On Clay Shirky’s “Rant About Women”

Cross posted on genfem.com

My college boyfriend and I were in the same economics statistics class. Our entire grade consisted of the midterm and the final. The day we got the midterm back I was sure that I had failed it. I was a wreck. There was no way I was going to be able to pass the class with the final alone. When I asked my boyfriend how he thought he did, he said he thought he had done fine. He was relaxed. He rubbed my back and told me I’d be okay. When we got the test back we had gotten the same grade.

I learned something about men that day. Perhaps they have a greater sense of denial, but they’re also less likely to go to the place of self-doubt and insecurity where we women feel so comfortable.

Clay Shirky recently wrote a blog entry called “A Rant About Women ” in which he argues that women don’t act enough like self-aggrandizing jerks. Much of what he says is true. It is not difficult to imagine how differently my college boyfriend and I would have interviewed for the same job that year. He would have emphasized his skills (whether or not they actually existed), I would have toned mine down. He would have gotten the job and I would have gotten a “We’ll let you know.”

But Shirky fails to see that gender-based behavioral differences are something that men and women learn. Shirky mentions that “we live in a world where women are discriminated against,” and that’s as far as he takes it. Shirky isn’t a women so he doesn’t know what it’s like to live in a world where the male pronoun is the default pronoun, where ads for household cleaning products always feature women (because it’s not like men are gonna scrub the toilets) and ads for financial services always feature a man’s authoritative voice (because finances are a serious matter).

Shirky also doesn’t know women’s individual stories. That, for example, one of the teachers at my private New York City high school told me I’d never be an “A” student. That another told a group of boys that I was “stacked.” Can you imagine if one of Shirky’s female teachers told a group of girls in his class that he had a “nice package”? And Shirky so internalizing the messages around him of men as sex objects that the comment didn’t even seem out of line??

Sexism, subtle and profound, doesn’t end in high school, of course. One of my extended family members is a powerful attorney in his field. He often and loudly says things like, “The most important thing for a man is his career. The most important thing for a woman is her looks.” When this is the attitude of the head partner at a major law firm (and I would imagine at a lot of major law firms, investment banks, movie studios and other boys’ clubs), I have to wonder if the problem can be simplified to women not raising their hands enough, as Shirky implies.

When I got an A in a an “Economics of Less Developed Countries” class at Georgetown and my female professor told me she thought I should pursue a Masters in Economics, I laughed. When she tried to convince me I was good at it, I assured her that I wasn’t. I was realistic. I was unassuming. I had learned my limitations early on.

I’ve been trying to unlearn them ever since.

Michelle Haimoff is a writer, blogger and activist. Her writing has appeared in PsychologyToday.com, The Huffington Post and The Los Angeles Times. She is a founding member of NOW’s Young Feminist Task Force and blogs about First World Feminism at genfem.com.

Read more about Michelle

Join the Conversation

  • kandela

    where ads for household cleaning products always feature women (because it’s not like men are gonna scrub the toilets)
    And when they don’t they have slogans like ‘so simple, even a man could do it,’ or in one rather bizarre instance here in the UK feature men dressed as women*.
    *Before I get responses concerned about my description of the ad as bizarre being problematic for the trasgendered or cross-dressing community. I would point out that the cross-dressing seems to be for no other purpose than to grab attention for the ad. The men have beards, and make no attempt to take on many of the attributes usually aspired to by cross-dressers. They are simply wearing rather bland floral dresses and are referred to with female names (Glenda being one) and female pronouns by the voice over. I really don’t know what message this sends, but given the scarcity of men in ads for cleaning products, it seems bizarre to me.

  • Spiffy McBang

    One thing Shirky is spot-on about is when he points out that we all have the freedom to succeed. You’re absolutely correct that women are put in a position where they’re less likely to believe this is the case, but if you want to change that, it’s important to know that’s a much bigger problem than sexist bosses who just won’t hire a woman (or at least not easily).
    I used to do holiday stock work in a Brookstone. One girl I worked with applied for a job at a school doing web design. She’d never done it before professionally, only had a passing familiarity with much of what she would need to know cold, and decided to flat lie about what she couldn’t hyperbolize. She ended up with the job and is making $30k+ a year.
    Another friend is in vet school- very intelligent. The last time I saw her, over the summer, we were riding in our other friend’s van when she said she’s usually the one raising her hand in class. Then she said, “I kind of feel bad, no one wants to hear my voice that much.” I said goddammit, hearing you talk is better than hearing 99% of the people in the world, don’t hate on yourself like that. The other guy agreed with me 100%. She just shrugged.
    Nearly every woman I know is more like the latter than the former, at least in regards to career and school. The amazing thing is that almost none of them are so passive in their personal relationships, and enjoy equal (sometimes dominant) standing in those circles, yet it rarely translates to their work. I don’t necessarily like the way Shirky presented his argument, but I’m absolutely with him in the sense that it’s incredible- and maddening- to see these people who should be doing great things not go anywhere for no reason besides not being able to talk as good a game as some half-as-talented jackass. And it’s maddening because we know, both from experience and from seeing other people thus enlightened, that all you have to do is try a little bravado once to see how well it can work.
    You’re right that there are a lot of factors that lead to women being less willing to do that. And I don’t know how to fix them any more than he does, at least for those affected today- maybe for the little girls growing up. But I think the overarching point is, just go out and try the tactics that work for successful people, because even though they’re often male, it can work for you too.

  • daveNYC

    “I learned something about men that day. Perhaps they have a greater sense of denial, but they’re also less likely to go to the place of self-doubt and insecurity where we women feel so comfortable.”
    Didn’t your class teach you about the dangers of small sample sizes? You didn’t learn anything about men and women, you learned something about your boyfriend and yourself.

  • JoanOfArc

    I agree that the lessons of minimizing one’s abilities are learned early by women. I struggle daily to speak my mind and always feel guilty for speaking up ‘too much’ in class. My mother, as much as I love her, was a huge transmitter of these lessons. I was told that modesty was a virtue and that standing out was a bad thing. Even if standing out was for your brains and hard work, it was still bad to stand out. Unlearning these lessons takes more than a day and is much more complicated than most commentators want you to believe.

  • misscaptain

    I agree that that’s generally the case, but I was just reading a study where each gender was supposed to rate their own job performances, and each other’s. The women in the study rated themselves much lower than the men did, but when rating each other, the results were essentially that the women were performing much better than they thought they were, and often were rated higher the men by their coworkers. I can’t find it right now but I can look around for it later if you’re interested–I think it was posted on feministing awhile back.
    So, there is something to that.

  • SomeCommenter

    Yeah, I have mixed feelings about the piece too, but it’s not wrong.
    The thing is, everyone tells me to ‘be more confident’ at work now, to get on.
    They can’t undo the past.
    I was that kid who put her hand up all the time, and got stick from the other kids for it – they didn’t want to hear my voice. I learned not to get good grades. I learned not to boast. I learned to be modest. From *other children*.
    My parents had a lovely way of damaging self-esteem with criticism, too.