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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”