Shirky’s “Rant About Women”

So, a few of you might have seen links to this (A Rant About Women) floating around the place. Clay Shirky writes of an incident where he received a request from a former student to write a letter of recommendation, and agreed. The former student wrote a draft letter for Shirky’s guidance/approval that apparently begged for such sesquipedalia as panegyric, encomium and laudation. Shirky, taken somewhat aback with respect to memories of a fairly ordinary student, got out his red pencil and took out the most purple plaudits to result in a positive but no longer hyperbolic LOR.

After posting this off, Shirky realised that by over-egging the pudding, the student had actually elicited a much more positive LOR from him than he probably would have otherwise given, because Shirky was cutting back from extreme statements instead of building up from a hesitant base. His conclusion is that the student’s arrogance and willingness to claim more than had actually been achieved worked in getting the student the desired result (in the short term at least, long term calculus in terms of meeting goals in subsequent employment beyond actual skill level perhaps not so great).

He then reveals what he assumes will be no surprise to his readers: the student in this incident was male, he’s seen this behaviour work for male students before (including himself when a student), and he’s never seen a female student try this sort of arrogant bluffing manoeuvre out (so no female student of his has ever got the positive result of such deception).

Shirky thinks this disparity is a problem, and that it’s a problem because well qualified women are missing out on opportunities because they are not even attempting to bluff their way into them, but his solution to the culture of dissembling successfully that works for some men is not the merest hint of a suggestions that decision-makers should stop rewarding flagrant bullshit artistry by falling for it (or at least not calling it out), just that women should do more of the arrogant dissembling if they want to succeed.

Not surprisingly, not all the comments agree with this idea. While most agreed that, in general, women could do with corrective socialisation so that they can be more assertive about referencing their actual achievements positively, enthusiastically and without any hint of diffidence, very few thought that encouraging women to start telling lies about whether their level of experience and ability was in any way a good idea.

Salient points highlighted for (my) emphasis:

Eszter Hargittai says:
January 15, 2010 at 9:31 pm

An important issue you didn’t really cover that is probably responsible for holding women back at least in some situations is the imbalance in how aggressive or self-promoting or even just plain self-confident behavior by men is perceived as compared to such behavior by women.[…] you’re definitely onto something and a lot of women really could use more self-promotion (some men could, too). That said, it’s not just all coming from within, some of it is in reaction to how such behavior is sometimes treated when coming from women. In addition to encouraging women to change their behavior in this respect, it is also important to educate everybody about not being critical toward women who behave this way. Plus to counter this imbalance, people could also do a better job of promoting the work and virtues of their female (and shy male) peers.

Sherri says:
January 16, 2010 at 12:57 am

It is tiring being thought a bitch constantly for daring to promote oneself, and it’s frustrating to sit in a meeting, express an idea, and have it ignored until it’s later repeated by a man.

Gisela says:
January 16, 2010 at 5:56 am

While I agree a lot of women could probably do with being a bit more assertive, as Eszter pointed out, it’s not always that easy. Calling this post a rant about “women” makes it sound like women are somehow the problem here and that women are behaving irrationally (not in their self interest). Which is a bit presumtuous. Think instead why women act this way. Women are to a much higher degree punished for acting assertive or “like a man”. There is psychological research that shows that the same behavior, described as being done by a woman or a man, will be percieved differently depending on what gender the person reading about the behavior thinks the doer has. Similarly, there is research showing that women who asks for as big a raise as a man will get a lower counter offer than a man will. So whenever talking about these things, please don’t make it out like women really have themselves to blame and don’t know what’s best for them. The same behavior will not give the same results, so it’s not strange that sometimes, women will choose a different behavior.

Restructure! says:
January 16, 2010 at 9:04 am

There are negative consequences when women try to contradict gender stereotypes by being assertive:

The success of the strategies was mixed. Men’s strategy of behaving in a more conciliatory fashion apparently succeeded in producing a positive impression in the counterpart’s eyes. However, the women’s strategy of behaving more assertively failed to create a more positive impression. Instead, women who behaved more assertively, were judged more negatively.

However, the article doesn’t compare judgments about assertive men versus assertive women, although I’m sure women would be judged more negatively.

Nevertheless, we need to be bitches. Other people will judge us more negatively, but we will be seen as more competent.

There’s also a study that showed people accept and even reward men who get angry but view women who get angry as less competent. Therefore, we need to be cold bitches, not angry bitches.

Marina says:
January 16, 2010 at 9:09 am

Both genders suffer from harsh internal critics, but women more often than men are taught to listen to that voice; men more often than women are able or conditioned to ignore it. I want to emphasize that we don’t need need to cultivate assholes (self-perceived or otherwise) getting what they want; we need more amazing women (and men) working well — and kindly — towards their goals.

Meme says:
January 16, 2010 at 11:45 am

The “feminine” view that you, Clay, as well as most commenters seem to be missing is this: The world in which being rude and lying about your capabilities helps you get ahead isn’t a gender equal world, but a male-dominated world.

It can be called a second-wave chauvinistic approach: assuming women are flawed because they don’t deal well with the system, instead of assuming the system is flawed because it doesn’t work for women.

Matt King says:
January 16, 2010 at 11:50 am

[…] of your three examples of “arrogance” (your male student, you, and your female student), it seems worth noting that the two male examples were also “lying.” You and your male student overstated your abilities while your female student summed up her (excellent) abilities quite fairly. While it is important in each of the three cases that “arrogance” led to the desired result, an equally significant aspect of your male student’s success was your willingness to go along with the lie.

While the possibility you lay out for women to be more arrogant seems like a helpful one, I would ask you to consider another possible intervention into the situation: don’t reward lying.

Brian Frank says:
January 16, 2010 at 12:56 pm

Won’t the most self-aggrandizing men just compensate by becoming even more assertive? I think the situation calls for leveling-down assertiveness, not a leveling up.
We should promote assertiveness that’s aimed at informed and appropriately aimed at making the right fits and creating value — not just “getting what you want.”

Categories: gender & feminism, work and family

16 replies

  1. WTF? Women and men don’t act the same way –> women need to change their behavior. What’s wrong with this picture?

  2. This is definitely something I’ve seen in academia — male students will definitely be more willing to talk about the good aspects of their work, whereas women tend to focus on the areas of their work about which they feel uncertain. Which is not to say that men don’t suffer from self-doubt in academia — but I think that men are socialised to overcome that doubt far more effectively than women.
    In my experience, this is not necessarily something particular to academia itself– I’m sure that in some fields, there are academics who actively promote this sort of gender divide, but I study in a field that is dominated by women, most of whom actively identify as feminists, and it still happens. It’s something that is socialised into us very young.

  3. Can totally relate having studied and worked in a mostly male domain (engineering). I haven’t had any major difficulties, but it’s a bloody balancing act managing the right amount of assertiveness…
    I’m pretty sure I was nicknamed the ‘Bantam’ as a young engineering co-op just for being myself and not putting up with any shit. I’m not overly offended by the term, but I doubt the male co-ops were singled out for the same personality traits.

  4. not the merest hint of a suggestions that decision-makers should stop rewarding flagrant bullshit artistry by falling for it (or at least not calling it out),

    How would this work, practically? Shirky already removed all the B.S. from the LOR, but it was the best LOR the man could get out of him. Should Shirky also punish the man by writing a bad LOR, or insinuating that the man was arrogant?
    What if in people’s judgments about “arrogance”, the threshold was lower for women than for men? Then would women be punished more for arrogance-curbing social correction?

    • @Restructure

      How would this work, practically? Shirky already removed all the B.S. from the LOR, but it was the best LOR the man could get out of him. Should Shirky also punish the man by writing a bad LOR, or insinuating that the man was arrogant?

      Shirky also implied that he felt gamed and that he had fallen for it. What he should have done? IMO tear up the guy’s draft and just written the LOR he would have written normally without it, so no worrying about toning down the guy’s polished phrases. He would have ended up with an honest LOR that was in Shirky’s own style instead of a truncated hybrid style.
      I also don’t accept that getting the LOR one actually deserves, rather than a better one that one games someone into writing, is a punishment.

      • On second thoughts, why couldn’t Shirky just send the original panegyric draft back to the guy with a gently chiding “I know you haven’t done all this – how about a redraft?”.

  5. In a less male chauvinist society, women’s tendency to recognize their weaknesses and be more honest about their work would be seen as the ability to self-evaluate, which leaves more room for improvement.

  6. I have been a fan of Clay Shirky since reading Here Comes Everybody, but his post made me sweep him right off the pedestal I had put him on. He’s so misguided on this issue that it’s appalling–but it points to a key issue in the field of media studies: It’s dominated by white guys who miss important issues because of their position of relative privilege.

  7. For a way more nuanced (and book length) treatment of this general idea, Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever’s Women Don’t Ask is worth reading. It’s still largely (not entirely) about asking women to change to match society rather than the other way around, but it is far more aware of how socialisation and society creates and reinforces the problem.

  8. Re what should Shirky have done?
    Well, I don’t know what Shirky should have done, but I suspect that I’m going to be writing some references over the years to come, and if anyone ever pulls that shit on me, I’ll be letting them know that I’ve changed my mind about writing a reference – and I’ll be reminding them that honesty and ethics are very important parts of being a lawyer, and that networking and word of mouth are also rather important.
    (Oh, I know, many people are very suspicious about the honesty and ethics required of lawyers, but it’s true. And if you don’t believe that, I’m sure you will at least believe that it would be difficult to get a job with a reference which says: “I was going to write X a reference which said sie is very smart. Sie is very smart, but unfortunately, not smart enough to realise that lying – or encouraging hir referee to lie – is dishonest and unethical. I prefer to believe that than to assume that sie was being deliberately dishonest and unethical, but either way, I would not recommend hir for this job.”)
    This is assuming that I notice. If they do it subtly enough that I don’t notice, perhaps they deserve the better reference that may result ;)

  9. As an academci who writes many letters of recommendation, I never ask the student to do the job for me. I write my own damn letters. Why is Shirky complaining about what the STUDENT wrote when he’s the one who should have done the job to begin with?

  10. I’m getting very, very tired of the stuff about different assertiveness between genders that always ends up wondering what women might do about it. The system is not magically god-created; people (men, mainly) made it what it is.
    I haven’t really had to write LoR, but I’m pretty sure my judgement was (negatively) influenced when marking students who struck me as excessively self-promoting. It was probably only a minor glitch in their university degrees, at most.

  11. The thought of a student or employee drafting their reference for me fills me with horror. Is this widespread across the pond? I’ve never seen it over here (UK), and if anyone asked it of me, I would be mortified. I would probably refuse to write a reference, in point of fact.
    I know UK academics and employers are encouraged to be more ‘fulsome’ when writing references for US employers (apparently Brits are too diffident and understated), but this represents another level of ‘fulsomeness’ entirely.
    .-= skepticlawyer´s last blog ..The limits of law =-.

  12. skepticlawyer: I’m not hugely familiar with the custom, but I gather that academics, at least in the US, are asked to write graduate school or employer references for a fair chunk of their students, including ones who they haven’t done any work with other than lecturing them at undergraduate level. While the advice seems to be that it’s better to get such references from someone who knows your work very well, given the scale it seems to be fairly common to at least give them a ‘cheat sheet’ about yourself when asking for a reference, and it’s not a big leap from there to drafting the letter.

  13. I’m told that if your reference is obviously way beyond what you actually deserve, it’s a sign that your current organisation really thinks you’re a dud and is really, really desperate to get rid of you.

  14. Mary, thanks for that. It seems that Oxford really is cloistered from ‘the real world’.
    I do ask for copies of students’ CVs (as do many people I know), but every tutor or fellow I know (and I know a lot) always writes the actual reference him or herself. It’s this process that has sometimes led (in my experience) to American employers stating that British referees are insufficiently fulsome in their praise.
    .-= skepticlawyer´s last blog ..The limits of law =-.


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