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Should Women Act Like ‘Self Aggrandizing Jerks’?

By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

In a recent blog post, Clay Shirky, a world-famous new media scholar and consultant, wrote, “not enough women have what it takes to behave like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks.”

This is bad for women, he reasons, because, “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.”

Men, on the other hand, seem to have less of a problem with stretching the facts in order to promote themselves. “There is no upper limit to the risks men are willing to take in order to succeed, and if there is an upper limit for women, they will succeed less.”

Shirky, a professor at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, believes that women are too risk averse to exaggerate the truth about their abilities (or even advertise the abilities they do have) to succeed. He believes the remedy is to teach women to take more risks and promote themselves more – “asking women to behave more like men.”

“I sometimes wonder what would happen,” he writes, “if my college spent as much effort teaching women self-advancement as self-defense.”

Teaching Women How to Behave Like Men

But is it really that simple? Just teach women to behave more like men, and they will reap all the benefits of 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”?

I doubt it.

Shirky says that women are afraid to take risks because they’re worried about what people think of them. He says, “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.”

This line of thought, to be fair, isn’t original to Shirky. It’s fairly common to read that women can achieve more simply by learning to negotiate better, and we’ve covered the topic in The Glass Hammer as well.

Yes, asking for a raise or promotion is usually the first step in actually getting one. And risk-averse (one might even say “humble”) behavior is probably one reason behind the wage gap that still persists today.

As Washington Post reporter Shankar Vedantam explains, “If a 22-year-old man and a 22-year-old woman are offered $25,000 for their first job, for example, and one of them negotiates the amount up to $30,000, then over the next 28 years, the negotiator would make $361,171 more, assuming they both got 3 percent raises each year.”

Which Risk is More Detrimental?

So is the answer, then, just to teach women to negotiate better?

Unfortunately, it’s just not that simple. Women, in fact, suffer disproportionate penalties for engaging in the type of behavior Shirky is encouraging them to adopt.

For example, a Carnegie Mellon and Harvard study by Hannah Riley Bowles, Linda C. Babcock, and Lei Lai showed that women are actually often penalized for negotiating. Bowles explains, “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.” She continued, “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.”

The reason that women choose not to raise their hands, negotiate salaries, ask for promotions, and generally act like “self aggrandizing jerks” is not only because they are averse to risk that exists in a failure to deliver on overpromised skills, but they are also averse to the risk that exists simply in asking in the first place.

As Whitney Johnson, founding partner of Rose Park Advisors, Clayton M. Christensen’s investment firm, writes in the Harvard Business Review, “When men ask for something, they are being proactive; when women ask, they are being pushy. It’s a double standard to be sure, but it’s also a double bind — if we don’t ask, we don’t get; if we do ask, we may be shunned.”

There are different societal expectations that exist for men and women — and simply teaching women to act more like men is not likely to be an effective solution to the “self aggrandizing jerk” problem. Perhaps the folks in charge need to be taught to recognize that the problem doesn’t lie solely in women’s choices and behavior, but in the responses of those on the receiving end of that behavior as well. It’s both disappointing and telling that someone like Clay Shirky, who, as a university professor, is one of those folks in charge of promotion, recommendation writing, and mentoring both male and female students — and is still unable to recognize all of the risks women face in attempting to work toward advancement.

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