I first learned of Clay Shirky’s feminist blogger bait, “A Rant About Women” — a surprisingly sympathetic lament that women hold themselves back from the opportunities and pay they deserve because they’re “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” — from my own bosslady, Joan Walsh, on Twitter. In a three-part tweet, she wrote, “I kept trying to formulate an argument to disagree and I can’t. I can think of a couple of women in our space who do exactly what he advises. But overall, he’s right. I can count the number of women staffers who’ve asked me for more money on one hand. BUT: I have told women when they lowball themselves. I have offered more money. I hope @clayshirky is telling his women students this NOW.”
To which I replied, naturally, 8220;@JoanWalsh Can I have more money?”
Joan told me to shush (probably because she knows I already behave like a self-promoting narcissist in sincere negotiations, so there’s nothing to worry about), but what she didn’t do was call me a bitch, or a ballbuster, or criticize me for being selfish while laying on a guilt trip about how tight things are for everyone right now, or accuse me of not being a team player, etc. And that right there is where the argument against Clay Shirky’s rant begins. He makes a lot of excellent points — albeit ones that have been made before — but every time he comes within striking distance of what is probably the single greatest reason why women don’t advocate more fiercely for themselves at school and work, he fails to connect.
For instance: “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.” No, see both those parts are sexism, sir. Men are generally “better at being arrogant and less concerned” about other people’s good opinions of them because they are socialized to do so, and it pays off for them. Women, meanwhile, are socialized to be self-sacrificing, submissive, and humble to a fault. When we deviate from that script, we’re often punished for it.
After working on a series of studies examining the relationship between gender and negotiation strategies, Harvard public policy professor Hannah Riley Bowles — who I’d wager has heard approximately a bazillion versions of Shirky’s argument in her time — said,
What we found across all the studies is men were always less willing to work with a woman who had attempted to negotiate than with a woman who did not. They always preferred to work with a woman who stayed mum. But it made no difference to the men whether a guy had chosen to negotiate or not… This isn’t about fixing the women. It isn’t about telling women, ‘You need self-confidence or training.’ They are responding to incentives within the social environment … The point of this paper is: Yes, there is an economic rationale to negotiate, but you have to weigh that against social risks of negotiating. What we show is those risks are higher for women than for men.
Now consider this statement by Shirky: “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.” It’s true that anyone who exhibits high self-esteem and a sense of entitlement — healthy or not — is at risk of being seen as a conceited turd, and sometimes, you have to gamble a lot to win a lot. But it’s other people who get to decide when they think you’re a jerk, and the research supports what most professional women already know intuitively: The jerk threshold is a hell of a lot lower for women. As Deanna Zandt, an expert in women and technology, put it, “Asking women to be more like men… falls on a spectrum of prescribing feminine behavior that is dangerous and unhealthy. We’re putting the onus on women to fit themselves into a culture that doesn’t value them enough to begin with. It sounds a lot like misguided sexual assault prevention tactics (‘how not to get yourself raped!’)”
I agree very much with the basic premise there — I’m awfully sick of mansplainers telling women what we’re doing wrong instead of thinking for five minutes about the social forces that drive the behavior in question — but I also think Bitch Ph.D.’s M. Leblanc is right to insist that we shouldn’t accept the Mars vs. Venus framing of certain personality traits: “When did self-promotion, confidence, and even occasional arrogance become the exclusive domain of men? I believe that we can have a sea change in how women behave without it being a submission to the forces of patriarchy. And I firmly reject the notion that women are ‘naturally’ inclined to be more collaborative, less arrogant, and less self-promoting than men. Zandt doesn’t say that, but it’s running as a subtext through what she wrote.” The fact that women are penalized for being assertive and confident, she writes, “doesn’t mean that the solution is not do it. It means that women and men need to work together to change the culture, particularly the workplace culture, so that ambition and overt confidence aren’t a liability for women. The more women who put themselves out there, the more common the behavior will be, the less remarkable.”
The key phrase there, though, is “men and women need to work together to change the culture” — otherwise, just telling women to put themselves out there more, as Shirky’s done, is asking them to risk serious social and professional penalties to get the same rewards as men. Even if it works for some of us, and that paves the way for others, any examination of the negotiation gap that concludes with, “Women really should act differently” willfully sidesteps the fundamental problem. Jezebel’s Anna North pretty much nails it: “‘The world sucks, change yourself’ is a recipe for injustice,” she writes.
This “change-yourself-to-fit-in” advice has been given to pretty much every marginalized group over the years, and it sticks around because, for some individual people, it works. But those people still have to work within the existing power structure. The harpy/diva/bitch archetype isn’t going to go away because a few women are allowed to sneak around it, and the culture of rewarding self-promotion above other qualities isn’t going to become fair for everyone just because a few women manage to share the pie. Those who are marginalized by a system are often those best able to see its flaws, and teaching those people just to work around their marginalization is a great way to keep them quiet, and to keep anything from ever changing. Let’s not fall for it.
Let’s not. But at the same time, let’s not fall for the idea that women don’t even have the capacity to be more arrogant as necessary. I think Shirky’s heart is absolutely in the right place — he wants to see his female students succeed just as much as the pushier male ones — and his argument is not without merit. Sometimes, no matter how you’ve been socialized or what the risks are, your best bet is to tamp down the nervousness and sell yourself hard. I’ve trained myself over the years to self-promote and ask for more than I expect to get, as a direct result of learning that women generally don’t negotiate nearly as aggressively as men; that is the kind of thing that makes me more likely to stand up for myself, out of sheer bloody-mindedness. So no it’s not like I think Shirky’s giving out bad advice here. But my willingness to use that strategy is largely about my stubborn, ambitious personality — traits I know LeBlanc shares, and I’ll go out on a limb and say Joan does, too — so it’s of limited value in the big picture; I want a better world for women who don’t have a “screw you” streak a mile wide, too. Which means that telling the ladies to suck it up and affect a confidence they may or may not feel can only ever be part of the solution. The other part, the much greater part, involves recognizing what happens to women who “act like men” — i.e., who act like they deserve respect, fair pay and acclaim for good work — and calling it out until it stops.