A rant about women

Clay Shirky has a rant up about women and the gender based expectations of behavior. The general theme is about how he’s noticed men are typically more self-aggrandizing than women, and that women would be better served if they represented themselves more aggressively.

As Shirky’s work usually is, it’s a good read. The comments are rough, as folks are responding less to his sentiment (there is an unfair problem that should be fixed) and more to the specifics of his arguments, which, given the title, are easily read in a gender-biased way.

But there’s one passage that bounced around in my mind more than others:

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.

First and foremost, I have met plenty of women who act like self-promoting narcissists. I’d never say this was a common trait, but I have definitely seen it. Someone in the comments suggested going back stage at a beauty show or field hockey game. I’ve seen it in every job I’ve had, both in men and in women.

Second, I’m not sure changing the world is worth the price of having to work with a person of any gender who is a pathological asshole or pompous blowhard.

Third, the correlation between being an arrogant self-aggrandizing jerk and changing the world is not the cause of their impact. In most cases their lack of willingness to compromise, combined with superior ideas. You don’t need to be a narcissist, you just need to be confident and effective. Being a jerk is perhaps the worst way we have to be confident and effective.

Also, there is changing the world vs. being famous for changing the world.  The later is the one where all the self-aggrandizement and narcissism matters more.

I think it’s a fair bet to say most people, most of the time, struggle with the line between self-promotion and self-respect. Much of the advice on how to balance this applies well to both genders I think.

This isn’t to say that women do not have unique challenges, or a more difficult line to walk, it seems clear they do.

15 Responses to “A rant about women”

  1. Elisabeth Robson

    Scott, thanks for this response, I agree with you 100%. I don’t accept a world in which acting like a pompous blowhard is ever in your “best interest”. We need people to see that being compassionate and confident is a better way to be in the world.

  2. julie

    Very interesting. It’s hard to respond completely because the link to the Shirky post no longer works.

    Agreed – I’ve seen women act like all of the above. However, I also see them get judged much more harshly for it. The old cliche of what’s confident in a man equals uppity bitch in a woman is sadly often the cause, particularly in people (male and female) over the age of 35.

    Just my experience.

  3. Kathy Sierra

    This is one of the best paragraphs I’ve read anywhere in response to Clay’s piece:
    “Third, the correlation between being an arrogant self-aggrandizing jerk and changing the world is not the cause of their impact. In most cases their lack of willingness to compromise, combined with superior ideas. You don

  4. goofydg1

    I too have known women that fill that role. I don’t think it’s a gender issue.

    As for changing the world, I think that’s a valid point. I change the world every day through the way I interact with my family and community. I may never cure cancer but I can make the world better through my interactions with people especially my children. I honestly believe one of them may cure cancer in my place :-)

  5. Joel D Canfield

    Maybe I’m missing a subtlety here, but it seems to me Shirky is saying that, since women don’t usually succumb to those extreme versions of self-promotion as naturally as men do, they are also less likely to make artful use of the beneficial and positive versions of those bad behaviours.

    I think it’s horrific to think of a world where women try to be more like men. I’m powerfully in favor of a world where men try to be more like women. (That ‘being judged more harshly thing’ does, to an extent, work both ways. As an adult, it’s not so hard, but as a kid, you wouldn’t believe the grief I got for my disinterest in sports, f’rinstance.)

  6. Scott Berkun

    Joel: You’d have to ask Clay. He’s a very smart and reasonable guy so I think people are taking him too literally. But when it comes to gender / race / wars / etc. every blogger knows how careful you need to be as the benefit of the doubt is hard to come by.

  7. Leila Boujnane

    hmm… I am probably the only one in this camp: there is a positive to arrogance, and I for one would work with a pathological asshole (man or woman) any day of the week *if* they are changing the world. If that’s the price to pay, hell, I am glad to pay. Get thick skin, man up (girls and boys) and let’s get some work done.

  8. Michelle

    The sweeping correlation being made between people who have “changed the world” and their apparent tendency to behave like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks is ABSURD!!!

    Moreso, is the inference that women typically are not members of the “world changers” club.

    Is Shirky simply rationalizing his and other’s use of bad behaviour for some elusive ill-defined better for the world benefit? It is called cognitive dissonance.

  9. Carrie Requist

    There certainly are wonderful, powerful leaders who are successful without being jerks, but the majority of successful people in power (overwhelmingly male) are ‘tough’ and ‘no-nonsense’ and ‘make the hard decisions and stick with them.’ These traits come from being aggressive, assertive and often, argumentative. This is where I have to agree with Julie’s comment, when women are aggressive, assertive and argumentative, the are bitchy and on the rag. When men act this way, they are showing their leadership potential. It is a very fine line to walk as a woman in business (especially in tech, which is very male dominated) to make things happen and be “more aggressive” and not be written off as hormonally out of control. However, the worst examples I have experienced of someone in business being bitchy or abusive have always come from men.

  10. Elisabeth

    Julie’s observation is bang-on: when women exhibit those behaviours we are told to “tone it down” to our faces (and in performance reviews) and are called “bitches” behind our backs, by men who exhibit the very same behaviours, and still rise up the ranks. It boggles the mind.
    Signed, with pride, “bitch” ;)

    1. Scott Berkun

      Elisabeth: Do you watch the show Mad Men? One of the fascinating things about the show is how differently ideas are treated depending on who they come from, what gender they are. It’s meant to be a reflection of ‘old’ notions about men and women, but sometimes it’s more accurate to modern day than many think,

  11. Holly

    I’d care more about what Shirky has to say about women if *he* was a woman. Who cares about a bunch of men talking about things that women do wrong?



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