, but this […]

  43. Michael Robbins Says:

    Are you sure you’ve ever met any women?

  44. Liz McLellan Says:

    To all the people in a huff about this piece, rather than being reactive here – please go to linkedin.com and craft some serious well written praise for the women you’ve worked with over the years. Spend the time writing recomendations rather than blogging. I guarantee there are lots of women out there who have trouble with counting their talents and strengths much less promoting themselves.

    It is much less about self promotion than honest assessment from your peers, co-workers, clients and bosses these days. Self promotion goes a lot farther when you have actual testimonials to back up the bluster.

    The gift of gab will get you only so far. When it get’s down to it we want to be surrounded by competent fun smart people regardless of gender. We want to work with people who challenge us, have an esprit de corp and a hunger to really make a difference. Be that kind of woman or man and you will be fine.

    I have no problem with what Clay is saying. I know plenty of women who have no sense of bluster at all. For whatever reason whomever they looked up to didn’t teach it. I do imagine that there are lots of men out there without it as well. It’s a skill introverts just don’t train in.

    Actually this might have been better if you subbed the word ‘introvert’ for women. Introverted men don’t do any better at this…

    No one in America was ever hurt by learning some showmanship.

  45. William Tell Says:

    I heard some phrase awhile ago that I totally agree with even though it’s a total generalization

    women underestimate their abilities and men overestimate their abilities …
    I’m paraphrasing

    After being married for 5 years to a women who makes a lot more money than I do and is smarter than me I feel there’s a lot of truth to that statement and what Shirky says in his post.

    It wouldn’t hurt for women to sell their “real” abilities the same way men puff up theirs. It’s not arrogant – it’s just trying to play on the same field.

  46. Venkat Says:

    Having just finished Matt Ridley’s entertaining, well-argued and thought-provoking book on sexual selection, The Red Queen, I am inclined to a) agree with you that this gender difference exists b) that it is rooted in genetics and it won’t be easy to modify with cultural interventions.

    The twitter-sized argument would be: women are designed to be courted, men to do the courting.

    Curiously, I think there is a general tendency as a culture matures, for men to become more feminine, and both genders to become more childlike (what some call the feminizing and infantilizing effects of culture). So there is an asymmetry here. Biologically/genetically, I am told, men are basically mutant women, so it makes some vague sort of sense that men can be feminized more easily than women can be masculinized.

    I see a lot of comments by women pointing out (with some justice) that obviously men will get along better in a world design for men to get along better in, and perhaps a feminine-design society would not need this sort of aggression etc. (perhaps gossip, passive aggresion and backstabbing instead? Choose your gender poison :P)… but I don’t think that falsifies Clay’s basic point, that women are less able to adopt a certain behavior pattern in environments that reward it.

    Clay, I hope you haven’t pulled a Larry Summers on yourself. Hopefully we’ve evolved a bit and acquired more of a sense of humor and evolutionary realism in talking about gender differences since that dumb incident.


  47. muaythai Says:

    I dunno, the women I’ve worked with in the past that try to be all masculine and cocky, etc. are usually a total pain in the ass. It’s like they overcompensate and get it all wrong. I’m a dude BTW.

  48. childhoodsend Says:

    If you truly respected the teacher you say you wanted to be your teacher you should have contacted them ahead of time and asked them what prerequisites they had for their class in stead of bullshitting them but, then your line of work is all about BS…

    If your type of thinking hadn’t metastasized beyond the world of make believe where getting away with it is as good as never having done the deed, it wouldn’t matter so much but, it has and, we are all (including you and those you influence) diminished and endangered by it.

    I am by the way a male military vet and I have seen situations where someone like you bullshitted themselves into a position they were not PREPARED FOR and got men better then them killed, or worse…

    You are no more a man then any of the other fools like you.

  49. links for 2010-01-19 « My Weblog Says:

    […] A Rant About Women « Clay Shirky (tags: management psychology) […]

  50. Nat Says:

    Agree with Katie’s post. Did you really think you are the first person to make this point?

    It’s actually kind of hilarious that your “rant” is phrased as though you, personally, just made the discovery that women tend to be less flagrantly assertive than men in the workplace. 10 minutes of Googling would have taught you that women are constantly being advised to be more assertive in the workplace, and would also have directed you to research findings like this one: “Assertive women perceived negatively” (http://www.troymedia.com/?p=7005). In order to succeed, women need to be assertive without seeming “too” assertive. See Laura’s post above for an example.

    If your student sending out draft reference letters had been a woman, she would have run the risk of getting a negative, even angry, response from one of her referees. (_You_ might not have responded in such a manner, but she couldn’t know that in advance.) Women have to walk a very fine line between “not assertive enough” and “bitch”. It takes a lot of practice and it’s damn hard.

    That’s why it’s so hilarious to see you come stumbling into the picture with your “I just discovered that women aren’t as assertive as men!” rant. What’s next Sparky, will you discover that sales guys use a lot of sports metaphors? Or maybe that when most managers say “That’s no problem, take all the personal time you need,” they don’t completely mean it?

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