Clay Shirky's advice for women: go ahead, be an asshole!

Deep Thinker Clay Shirky has posted "A Rant About Women," which explores the notion that men tend to be more comfortable with assertive, self-promotey behavior than their female peers. Shirky thoughtfully argues that this is a big factor conspiring against the professional success of women, as is the negative response women often get when they model this behavior. The comments (many by women) are also interesting.


  1. “I’m worried about something much simpler: not enough women have what it takes to behave like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks.”

    So, we want to promote this in women? Maybe we cut down on it in men?

    I am a dude, dude, and I feel slimy when I have to engage in this to get work. If I don’t I wont.

  2. I think the underlying idea is that self-confidence outside of all proven history is very attractive in the job market. Which is not at all different than the adage that confidence is the sexiest thing in the world…what works for prospective lovers works for everyone else.

    If you want to play the game, get in the game & don’t whine about its intrinsically unfair nature.

  3. A couple years back, I read a report of a great study (by a female MBA program prof, I think) where she looked at the starting salaries of her departing students. The men made more on average, but the main root difference was how much people negotiated. The women were much more likely to accept the employer’s first offer. (I thought it was covered in The Economist, but I can’t find it now. Hmph.) That seems to fit nicely with Shirky’s thesis.

    Raised by women, I negotiate like one too, and I’m trying to learn a little more professional arrogance in situations where it is handy. At the same time I rig situations I control to reward other behaviors, as I still find it distasteful.

  4. It’s not a should or a want. It’s a fact –

    If what we want is for women to be equal to men, then they need to be willing to do this, since most men aren’t going to stop. The fact is, this kind of attitude can do a ton of damage – but it works. Thats the plain simple truth. If you don’t let people know your good at something (regardless of the factuality of said claim) they aren’t going to just assume you are good at it.

    And thanks to several peculiarities of our psychological wiring, the more things you claim to be good at, the better they will think you are at everything else as well!

    This being said, its something I’m terrible at despite being a guy, the very act of doing it makes me nauseous. But its not a huge deal for me, because its not a game I mind losing. I’m content to while away in obscurity with achievements limited to what I think I can do.

    If you want to win, you have to play the game. If you want to play a different game, don’t complain when you lose at the one you claim you don’t want to play!

  5. I’m a guy who is not very good at the ‘self aggrandizing jerk’ behavior. When I see it in others, it really bothers me — not just because it isn’t very nice, but because I’m a little jealous. Being a self-centered self-promoter works — it brings money and power and strangely enough the respect and admiration of peers. Even to the extent I want to do these things, I just don’t have that kind of social and communicative savvy. Instead I have this ‘guile-less honesty’ thing going on that despite the promotion of the preacher-man isn’t all that useful or admirable in real life. Also I’m mildly whiny and insecure, at least on the Internet. :-)

    In my field (which may be 2-4% women, tops) I haven’t noticed women being less assertive or self-promoting, but it could be the type of person who succeeds in a field where they are that kind of minority is a naturally aggressive person. It does seem that men tend to hold down the extreme ends of the ‘meek -to -jackassery’ spectrum, but that could just be the availability heuristic …

  6. er, does this guy know any women besides his mother?

    Just today I read that since 1970, women’s salaries (single and married) have gone up 70% compared to single men.
    I have also worked in offices where the majority were women. Constant infighting, confrontations, comeuppance, etc. I am not talking about petty issues either, the big arguments in the workplace (getting people fired etc.).

    I don’t know where this guy lives but it’s nowhere near me.

    1. While women’s wages have gone up faster than men’s, they still aren’t equal (for various reasons, for instance women often chose to leave the workforce to raise kids and thus delay advancement; also they choose flexibility over higher wages; also discrimination still exists in hiring and promotion).

      They’ve gone up because vastly more women now pursue higher education and professional careers, and until recently it was a legal and very common practice to pay women less for the same job.

      Women’s wages have gone up more than men’s because they started lower.

      And to counter your anecdote with my own: I’ve never even argued with a female coworker. People are people, whether male or female. Sometimes the environment or the mix doesn’t work out. That has nothing to do with gender, and everything to do with the individual & management.

  7. As long as so many people worship people with huge egos, yes, people need to have some arrogance in order to be noticed.

    However, it’s not just about being outright assholes. Lots of women feel guilty or fear that they appear ‘selfish’ whenever they’re not actively stroking others’ egos, or when they feel they might intimidate others with their knowledge and skills. Lots of people, including many men, tend to aim small and act stupider or weaker than they really are as to not rock the boat. That’s a very good habit to break if you want to set yourself apart.

  8. I suppose there is some genuinely valid observation in all of that mess, but I really couldn’t get past the fact that this had to be packaged back up in that old, convenient gender generalization box. Broad generalizations = sloppy, ineffective argument.

  9. is it really thoughtful to have found yet another excuse to blame women for inequality in the market or is it another example of a guy being an asshole?

    really…i don’t think we should be rewarding assholes for being thoughtful.

  10. I suppose it depends upon the work environment. I’m an engineer. The ‘old’ generation in my work place is made up of men. There are very few women in positions of power and technical skills in the older generation. In my generation, though, there has been a pretty radical swing. My chemical engineering class was split almost 50/50 male to female. In the work place, it isn’t 50/50, but it is close, and all of the women in engineering positions in my generation that I am around are, without exception, blazing fiery trails and advancing rapidly.

    From my own anecdotal evidence, I feel that there has been a pretty dramatic swing in the post 2000 college grads. I have not seen even the thinest veiled hints of anyone seeing women as less than complete equals in anyone under the age of 40, and the promotions in the under 40 group plays this out.

    Might men retain the absolute top CEO positions for a while yet? Eh, maybe. I don’t fret over it. If you look at the top CEO positions it is filled with all sorts of demographic oddities. I am more concerned with the rest of the pyramid where I see at least in my generally male dominated field, a rapid reorganization.

    Of course, my perspective could be skewed. I live in Boston.

    1. I’ve had the same experience being a post-2000 college grad in engineering, but as a mechanical engineer in Calgary. The split of my graduating class definitely wasn’t 50/50, but any traces of sexism in the various workplaces have come from the old men and nowhere else. I think this is yet another cultural element that will only die-out when the current old men die-out/retire.

      Also, with regards to arrogance, my experience has been that unless you speak with an authoritative tone (i.e. the I-know-what-I’m-talking-about tone), people don’t listen to you. End of story.

  11. It’s anyone’s right to speculate about why women are different than men, but there is real science that you could rely on instead. Sex, race, and HEIGHT have a huge effect on things like salary, hiring practices, and effective negotiation. Anyone who argues about salary disparity between Tall White Men and the rest of the population is not living in reality. (By the way I’m a tall white man and things are always easy for me). That said, I agree with others that a lot of progress has been made in the last few decades, and the difference is not as notable in big cities with diverse populations. But in a lot of places, and depending on the profession, women still get shot down and it has a lot of negative effect on confidence in the workplace. Science aside, from my female friends’ (plural) perspectives, women are still often disregarded, and acting strong and assertive is seen as ‘bitchy’. It’s sad, but true. There’s a long way to go.

    1. Your comment about height also being a determinant in how people are treated in the work place is spot-on. As a white female, I always made a point of wearing REALLY HIGH HEELS to meetings, because it gave me a height advantage over the men in meetings (I was invariably the only female present).

      That being said, I know I’m in the minority of women who takes part in self-promotion, but without lying. When I interviewed for my current job, I was asked if I knew the software the company used, and my answer was, “Not right now, but I will by my first day on the job.”

      It’s odd: in my profession, I’ve seen kind of the opposite of what Shirky’s saying: the younger generation of men in the profession who are arrogant self-aggrandizers tend to be the ones who feel they don’t have to work as hard because they’re white males, so they don’t progress in the profession like those females who have had to work harder to overcome the biases of misogynistic professors just to graduate.

  12. Also, there’s nothing wrong with arrogant self-promotion. It’s how to get noticed. Lying and bullying are not good. There’s a difference. This guy’s rant-type article has some good points but leaves one confused about what point he was trying to make. When he says “Now this is asking women to behave more like men, but so what? We ask people to cross gender lines all the time.”, does he mean, act more like a man is supposed to act, or to act more like men ARE supposed to act. Et Cetera. People should pay more attention to large-scale statistics and real studies, and less attention to what they see in the small radius of their personal lives.

    1. Also, there’s nothing wrong with arrogant self-promotion.

      If it’s truly arrogant, there’s at least one thing wrong with it. At least, I’ve never heard that word used as a positive thing in any other contexts.

    2. “When he says ‘Now this is asking women to behave more like men, but so what? We ask people to cross gender lines all the time.’, does he mean, act more like a man is supposed to act, or to act more like men ARE supposed to act.”

      Thank you. Just because many men act a certain way that we feel is worth emulation doesn’t mean men own it, e.g. “let’s act like men.” It’s such a useless description — what happens when lots of women starting act this way? What do we start calling it? Act like … everyone?

    3. Also, there’s nothing wrong with arrogant self-promotion.

      In most other parts of life, calling something “arrogant” means you think there’s something wrong with it. Not sure why this is different.

  13. The problem is lack of content. We ask ourselves how can there be such incompetence at the top, and the answer is that the top is filled with people who have spent much more time on self promotion and being “confident” than on the content and nuance of the job itself. Lets create a new system, starting right here on Boing Boing: “Sexy is dumb.” Lets leave the mating rituals for teenagers and friday nights outside of the workplace.

  14. The problem is lack of content. We ask ourselves how can there be such incompetence at the top, and the answer is that the top is filled with people who have spent much more time on self promotion and being “confident” than on the content and nuance of the job itself.

    I’m not sure that’s true. There are good managers and there are bad managers, but are there more bad managers than there are bad engineers, bad retailers, bad assembly line workers, bad custodians? I doubt that. If anything there are probably fewer bad managers than bad employees, simply because of the competition in the marketplace (there’s fewer manager jobs than non-manager jobs, and tons of people coveting that manager salary). I can’t prove any of this, but I don’t think you can prove the contrary either. :-)

  15. Shirky’s post reminded me of some advice I gave to my ex-wife once: When clients ask you a question, always give an answer, even if you’re not 100% sure. Men do this. They answer with confidence and authority even when they’re only 20% sure of something. If it turns out you weren’t right, just say “After some more analysis…”

    This is called: Male Answer Syndrome.

  16. Where do you get that the article tells women to be assholes? All that was said is that some self promotion is needed for people to advance in the workplace?

    The way the title is stated here pretty much assumes assertive women are assholes and no men ever have issues with self-promotion.

    Just in-case you been living under a rock plenty of men have issues with self promotion also. This is why the talented kindly engineer gets passed over for the management position, man or women.

    Confidence is something that needs to be developed for workplace success. Why in this day and age would traits that are associated with success still be given a manly association?

    1. Wow anonymous! I was thinking that this whole time but didn’t feel like posting.

      Yeah, so second that.

  17. How about executives and managers trying to build a system that values cooperation, sharing, and thoughtfulness? I’ve worked at both matriarchies (libraries, a women-run retail shop) and patriarchies (a billion web companies & one publisher), and the difference is overwhelming. It’s not that women-run systems are better or worse, but they are different and also don’t require women to engage in uncomfortable arrogant fakery, or wear super high heels to get respect (I’ve done that too, and it works at male-run companies…).

    Also, I’ve been at companies with an even gender split, but if the board & CEO are mostly men, then it’s going to be run like a patriarchy & promote like a patriarchy… in my experience.

  18. I thought this was a fantastic challenge to women of today. Since the previous US election focused on a battle between the best “type” of American woman. Once won there seemed to be a lingering animosity.

    Encouragement to take more agency, in agencies, is always helpful. I wonder how long until the “rant” changes the way that gender issues are handled in the workplace.

Comments are closed.