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I’m Calling Out Clay Shirky On His Rant About Women

February 9, 2010

A Rant About Women, a blog post by NYU professor Clay Shirky, has raised a ruckus (over 500 comments and many, many, many retweets) because he said that women themselves are in part responsible for being paid less than male counterparts and not receiving as many promotions. He essentially said that our economic position would be improved if we raised our hands more and said “I can do that. Sign me up. My work is awesome.” Agreed, we need to say our work is awesome and based on anecdotal evidence of my many talented, successful and impressive female friends and colleagues many women are uncomfortable with singing their own praises (at least the way many men do it with a bullhorn and swagger). So my rant does not preclude the notion that women need to be willing to speak up more about their talents.  That being said I don’t see the cause and effect relationship that Shirky does. His blog post and the ensuing furor made me think of a book I read in college* that starts with this:

“…Zero Mostel [comic actor in 50s & 60s] used to do a sketch in which he impersonated a Dixiecrat Senator conducting an investigation of the origins of WWII. At the climax of the sketch, the Senator boomed out, in an excruciating mixture of triumph and suspicion “What was Pearl Harbor doing in the Pacific?    This is an extreme example of blaming the victim.”

Granted, women are no longer blatantly characterized as being inferior or too emotional to run the show. We have progressed beyond that, but in some ways that blatant discrimination was easier to fight. It was visible. It stood before us in all its bold finery of prejudice making it easier to disrobe. But subtle discrimination, couched in concern for our well-being is harder to fight against especially because Shirky and people like him are not intentionally, consciously distorting the realities of the workplace and women in it. But the truth is we still operate in a good old boy system and a generations-old work construct set up by men for men – isn’t that the real problem that needs to be addressed? If the credentials of a woman and man are essentially the same and a woman is paid less, are we now to believe that that’s our responsibility for not speaking up? And should we also believe that the reason a woman didn’t get the promotion that a man did was because she didn’t speak up?  In other words that promotion 20+ years ago that I didn’t get and a man with less experience got was because I didn’t speak up or didn’t speak up loudly enough? Bull-dinggies.

Shirky started his post with a story about a man who asked for a job recommendation to which Shirky responded “Tell me what you think I should say.” The man then wrote overly superlative things so Shirky toned it down but later felt the guy got a better recommendation from him than he would have if he hadn’t written overly superlative descriptors. So Shirky’s line of thought continued that a woman would not have exaggerated her talents and therefore not received as good a recommendation. Please explain to me why that becomes the woman’s fault and not Shirky’s?

So Clay Shirky, I’m calling you out. Let’s see what kind of “ovaries” you really have.  Are you ranting about women because an arrogant, self-aggrandizing man manipulated you into writing a better recommendation than you would have? Are you blaming women for not getting better jobs when, in fact, as an educator you didn’t educate them on how to do so? Do you really think that simply raising our hands and speaking up will change the tide of gender bias?

So come on Shirky, I’m raising my hand and saying “Put ’em up, put ’em up! … I can fight you with one paw tied behind my back. I can fight you standing on one foot. I can fight you with my eyes closed.”

*Blaming The Victim by William Ryan a book about how victims of poverty are cast as the villains rather than the inequality of an American society.

28 Comments leave one →
  1. February 9, 2010 5:41 pm

    Now you’ve done it. Got my blood boiling! You are spot on with your observations and your hard-driving questions. If I had a nickle for every training course taught on how to effectively assess performance and select the best qualified candidate for a job or promotion, I’d be writing this from a chateau in France. Because MANagers are either unwilling, unable, or unqualified to observe (not wait for self-promotion) performance and assess a woman’s capabilities and suitability for a move up, women routinely get the sort end of the stick. This is not about speaking up, it’s about showing up and doing the work that management clearly assigns, sets goals for, and assesses based on measurable and observable criteria. This is issue is about MANagers not fulfilling their responsibilities. Great post, Cherry…you’re a terrific voice for women.

    • February 9, 2010 7:24 pm

      Thanks Dawn. In Shirky’s post he talks about men getting ahead because they do speak up, and of course there’s truth within that statement. And, both men and women should speak up when an opportunity or project suddenly turns up – an opportunity or project that could bring promotional rewards down the line. However, if promotions or raises are given to those who speak up vs. who meets the qualifications then the system is broken/flawed and I don’t want to see individuals of either gender blamed because they didn’t “raise their hands.”

  2. February 9, 2010 6:44 pm

    I think it’s a complicated dynamic.

    Are the victims at fault? No, of course not.

    Do we each need to take more responsibility for ourselves? Yes, we do.

    There aren’t simple answers because these aren’t simple problems.

    • February 9, 2010 7:08 pm

      I agree, it is a complicated dynamic, with innumerable variables and interactions. For me Claudia if people start to think about these issues and enter into a dialogue about them it moves us to in deeper understanding and potential systemic change.

  3. Jas permalink
    February 9, 2010 10:39 pm

    Did you see Samatha Bee’s piece on the Daily Show the last week? Your son pointed it out to me. She interviews a man who claims that the social condition in which men today find themselves is analogous to that of women in the 1950s. His best example: Medical reps are mostly female. Of course….why are they mostly female? The better to “gain access” to the predominantly male doctors, of course!

    There’s more to the piece (some parts are funnier than others), so if you’d like to watch the clip it’s here:

    • February 10, 2010 8:34 am

      Thanks for clip (thank Aaron too). I enjoyed it. It did fit with this post. I emailed post to Clay Shirky and told him I was raising my hand and asked him to read. No response yet but thought I saw where he was at Ted Talks and a speaker. I want to watch – think it’s about collaboration and self organizing. love you.

  4. February 10, 2010 1:59 pm

    As a man, I wish I had some answers, but your article is very true. I couldn’t help thinking about the very first Mary Tyler Moore show. The one where she interviewed with Lou for her job. It’s funny, but unfortunately it true. Here is a link if you need a refresher of the interview between Mary Richards and Lou Grant.

    • February 10, 2010 8:20 pm

      That MTM show clip is a good one and does fit. Thanks for sharing it, bet there’s many people reading the blog who never saw that show. Cherry

  5. Debbie Ketter permalink
    February 10, 2010 5:00 pm

    Cherry, Great blog as usual. I think it is because of women like you that things will be different for our daughters. I don’t like the idea that a woman needs to be like a man and toot their own horn to get ahead in the world. Is it really worth getting a job or a raise if you have to be anything less than honest? With the world changing at lightening speeds we are all going to have to learn to bring forth our gifts and work together for the greater good. Money, power, and position are no match for truth and love.

  6. February 10, 2010 7:05 pm

    Great post Cherry. Here’s another interesting side to this issue. At my most recent job, my female boss told me, in my yearly review, that I was making myself and my work “too visible” and that I needed to be prepared to work in the background more often. Needless to say I’m not there any longer. Women need to support one another in the work place and consider one another competition for those few jobs at the top.

  7. Jessie Thompson permalink
    February 15, 2010 9:04 am

    Cherry – Hmmm, well clearly Shirky did not have you in mind when he wrote his article. And it got me thinking about our culture of boasting and bragging. In some cultures modesty is admired, but not so much in ours.
    On the other hand, I think there does come a time in the evolution of things where opportunities are available, and personal responsibility to actively seize those opportunites must kick in. Personally, I am making my own way, and not waiting for any man or woman to give me permission to do so.
    Well, except maybe Bank of America. Now that I think of it, every time I call them it is a man on the phone denying my request for a better interest rate on my business loan, even though my business is running well and I pay pay pay them every month. To the brave men who have to take my phone call at Bank of America, I apologize.

    • February 15, 2010 9:48 am

      Loved your response. That being said, now I’ll say more (not surprised are you?) Shirky would probably say, and I would agree, that women apologize more than men and that this doesn’t help us either. There are times to apologize but I do think women tend to overdo it – saying they’re sorry when there’s no reason to or accepting responsibility for something that isn’t their responsibility. Gosh, I really had to think about my they’re, there’s and theirs in that sentence. Sorry. Only joking about that apology.

  8. Nicole Ranger permalink
    February 19, 2010 5:44 pm

    Can I just say that I LOVED your question to Clay:

    ~ Let’s see what kind of “ovaries” you really have. ~

    I hope it catches on!

    My ovaries are swelling just thinking about it :D .. heh heh.

    • February 19, 2010 7:03 pm

      Glad you liked it. I get so tired of hearing about “balls” as a symbol of courage and also find it interesting that people seem to be comfortable using that term but if we talk about ovaries or, god forbid, clitoris people are embarrassed and they’re even the anatomically correct term! But anyway glad yours are swelling at the thought (at least I think I am) :).
      Thanks for reading and commenting. Hope you visit again.

  9. Denise permalink
    March 16, 2010 7:49 am

    Hi Cherry,
    I am a producer on the BBC World Service radio discussion programme World Have Your Say. Do you want to come on the programme today and talk about and to Clay Shirky? We’ve got him on talking about his rant. Please contact me on my email. The programme goes out between 13-15 EST.

  10. April 21, 2010 11:09 am

    I was in law school in 1972 in California- women were underrepresented but not as bad as in past years. The women students were very organized and fearless. We found that professors would call on women but ignore our answers. A male student called on subsequently would say about the same thing and get an approving comment from the teacher. So we began an intervention. whenever the teacher approved a male student for parroting what a female student said, one or more of the women would call out “Ellen (or whoever) just said that”. We panicked at first that we would get thrown out of class, or school. But the reverse happened – the teachers tried to avoid embarrasing themselves and started making approving comments when women gave answers. It was very interesting behavior modification in action.

    • April 21, 2010 11:47 am

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing that happy-ending story. It is a great example of the benefit of speaking up for ourselves. I wonder what female law students experience in the class room these days.
      Hope to hear from you again, Cherry

  11. August 12, 2010 8:37 am

    Hello, I found my way here from the Shirky rant. There is an interesting discussion taking place around the entrepreneurial space and where women play, or don’t, and what can be done about that. On the today show, today, a study is being profiled about the variance of women with kids and the career path / trajectory impact. This disparity is palatable and informs the whole discussion. Thanks for your blog, your contributions and…did you do that BBC show or ever hear from Shirky?? Looking forward to hearing back. Hope you are well and your ovaries are happy! ;>)

    • August 12, 2010 5:02 pm

      I did hear from Clay Shirky. Thanks for asking. We exchanged several emails and had a great discussion. We both had an impact on each other’s ideas and I found him delightfully non-defensive and willing to engage.
      I also was asked by the BBC to be on the show and was, unfortunately not put on until near the end but, hey, I was asked and participated.

  12. July 12, 2011 3:19 pm

    What point are you making with this article exactly? What do you mean by asking this “Please explain to me why that becomes the woman’s fault and not Shirky’s?”. I don’t think there is any finger pointing going on here, merely observing happenstance.

    • July 12, 2011 3:44 pm

      Alex, I’m assuming you read Shirky’s original post. It’s been a while since I read it so I might not get this exactly correct. His post was a rant about how women don’t speak up for themselves. In that rant he said that he realized that he’d been manipulated (not sure he used that word or simply implied it) into writing a better reference for a man – one Shirky himself didn’t agree with – after the man had been self-aggrandizing and had overly tooted his own horn. And my question was why is the fact that Shirky was manipulated into writing a better reference for a man the responsibility of a women who don’t speak up. Isn’t Shirky responsible for allowing himself to be manipulated?

      I do think that women need to speak up for themselves more, just as I think some men need to speak up for themselves more. But to suggest that women should become “self-aggrandizing jerks” like men are (Shirky’s description not mine) seems ludicrous to me. Hope that answers your question. Thanks for stopping by and for asking. Cherry

      • July 12, 2011 6:12 pm

        Yes, I read Shirkys post, which is what lead me here.

        I agree with you in that Shirky and any other person regardless of gender was/is responsible for allowing themselves to be manipulated, however I don’t believe it is any womans responsibility to speak up. In fact, I will generalize as you have in your comment and talk about people who speak up (or are more likely to take risks as Shirky put it) and people who do not speak up as much (people who are less likely to take risks).

        It seems to me that looking at the separation between the two classifications there is no blaming people who don’t take as many risks or appointed responsibility of those who don’t. There is simply a landscape where some people take more risks / speak up and those who take less and there is also the landscape of people who are more easily manipulated and those who aren’t. In terms of gender it may happen (as Shirky is pointing out) that the more likely to take the risks are men and that the ones who aren’t are women. There are likely other factors that would affect this or situations where trend is the other way.

  13. July 14, 2011 8:33 pm

    To further my previous statement “that the more likely to take the risks are men and that the ones who aren’t are women”, I think that perhaps to “fight the status quo” shirky is trying to point out that women who are conscious of this occurrence and who are perhaps themselves examples of how this is not the case should try and do it more often and encourage their peers to do so. Maybe this would have some sort of effect on global consciousness in the long run where a gender border that is resultant from this phenomenon would no longer exist.

    To further this and to respond to Kelly Boyds comment about womens roles in things like start ups, I would only like to point out that perhaps pushing women to be more active in creating startups or focusing on being examples for other women is moving in the incorrect direction, even though it may get us to where we want to be in the future. It seems to me that starting a start up, or giving someone a particular role in doing something simply for the reason that they are a woman is equally as gender biased as the converse. It seems a very strange problem to get around it, but it strikes me as similar to the notion of a religious person arguing for the morality of their beliefs based on the example of someone doing something good. Typically these arguments are lost when someone points out that being religious had nothing to do with it. Any person regardless of choice of faith could perform those good actions, and someone who uses this as an argument for morality is actually sort of saying they do good things because they are religious and therefore disproving their own point (in my and quite a few other opinions).

    So the point is, it seems simply odd to me that women should be given all this extra attention and push to do things just because they are women. It makes sense in the world where there is an extremely evident gender bias which must be essentially driven out by over exemplifying. I think this is what Shirkys point is and I again must ask you what exactly you are calling him out on. If women as a sub group of our culture want something they should go get it. That is what we do. Altering cultural norms to eliminate traces of gender bias is certainly not something that is going to happen over night. But if they want it they should go get it and therefore I think it is the responsibility of women to speak up for themselves and not wait to be let through the VIP gate on their way to any sort of success.

    On the over hand isn’t it odd that we seem to guage equality on that actions and things that men do? Can women not feel their own sense of fulfillment unless they are doing all the things that men are doing? That again seems like a very odd thing to me.

  14. Tia permalink
    January 24, 2012 12:55 pm

    Just came across this debate today and one statement you’ve made here, Cherry, made me think:
    “blatant discrimination was easier to fight. It was visible. It stood before us in all its bold finery of prejudice making it easier to disrobe. But subtle discrimination, couched in concern for our well-being is harder to fight against especially because Shirky and people like him are not intentionally, consciously distorting the realities of the workplace and women in it.”

    Wouldn’t Shirky’s proposition help to bring out these subtleties? I come from a psychology/ science background and in order to observe a statistically significant difference between two groups, it’s important to make all other things equal. So I’m thinking, if we women try to behave similarly to men in the area of self-promotion, wouldn’t it help us all to better perceive the more subtle factors perpetuating discrimination against women in the workplace?

    • January 24, 2012 2:26 pm

      You make a good point Tia.

      If I remember correctly, he talked about men behaving as “self-aggrandizing jerks” and wanted women to act like them. Two things (1) I don’t women or anyone to behave as “self-aggrandizing jerks” and (2) women can’t get away with that same behavior. They’re crucified for it so it doesn’t have the same effect. I think there’s been studies to this affect but I can’t swear to it. Anecdotal evidence shows it to be the case.

      Shirky and I had several email correspondences after our posts and he modified his position agreeing that women acting as men does not, by and large, have the same or similar impact. I hope this answers your question. If not, please write again. Thanks, Cherry


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