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. Lisa Says:

    Really? Seriously? Uh. Women CHOOSE not to behave poorly. As do many men. I didn’t make up this well-known concept, and I don’t pat myself on the back when I try to practice it daily: Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
    Agree with all commenters who disagree with this crap because it’s not based in reason. Is this satire?
    I will grant one thing: women need to get it together for sure. But not in the sense that this “rant” discusses. As the gentleman exemplifies, the revolution is sorely needed.

    “The imagination has been so debased that imagination–being imaginative– rather than being the linchpin of our existence now stands as a synonym for something outside ourselves like science fiction or some new use for tangerine slices or raw pork chops” John Guare, Six Degrees of Separation

  2. What Are You Really Saying? « the noise of the street enters the house Says:

    […] people who are interested in what I write about have seen Clay Shirky’s recent blog post, A Rant About Women. While the title of the blog entry itself is a bit of a misnomer (I don’t think Shirky is […]

  3. Lori Dreyer Says:

    Kudos Theresa !! Well said ..Enough said!!

  4. Alba Serda Says:

    Thanks for posting, I very much enjoyed your newest post. I think you should post more often, you obviously have talent for blogging!

  5. A Response To Clay Shirky’s Rant | India News Blog, Latest News From India, Latest Blogs From India Says:

    […] A Rant About Women, Clay Shirky observes that women do not mimic specific bombastic aspects of their male […]

  6. dolceedallineare Says:

    No surprise, since male lifetime achievement seems to be “My cock is bigger than your cock”.

  7. Links 1/25/10 « naked capitalism Says:

    […] A Rant About Women Clay Shirky (hat tip reader Alexis). Frankly, I think this is sample bias. I know women more than a few women who are shameless self-promoters, just not in the chest-thumping style he describes. And to the extent there are gender differences, he does not consider that this behavior amounts to risk-aversion, and given women’s less certain hold on corporate positions, it might maximize expected outcomes. For instance, an MIT study found that female academics in the sciences had to have on average 2.5 times as many articles published as men to get tenure. How far is bullshitting going to get you in settings like that? […]

  8. kripssmart Says:

    @AirShowFan – nothing more nothing less just the right!… In short, that was a wonderful comment! 🙂

    Being a girl I think I could say more about the social norms that influences a girl’s mindset here. If its not cent percent, most of the girls do have a confusion towards an approach especially when it involves risk – if they want to do it or not. I could say that as a sign towards making yourself and your surroundings more secure, which in a particular aspect is too good to be criticized. But there is a psychological point after this which we are discussing here, which may not have anything to do with sex at all (but if you see this psychological point in girls more, its just because of the above mentioned social norms that prevail over her).

    From my experience I will say it all depends on how you have set your mind to view a particular thing, which mainly goes back to your background and your surroundings from where you came. And finally, showing a controlled aggression in your attitude which largely describes your behavior, may not essentially be showing off at all!

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  10. Erin Says:

    Studies have been done on this subject. Research found that while girls and boys are equally outspoken and confident in grade school, girls do not remain this way into middle and high school in the same way that boys do. As a mother of two children, one of each gender, I’m beginning to get the idea that there is a significant social force at work here. My daughter is what you’d call spunky. Her teachers have repeatedly complained about it. I’ve heard things like, “She speaks to me as if she’s an equal and not a student” and “You’re going to have trouble with this one.” My son is equally fierce, but the only negative feedback we get about him is about his handwriting and missing homework. So perhaps women stink at self-promotion because there’s a constant, ambient pressure for us to stfu.

  11. Stephen Boyington Says:

    A great example. I work in a profession where you have to take an examiination to become certified as a professional. To do this, you have to fill out the application, list all your accomplishments and explain why you are worthy to be a licensed professional. I worked in a mid-sized office and was considered one of the better workers. About six of us applied to take the examination at the same time. All the others were accepted. I was not. The reason: I didn’t have enough relevant experience. I needed another year. I had the exact same experience as the others. I wrote up all of my experience. Apparently, they were better at explaining their experience, I thought. I asked them how they worded their applications, etc. They all readily admitted to lying. They were all men. It was just the thing to do, they said.

  12. Stephen Boyington Says:

    Lots of truth. Anyone with any honesty knows that, in general, men are much better liars. They do it more often. The reason? It helps them overall. They sleep with more women. They get more opportunities. They avoid paying the piper.

  13. Cathleen Rittereiser Says:

    I love this. I think you’re right. I’ve worked on Wall Street for years – I’ve engaged in this behavior. I saw this behavior on a project I worked on and without giving away details that would identify who and what I’m talking about, I went to my boss (a hedge fund guy) and said “Now I know why men hate working with women.” I saw this was written last week, but would love your opinion on how this relates to the recent reports and studies from Pew Research about women being bread winners and married to men that are not as educated as them. Seems like part of the same continuum.

  14. Women and Self-Promotion @ The Working Mother Experience Says:

    […] in general need to be a little better at talking themselves up.  Consider this blog post from Clay Shirky (Warning:  foul language in the Shirky blog post) called Rant About Women I stumbled onto via […]

  15. koala Says:

    Richard Dawkins made the same points about male/female differences by the way. I cannot remember the name of the book, but I distinctly remember the comment because it confirmed what I’d read in that Mars/Venus book at the time, on gender differences.

  16. koala Says:

    Women should get equal opportunity but they will never be the *same* as men, and vica versa. Who says being same is “better” anyway? One size does not fit all when it comes to professions, so different stuff will be had by different people. I find this “be the same” talk futile. Men are biologically wired to stand out, get attention because they attract(ed) females this way. Same goes for our hunter gatherer instincts. The other side of the equation is nurturing something, growing it, thinking about its quality, and that’s more a female thing. Men would like to hunt and come back with biggest, most number of kills (quantity), whereas females priority has been children. You do not leave the child alone for a kill because it could be a pray, so you *protect* that child. Nurture it. All risk/reward calculation must change, must be wired differently to account for this. Men can throw themselves at a dangerous situation because historically they only risked their own life.

  17. Living Clay | Flowers To Plant Says:

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

  18. Val Says:

    let’s get a few things straight:
    *I don’t know what you mean by “rant” but your piece is fully baked — you’ve identified an issue, you offer possible explanations, and a solution or two (be more assertive girls, maybe?).
    *I encourage you to stick to your knitting. This is a distraction from the very good work you do.
    *None of us is an expert on gender/sex. Which I suppose means we are all walking-talking experts. Your next rant should be about politics.
    *so many women commenters sound/are so self-righteous and aggrieved. Really lame.
    *lady Macbeth is an archetype for a reason. Women are labeled “cunning” not by accident.
    *in the words of Henry Rollins: “men are morons, and women are evil.”
    *Harold Bloom doesn’t have a problem “promoting” women.
    *whether women acknowledge this out loud, many regard their “men” as puppets, and the women move the strings.
    *clay get over it. Women get over it.
    *if you want to do a more thoughtful piece on lying, deception, cunning — call up one of those plagiarism-catching saas companies and ask how it breaks down by gender.
    *testosterone is testosteroe

  19. Sue Black Says:

    Fabulous! Thanks Clay. For some reason we women seem to think that we need permission to behave arrogantly. In some way you have just given it to us :)) thank you. I will send a link to all the women in tech I know and cross my fingers and hope 😉

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  21. Say it with me, “My work is awesome” « Storm Recruitment Services Limited Says:

    […] entertaining and has a bit of bad language.  It is a rant.  A rant about how women, on the whole, do not have a self-promotion gene and how that effects their levels of success.   If you need a bit of inspiration before doing that networking or going for that new job or […]

  22. Kristina Says:

    Hi Clay,
    I think you’re absolutely right about girls not wanting to promote themselves. I’m a 23-y-o illustrator who’s just learning that the only way to get people to look at your portfolio is to volunteer it. At first I was afraid people would think I was rude, but eventually I realized that editors and art directors are more worried about their next deadline than the nuances of my behavior. I learned that people forget very easily and it’s okay to email them until they respond. In fact, I learned that I deserve a response and I’ll make myself a nuisance until I get on. I don’t think it’s being a self-aggrandizing jerk. You have to nudge people or they won’t notice you. And why should they?

    It was actually my husband who encouraged me to have this attitude. I guess girls are told to be polite and humble when they’re little, but if anyone lets them in on the secret — that politeness and humility don’t get you anywhere — well, why go back? You wondered how to fix the problem, and that’s my answer. Just tell your girl students it’s not rude to call back 10 times until someone answers.

    And hey, while I’m at it, check out my work, it’s awesome!

  23. Teresa Nielsen Hayden Says:

    Speaking as a woman, and on behalf of every woman friend I have, I want to disavow Nancy Cummings’ comments. I found that kind of thinking repulsive when I was a girl and was given =Fascinating Womanhood= to read, and it repels me now.

    Perhaps more to the point, her description of how women operate in the world isn’t true of any women I know. Frankly, it makes me wonder about Nancy Cunningham’s own gender.

    Here’s the heart of her comments:

    “Ladies, I admit we have confidence issues, but you all have your own unique power for getting what you want. It may be more subtle at times, but it can be just as deadly. We excel at manipulation.”

    No, we don’t. Not as a class. Some women are good at manipulation, just like some men. I’m not good at manipulation at all. What I am good at is doing my job. When doing it involves the exercise of power, the mode that comes naturally to me is to use it clearly and straightforwardly. Putting myself forward is my only real path to success.

    Continuing on with Nancy Cunningham:

    “Most of the time, men don’t even know we’re doing it.”

    Malarkey. An individual man may be temporarily fooled, but men in general are perfectly well aware of the whole manipulative female thing. Most of the men I know resent it and are grossed out by it.

    “Granted some of us are better then others, but women have been working men for centuries to get what we want. We have ways of making you believe it was all your idea. Call it what you want, but the fact is, men can be slow, simple minded creatures and if we didn’t light a fire under you now and then, nothing would get done.”

    Yeah, right. That’s why women get the top jobs, earn more than men, and suffer no discrimination as a result of being old or unattractive. (Subtitled for the clueless: I’m being sarcastic. None of those things are true. Quite the opposite, in fact.)

    Manipulation isn’t power. It’s a low-yield way to get what you want when you don’t have power. It’s a golddigger wheedling resellable luxury goods out of a sugar daddy because the highest salary she can earn is a tiny fraction of his. It’s an overqualified executive secretary maneuvering to occasionally get sent to the company’s winter sales conference in Florida when the newly hired male trainee executives take their own attendance there for granted. That isn’t power. It’s the crumbs that are left after those in power have eaten their fill.

    “They say that behind every great man there is a even greater woman. Sometimes, she the one who never gets noticed, just prefers to blend in. Never underestimate her.”

    But feel free to underpay her, never credit her, and never promote her? That’s how it works out. You can’t excel while remaining invisible. You have to choose one or the other.

    “Don’t think for one second that she doesn’t know what she’s doing. The art of manipulation requires one to be less obvious on occasion, otherwise your inflated male egos will run screaming. You can’t stand thinking you are being told what to do even if it is for your own good.”

    I’ve watched that one play out over and over again. The women who preen themselves over their subtle manipulative strategies work themselves to exhaustion, keeping track of things and being supportive. They tell themselves they’re secretly in control, when what they’re controlling is the work the men don’t want to have to do. The men get to hold the prominent positions, do the interesting work, exercise real power, and collect the rewards.

    Being willing to put myself forward is the only way I’ve ever moved up the ladder. Has it also gotten me shot down? Sure it has — and some of those really hurt. But the alternative is to be the brilliant, devoted, overqualified, deeply appreciated, but somehow never adequately compensated support staffer who never moves up the ladder.

    Set your price high. Pick self-confident bosses. Sing your own praises. If you can’t bear to praise yourself, enter into a temporary conspiracy with one or two other women to sing each others’ praises. Once you’ve got the knack of it, do it for yourself.

  24. Gyno-binary « Something to be said. Says:

    […] This week three things combined to make me think about things a little more closely. At the start of the week, someone flagged up Clay Shirky’s blog rant about women being terrible self publicists. It chimed with me. I’ve heard jerk after jerk blow hard and strut about like a peacock. It happens a lot. His blog makes many interesting points and examples related to this – read it here. […]

  25. Regina Says:

    This all boils down to one simple fact that a majority of women want to be LIKED. Women who don’t have this desire often behave as the men Clay describes. It is the essence of the quote:

    “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.”

  26. q Says:

    I think the comments about changing the system are interesting. But they’re also incredibly naive. The problem with a system that conforms to the people in it, rather than the other way around, is that there will always be those who game the system to get on top. Study game theory.

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  29. Conrad Says:

    A study by Transport for London looked into the issue of whether women cyclists are more likely to be killed by lorries than men because they obey red lights and then wait in driver’s blind spots.

    Not a direct endorsement of your view, but food for thought.


  30. Fachtna Midwest Says:

    OK, I’ve read enough.

    Thank you so much. Here, all this time, I just needed a man to explain things for me. You should run the National Organization for Women – the reason why we can’t get ahead is that we just didn’t have a good man to lead us.

    Here’s your argument: women don’t act like more like men, so women don’t get ahead.

    Unarticulated premise: Men = superior. Women = inferior.

    At least one commentator complained about colleges being overly “feminized,” and mocking women for wanting attention.

    That’s because women = inferior, and we should know our place, right?

    When you automatically, unexamined-ly assume that it is better to be male, you angered a lot of women. Surprise!

    Women will never, EVER get ahead, no matter how hard we try, no matter how we outsmart you, outgraduate you, outperform you, so long as the unexamined, completely accepted mindset of male = superior, female = inferior continues to be conventional wisdom.

    We ARE trying to act like you. Have you noticed the birthrates dropping? The divorce rates increasing? Women who act like men don’t have time to be a husband’s personal concierge. Women who act like men don’t have time to have babies and raise families. But unlike men, women don’t get to have their own wives (except in a few states). And unlike men, women don’t have total control over their reproduction (do some research on the constant battle over birth control, abortion, and how underreported and under-prosecuted rape is).

    But I’m a woman, so what would I know, right? Maybe I should get my husband to explain it to you.

  31. Oleana Says:

    Two words for you Clay and they “ain’t Merry Christmas”. Fortunately younger guys do a much better job of having non-discriminating perceptions. And they are cuter, too. They are the future. You my friend are the past.

  32. Harvey Sarles Says:

    As you and many others thought about the emerging (new ideas of the) University, we are in a very changing moment. To report on and analyze our experience in the University, is interesting perhaps, but it doesn’t much help to shape future possibilities.

    In my experience in the context of my course “On Human Nature” (at the U. of Mn. Cultural Studies & Comp. Lit.) we read (critically) Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate” which doesn’t really bother to include women as a full half of the human, in addition, we read NYT Science Writer, Natalie Angier’s -“Woman”. The men in the class were astounded about how women are, and how little we really know about what it means to be “woman.”

    So: never mind what it “has taken” to succeed in the University which you and I know only too well, but to attempt to create “A Vision: the Idea of a University in the Present Age.” – I think my “Vision” is very timely, and demands that we rethink the nature of a University is these emerging global…moments – rather than all looking at other Universities and judging ourselves in some vaguely competitive ways: the 3rd best public research university (U. of Mn’s proud boast).

    To think out, to inspire the University, knowledge, meaning shall involve us all…together. Till we meet again.

  33. EMM Says:

    I don’t have a lot to add to the already pretty well-covered discussion but I will add this article covering recent research appearing in Psychological Science (June 09)

    “Self-effacing people are secretly confident”


    A lot of what’s being discussed is perception vs. reality. And cultural differences. And we should be a lot smarter about this by now (as a whole). For me that is what’s most disturbing.

    Really, we need to check our own assumptions about people and what they present. We need to slow down enough to notice who’s really bringing something to the table and who is merely self-promoting and aggrandizing.

    Intriguingly, I consider my passage from self-promotion to quiet self-confidence an *evolution* in my behavior and thought, not the reverse. When I was young I was much more about me-me-me and tending to debate and fighting to be acknowledged and heard all the time. I wonder how many others on this board may feel the same.

    I have a lot more room now to listen, to be responsive (and therefore offer real skill and help to others). I much prefer the conversations and relationships I engage in today. I learn more and I have more to offer. Ironically (and perhaps this is the law of the paradoxes) I find more fruitful results and *more* opportunities to enter fields from the “beginner’s mind” approach (that is knowing I don’t know everything but just being confident I can handle anything because I already have many times before) and as a result colleagues that “get it” also understand more deeply what I am bringing to the table.

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  35. A Rant About Women « Mindfault: A mind forever segfaulting Says:

    […] A Rant About Women By Clay Shirky 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. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)ZZ Top Bad Girl Montage……………………………………………….What If? by Lucinda Williams…………………………………………. […]

  36. check up Says:

    today has found my panties in an unmitigated bunch. Why? NYU prof Clay Shirky’s recent blog post, entitled “A Rant About Women.” Though the title is plenty irksome in its own right

  37. Eva Says:

    The behavior described here doesn’t have to be seen as self-aggrandizement or blustering. It could be read as “men are more willing to fail and get rejected, even when the odds are clearly against them.”

    This is similar to discussions about dating where men are expected to ask women out more and so usually have a lot more experience getting rejected, as well as not. Failing often at a variety of endeavors and social situations is valuable emotional experience that perhaps most women do not gain as much of because they tend towards risk avoidance and wanting to be liked.

    However some of the argument here is that whatever the spin, women need to start caring less how others see them. Emotionally that doesn’t always make sense, maybe part of it’s a stronger need for harmony and trust (and not necessarily impression management) which is just a different way of being in the world and being part of a group.

    As other commentators have said, there are jobs that a lot of people could do, even if they’re not necessarily qualified, but the hard part is getting the opportunity to do them and to learn. So bluffing your way in sometimes is a strategy that makes sense. But what if you don’t see it as an individual arc? What if it’s about the profession or the community, i.e., there will be cheaters, but in general let’s pretend it’s mostly a meritocracy because that system will make for a better profession? If the truly qualified were to do those jobs they might do a lot more with them that the person who bluffed their way in? I don’t know if that’s too naive but maybe that’s why I’d like to work for an all-female company one day.

  38. AirShowFan Says:

    Here is the unique angle that I think I can contribute to this discussion.

    I’m a praise junkie. (Google New York Magazine’s “How not to talk to your kids” to understand what I mean). I get a high from being told that I do exceptionally good work. Even more so than most people, I think. (I also become slightly angry, feeling insulted and patronized, when I am praised for things that I feel aren’t actually praise-worthy, but that’s another issue).

    When I was a little kid, I was told over and over by my parents to not show off too much. In middle school, I noticed that other kids didn’t like a kid who knew all the answers, so I learned to keep my mouth shut most of the time. Luckily in high school and college and in my career, I’ve been surrounded by bright creative people, and I felt encouraged to put my work and ideas out there and say “Isn’t this cool?”, and to enjoy the feeling of seeing people like what I come up with.

    But in social circles it’s still not nice to show off. When asked where I went to college (in social situations, not at work) I usually reply with the geographical region, not the school name. I wish I could talk about all the projects I have done, and am doing, but it’s just not socially acceptable. I wish I could show off my drawings and pictures and Lego machines and structural simulations and magazine articles and aerodynamics experiments, but the opportunities to do so are extremely limited.

    In other words, I have a hunger to talk about the neat stuff I’ve done. So whenever an opportunity comes up for me to say “I’m knowledgeable and capable, and my work is pretty awesome”, I embrace it. Yes, these opportunities happen to be good for my career as well, but the main motivator that leads me to seek them out and fight for them is how much I love showing off, and how I want to get to do it more often, since there are so few situations when I can do it without turning people off.

    Do most people not feel this to some extent? Do men feel this more than women? I don’t know. Maybe it’s something that techie people, and nerds in other fields, feel more than non-nerds. I say this because whenever I’m in a dinner-table full of nerds (college friends, coworkers, or the young people at my UU church who happen to be mostly grad students), we all talk about cool stuff we’ve done, and we love it. I’m a techie nerd, but it can be fascinating to talk with a history nerd or a sociology nerd about their research, and in the process ask questions that to them address basic assumptions but to me give me insights into the kinds of question that their work addresses and the kind of knowledge they aim to generate/compile and how they do it and why it’s valuable. It’s great. However, non-nerds get turned off by such conversations. (I do miss living in Silicon Valley).

    I’m also an introvert. I’m good at networking and at schmoozing, but doing so is tiresome and a skill that I learned very deliberately because I knew it would lead to good opportunities. Maybe that has something to do with it as well. Like most introverts, I hate it when something is presented in a way that values flair and style over content and substance, I hate “marketing”, I hate people who put too much inflection in their voice (as though I were a 2nd grader)… I want to like something for what it is and what it can do, not for how exciting you can make it sound with flashy presentation. This mindset, on the other hand, is what Jill Burrows commented about: “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’.

    So introverts (if we want to succeed) have to learn to be good at networking and schmoozing, and to become good at selling. We have to become good at selling in all those ways that WE find insulting to be sold to; flashy presentations and all. Maybe this means that the world is unfair and that when we do good work it should be recognized by itself. But the imperfections of people cause the world to be unfair, and whether or not we try to change the world and make it more fair, one way or the other we should do what we can to get ahead in it, whether you’re a man or a woman, introvert or extrovert, academic or engineer or executive or artist or marketer.

  39. AirShowFan Says:

    I see two major trends within these comments:

    1) We live in an unfair system, and women should learn to do a better job of getting what they can out of it. (This goes along with Clay’s take on it).

    2) We live in an unfair system, and instead of blaming the victim or having the victim change so as to be less of a victim, we should change the system!

    I don’t think these two ideas are self-contradictory. Yes, there are things that women (everyone, really) can do to get more of the system than they naturally would get without doing those things, so they should learn to do those things. And yes, a system that rewards people based on unfair criteria should be changed. While we change it, though, we can also play along with it. There are many things I want to change in the systems that make up my life, but (except for unethical things like lying and cheating) I go along with the system and do my best to participate in its flawed practices/expectations and get the most out of them WHILE I also try to change them.

    Are women victims? Sure. Women have to choose between “Get success in a career” (but have a lot of people see you as a bitch) and “Have people like you” (but have less success), while men get both. That’s not fair. Also, on average, women are evaluated more harshly, seen as less capable (all other things being equal), etc. So not all of women’s disadvantages come from their own non-optimal behavior, from their being averse to negotiation and self-promotion. But given this unfair system, it’s ok to point out to women how to optimize their behavior to get more out of it. That’s not “blaming the victim”. It’s helping them. Sure, it’s a band-aid help, “taking aspirin for a brain tumor” type help, but it’s still important and can be done ALONG WITH trying to change the more fundamental problems in the system.

  40. AirShowFan Says:

    I’ve been a big fan of Clay’s ever since Here Comes Everybody came out. His talks about cognitive surplus and Wikipedia, the power-law distribution of online volunteer projects, and building operating systems out of love, are wonderful. I write for an internal company blog where I work, and I often mention ideas that I learned from Clay. But I’ve never tried to get in touch with him and tell him these things. In a Web 2.0 world, shame on me!


    I know I’m a little late to the party, but I wanted to read every comment before I posted my own. As I read them, I kept finding so many insightful or thought-provoking nuggets that I started noting them down to reply to them… and then there were so many of them that I pretty much gave up on that idea. But I do want to reply to Clay’s post, and to the handful of ideas that are in most of the comments.

    I’ll split what I want to say into three comments. One is the summary that I wrote for myself of all the comments so far. (This is for anyone who wants to save themselves the trouble of going through all 7 pages). Second, I will say what I think about what Clay says and about the comments. And third, I will give my own anecdotal story which I think has an angle not yet covered in the comments. (I read all the comments to make sure that my angle hasn’t been mentioned).

    Ok, so, comment one of three: A summary of the comments so far. Snippets from the best ones, and from the first ones to mention each major meme:


    Hmmm, this comment was rejected as “probably spammy”. Maybe it was the huge word-count. I took my summary and put it here:


  41. GrownUp Girl Says:

    Clay, this is so right. I don’t think it’s news, but I think that as you are an educator and see young people at the beginnings of their careers, it’s absolutely worth bringing it up again and again. Women do fear public failure, and work through proxies, and they don’t get the credit they deserve because of that. For the record, I’m a girl who talked my way into my first two jobs because I thought I was smart enough to figure it out. Turns out I was, and became an asset to both companies. The amusing thing was that I am quite sure both employers knew I was –at the least–over-reporting my skills, but saw that as a positive trait for what were essentially entry-level positions they hoped to see become something more.

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  44. Douglas Beagley Says:

    If we must become “arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks” in order to achieve success, then it is success itself that needs meditation, evolution, and redefinition… not gender-based personality traits.

    I continue to feel that somewhere along the line, men managed to convince women that what we have is better, somehow. You’ve all been fooled, so now you’re stuck in our world, playing by our set of benchmarks. I am so sorry.

    Becoming famous or successful in the workplace by being immoral is not “success”, it is a crushing, horrific defeat, and the dissolution of value.

    I support women in building a definition of success that is not measured in cock inches.

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  48. Judy Says:

    The most important thing about this rant (which my experience backs up) is that women put their own ceiling on their world – as well as the one men put on it.

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