Ladies, Bring Your Samurai Swords

Clay Shirky:

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.

Tim Cavanaugh at Reason:

I’m too much of a sniveling gamma/epsilon male to draw a conclusion as beefy as Shirky’s, but I am surprised to see what levels of subordination some professional women remain willing to accept, at least in traditional office environments. But I would emphasize the some back there, and in fact the biggest self-promoter I ever met was a female of the opposite sex. Maybe things are different at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, but I’m not sure how representative of the private sector ITPANYU is.

Before addressing the issue of what women don’t want, I note that narcissism has never in my experience added to the magnificence of any project, nor has self-aggrandizement created any wealth, nor has self-advancement achieved anything other than capturing a bigger share of an existing pie for the self-promoter. It may be true that these qualities are well represented among world changers, whoever they are. And I presume the majority of world changers have been men up to this point. But we don’t have a counterhistory wherein some effort to protect equal rights for women has been in place since ancient Greek civilization (or I should say: the matriarchal civilization that the Greeks stole everything from!). So I’m not sure we should complain that the workforce might be seeing comparatively fewer of these male virtues in the future, or expect that the world will be changing any more slowly as a result.

As to whether women need to be more pushy, less pushy, or just right, I believe this falls into Cavanaugh’s General Theory of 33.3. About a third of women are Daddy’s Girls; another third are dominant, secure, self-confident, nasty, violent, selfish, independent, proud, thrill-seeking, free-wheeling, arrogant females; and the rest don’t care enough to have an opinion. These percentages vary with events and movements, but regress to stability. There are mirror categories for men, and for the most part members of each group mate and procreate with members of their corresponding categories.

The recession has revealed more brittleness in the job market for men than for women. In school, girls are outperforming boys at rates that alarm the squares. Women’s relative financial attainment continues to grow at a rate remarkable for an economy as advanced and sclerotic as America’s. So I’m not sure we have a problem, other than the ancient problem that men continue to give women something they don’t need: advice.

Ann Friedman at The American Prospect:

So which is it? Should women be amplifying their aggression to mimic successful men? Or should they try to get ahead by playing up what supposedly makes them different from the testosterone-fueled CEOs who fed one financial bubble after another? The more time you spend thinking about women’s stalled progress in the working world — they were only 6.3 percent of corporate top earners last year — the clearer it becomes that neither of these two options is working.

Shirky does not acknowledge that his answer (which says women just need to man up) sets women up for backlash. Women who are loud and proud about their abilities and experience will be declared uppity bitches — or at least privately thought of that way. Studies have shown that employees, both male and female, are wary of working for high-achieving women. And what about women who follow Hoff Sommers’ advice (which says women just need to, well, woman up)? They won’t even get their applications read, let alone taken seriously. When was the last time you saw “responsible femininity” among desired qualities in a job listing?

This is a broad, cultural problem. If, like me, you believe that your biology is not the primary factor in determining your strengths and weaknesses in the workplace, you believe that we are shaped by the society in which we live. Which is to say, there are cultural, structural reasons why men are typically more assertive, more self-promotional, and more successful everywhere from the boardroom to the op-ed pages to the halls of Congress. This is much bigger than women’s individual behavior.

To use Shirky’s own example: Just as self-defense classes are not a solution to the problem of campus rape, self-advancement classes will not, on their own, improve things for women in the professional world. It will take a long time — and a lot of conscious effort — to dispel deeply ingrained stereotypes about work and gender. Women can’t do that alone. The burden also falls on people in positions of power — those who are doing the hiring, promoting, recommending, and mentoring — to understand the gender dynamics at play and to push back against them. In my line of work, that means I not only write publicly about the “byline gap” between men and women in political journalism — I actively seek out women writers and encourage them to pitch their ideas. And I’m fairly certain I see more results than an editor who simply professes to care about this issue in the abstract.

For decades, we’ve told women how to get ahead in an unjust system. It’s high time we all work to change the system itself.

Will Wilkinson:

My problem with Shirky’s argument is that, assuming that men and women are wired a bit differently, and that this explains some part of observed differences in behavior and achievement, why should we ask women to be more aggressively competitive and self-promotional instead of asking men to be less so?

I think a lot of people want to say that it is simply unrealistic to ask men to chill out. Boys will be boys. And women are more pliable than men. They at least can ramp up the aggression, while competitive men will go all out no matter what. So the “everybody act like an a**hole” scenario is at least stable. And, in the end, women who otherwise would not have made it to the top will have.

First, it’s not clear to me that a new norm of more aggressively competitive women won’t encourage even more aggressively competitive men. I don’t think this would entirely prevent the greater success of a more aggressive class of women, but it may also make our professional culture even more unpleasant than it already is. Do we really want to do that?

Second, it’s not clear to me that actively stigmatizing the kind of ridiculous, overreaching self-promotion Shirky thinks is characteristic of men wouldn’t work. We want people to be “go-getters,” but we don’t want them to be obnoxious and mendacious while they try to go and get it. Why shouldn’t we tell Shirky that he should have written that guy a recommendation letter that makes it clear what an a**hole that guy is? I think he should!  Hey Clay, stop writing positive recommendation letters for self-embellishing strivers!

There are certain habits of behavior characteristic of some men clearly rooted in a desire to intimidate and assert social dominance. If the ability to intimidate and dominate — to act like an “alpha” — doesn’t have anything to do with performance at a job, then “alpha” behavior should be recognized as the unproductive social aggression that it is and accordingly discouraged through disapproval, mockery, and social and professional sanction. Decent men and women with natural talents for dominance and status competition can channel their aggressive dispositions productively by bringing them to bear on those who flout fair and productive egalitarian social norms.

And Friedman is right that those who dispense opportunities can and should become more conscious of an entrenched bias toward rewarding a certain kind of competitive zeal and can and should do more to identify and reward talented people disinclined to grasping self-puffery.

Pascal-Emmanuel Gorby at The American Scene:

Shirky’s post addresses this by calling on women to level the playing field with men. What I liked most about it is that it’s pragmatic. It doesn’t put forward a grand theory of gender backed by partial studies in neurology or genetics or psychology or cognition or astrology. It simply draws simple lessons from everyday observations: women don’t do nearly as much as men to advance themselves, and they should.

Will’s high-minded response fails at a simple reality test. We can’t ask men to not be obnoxious when advancing themselves for the same reason that Iran won’t give up developing nuclear weapons just because it would be nice.

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about Bill Gates’ testimony in the case of United States v. Microsoft:

He argued with examiner David Boies over the contextual meaning of words like “compete”, “concerned” and “we”. (…) As to his demeanor during the deposition, [Gates later] said, “Did I fence with Boies? … I plead guilty. Whatever that penalty is should be levied against me: rudeness to Boies in the first degree.”

This is a man who is cornered, who might be lose the company he spent 20 years to build, and he doesn’t give an inch. He fights tooth and nail, to the point of absurdity. Well, that’s not very nice. Perhaps we should make it so that men like that are nicer. But if Bill Gates was a nicer guy, we wouldn’t have a nicer Microsoft, and he wouldn’t be a nicer Bill Gates. He wouldn’t be Bill Gates at all. Some other guy who every once in a while acts like a bastard would be Bill Gates. Maybe this guy.

Will is a stalwart defender of free markets, God bless him, but free markets are based on competition. And the reason why competition works is because the people who win competitions are, well, competitive. That’s what all that stuff about animal spirits is all about. What Will is proposing is a sort of cultural socialism, where those who have more drive are coerced into toning down so that the rest can catch up. I don’t think that would work much better than socialism in other areas.

So yes, actually, women need to man up. You don’t show up with a knife for a gunfight.

And I intend to equip my daughters with rocket launchers.

UPDATE: G.D. at PostBourgie on PEG

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Filed under Feminism

One response to “Ladies, Bring Your Samurai Swords

  1. Pingback: What We’ve Built Today « Around The Sphere

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