This conversation started with Clay Shirky’s A Rant About Women, which advised that gender to self-promote a little more, maybe even bullshitting sometimes. There have been good follow-ups and I’ve been thinking about this a lot. It’s a fallacy, though, to think that these issues are important only to women.

Other Voices · I’ve saved a few browser tabs with the better responses: Gabriella Coleman’s Being Bad-Ass w/o the Arrogance argues that in disciplines where women aren’t bashing against glass ceilings, for example Anthropology, the people you emulate aren’t “low-life jerks clawing their way to the top”, unlike (by implication) the “sea of white men” at technical and academic conferences. That’s a powerful perception. “Why not,” she asks, “instead promote and highlight behavior that rewards confidence sans the arrogance?”

Tom Coates, in Should we encourage self-promotion and lies?, is similarly negative. Once again, I’ll quote: “It should be unacceptable for us to say that lying about one's abilities is something that everyone has to do to get ahead. It should be unacceptable for us to say that arrogance and aggression are to be aspired to.”

Skud offered Questioning the merit of meritocracy, which draws from her own thoughts and a variety of other sources to argue that the rankings in many so-called meritocracies are both polluted by self-promotion and fail to assign merit to a broad enough spectrum of talents. To quote: “Finally, don’t require pushiness along with ability.

I read others too, but these three stood out for me.

Details Matter · I think that when it gets down to this sort of subtle, highly-personal issue, broad-brush judgments are really dangerous. So in that spirit, I’d like to drill down a bit on Clay Shirky’s parable taken from his own early life, which I’ll reproduce:

When I was 19 and three days into my freshman year, I went to see Bill Warfel, the head of grad theater design (my chosen profession, back in the day), to ask if I could enroll in a design course. He asked me two questions. The first was “How’s your drawing?” Not so good, I replied. (I could barely draw in those days.) “OK, how’s your drafting?” I realized this was it. I could either go for a set design or lighting design course, and since I couldn’t draw or draft well, I couldn’t take either.

“My drafting’s fine”, I said.

That’s the kind of behavior I mean. I sat in the office of someone I admired and feared, someone who was the gatekeeper for something I wanted, and I lied to his face. We talked some more and then he said “Ok, you can take my class.” And I ran to the local art supply place and bought a drafting board, since I had to start practicing.

I find it really hard to disapprove of the young Clay in this story. He introspected and made the decision that he could learn enough drafting in however-much time there was before the course started that he wouldn’t get thrown out. Then he bullshitted. Then he learned enough drafting really fast to get by, and went on with his education. The results were good and, as he puts it, “I only told lies I could live up to” (well, or at least thought he could).

Here’s another thing: I’d be unsurprised if Prof. Werfel saw through Clay like a pane of glass, could tell he was bullshitting and scrambling to get in, and gave him credit for really wanting it.

What’s wrong with this picture? Well, I suppose there could have been some other student candidate (perhaps a woman) with very basic drafting skills who, when the prof asked, answered “I can just barely draft a bit”, and maybe Clay got a spot and she didn’t because she told the truth and he lied. On the other hand, if she’d said “I can just barely draft a bit, but I really wanna take this course and I’m going to buckle down for the next three weeks and work like crazy on my drafting”, well who knows?

And for the sake of disclosure: In two crucial early career steps, I was, shall we say, wildly optimistic in my portrayal of my exposure to certain technologies, in the interests of getting a job I wanted. In both cases I had to scramble. And in neither can I manage any regret.

I’m not trying to draw general lessons from Clay’s yarn about the moral pros and cons of self-promotion. I will argue, though, is that in these situations the ethics are highly, well, situational, with subtle dependencies on the persons and roles and power relationships and a bunch of other things.

I Hate ’Em · Despite all that arm-waving ambiguity, let me go on the record that I totally loathe the people we’ve all met who are all self-promotion all the time, can never shut up about their various excellences. And, sadly, I’ve seen this behavior amply rewarded at a level way out of line with any contributions these jerk-offs actually make.

Yes, that’s a symptom of a management pathology, but it’s a common one; common enough that there must be something in the conventional structures of business that encourages it.

I’d also add, the problem isn’t so much that these people bullshit or that they don’t do good work, because sometimes they do. It’s that they just never shut up.

As an executive, I’ve blown off a couple of potentially interesting partnerships because the CEO on the other side was a pompous blowhard. At the end of the day, I bypassed the business and technology issues because I couldn’t face putting up with the verbal diarrhea.

Aggression · Let me revisit Tom Coates’ quote above: “It should be unacceptable for us to say that arrogance and aggression are to be aspired to.” I have a big problem with this in that it suggests that arrogance and aggression are somehow the same thing. They’re not. Whether we’re talking business, politics, or technology, I generally approve of aggression. Even extreme aggression. This is not an absolute: it doesn’t include aggression directed against other people, except in the rare cases where that’s called for, and it absolutely requires that aggressive people be prepared to suck it up and deal with the consequences of their actions; aggression is by definition risky.

Founding a company, introducing a new product category, running for any political office, launching a web-site at the world; all these things are aggressive at a deep level; and without that aggression we would all be impoverished.

At a less picturesque level, just getting anything meaningful done in certain large organizational structures requires sometimes-fairly-extreme aggression. Anybody who’s been around this track knows about the antibodies and PHBs and run-it-by-Legal-ers who are reliably full of good reasons to avoid any action whatsoever.

And a lot of the world’s most aggressive people are not self-promoters in the slightest; people who are soft-spoken, unobtrusive, but then they go Just Fucking Do It. I think aggression is most effective when it’s not pre-announced.

That Gender Thing · Statistically speaking, women exhibit less aggression, and statistically speaking, that probably hurts them in the aggregate. Here’s the problem: statistical wisdom is bullshit, everybody’s an exception to some statistic or other; but the human mind has such a powerful pattern-matching engine that it can’t help acting on anecdotal perception. This is why, as Skud pointed out, orchestras have had to adopt blind auditions in order to route around the systematic statistical bias in favor of male musicians.

I think, then, that yes, it couldn’t do any possible harm to try to bring the average level of aggressiveness up among women. I suppose that’s a controversial thing to say, but I really do believe it.

Also, that we pay serious attention to Skud’s thoughts on meritocracy as we design our own social structures.

However, I am passionately against encouraging anyone, man, woman, child, to become a systematic self-promoter. (To be fair to Clay Shirky, I don’t think that’s what he was really recommending, and he’s owed apologies from those who oversimplified his message).

Perhaps I’ve just taken multiple paragraphs to recommend what Gabriella Coleman did in a few words: “behavior that rewards confidence sans the arrogance”.

Oh, and Technology · In the last few weeks I’ve read some awfully smart stuff, concrete not abstract, about what we could do in the technology space to get more women involved; but I think it helps to bear this whole aggression-vs.-arrogance dynamic in mind as one reads through it. I totally recommend Gina Trapani’s A Word About Women in Technology and Denise’s Teaching People to Fish.


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From: Deirdré Straughan (Jan 24 2010, at 11:08)

Don't miss danah boyd's excellent piece as well:

I learned the hard way 10 years ago, when I was beat out for promotion by another woman, that working 14 hours a day doesn't get the recognition that buttering up the boss does. That was a rude awakening to the need to not only do a damned fine job, but to make sure people knew *I* was doing it.

However, I've also learned that being assertive, especially about your own accomplishments, often causes a woman to be perceived as an arrogant bitch.

Damned if we do, damned if we don't. <sigh>


From: Eric (Jan 24 2010, at 11:24)

"And for the sake of disclosure: In two crucial early career steps, I was, shall we say, wildly optimistic in my portrayal of my exposure to certain technologies, in the interests of getting a job I wanted. In both cases I had to scramble. And in neither can I manage any regret."

Which is why, in most cases, it is best to test candidates, you know, to weed out rift-raft like that. :-)


From: Neil Mansilla (Jan 24 2010, at 16:22)

Re: "Hate 'em", I (hate'em)^65535. That type of personality is insufferable, and the world knows no solution to shut them up.


From: Janne (Jan 24 2010, at 16:43)

I think Clay Shirky was wrong about one thing in his parable:

"The difference between me and David Hampton isn’t that he’s a con artist and I’m not; the difference is that I only told lies I could live up to, and I knew when to stop. That’s not a different type of behavior, it’s just a different amount."

I do think it's a different type of behavior. Shirky's "My drafting is fine" was really a shorthand for "I'm staking my reputation that my drafting will be good enough for you by the time it needs to be".

A con artist like Hampton, on the other hand - or any outright liar - knows they don't live up to what they say, never will be, and have no intention of even trying.


From: PB (Jan 24 2010, at 17:40)

I think some of this can be summarized in brief as: 'Actions speak louder than words. Or should.'


From: PB (Jan 24 2010, at 17:58)

A couple of additional links for your consideration:

Should Women "Man Up" - Even If It Means Bad Behavior?

3 Reasons Why Women Can't Be More Like Men


From: Mike (Jan 24 2010, at 20:25)

The point Clay was making in saying that the lack of women who are jerks (of the type he discusses) is not that it would be good if there were more, but simply that in the natural world, which encompasses human personality, everything exists along a continuum that is a Gaussian distribution. If there are not jerks on the right-hand side of the graph, there is no massing bump of desirable self confidence in the middle. "Postal" graphs that descend in a straight line do no exist in nature. So from a strictly diagnostic standpoint you want to see the extremes, even if you don't like them.


From: John Cowan (Jan 24 2010, at 22:02)

Tim, you committed a fraud on your employers. If the men who hired you knew you didn't have the skills, the two of you were in a conspiracy to defraud your employer. What's more, someone who was competent at that job was deprived of it by this deceit. I think you need to think again.


From: len (Jan 25 2010, at 06:12)

We test candidates for exactly that behavior. If they do that in the interview, they will do worse at the job.

We hire as many women who are not jerks as men. Maybe it's a problem in Canada. In the US, we have Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and any manager or employer who doesn't understand the implications of that in detail is in for a world of trouble.

I think how much tolerance for hucksterism (what that kind of self-promotion is) depends on the job. In Shirky's environment, it might be ok being educational. In a production shop, it's not.

The harsh reality is not sexism but agism in a business where maintaining current chops is required and it gets harder with age as other responsibilities take precedence. I've witnessed some very cruel outcomes in the last ten years as the hedge fund driven locusts took over the business.


From: Joe Clark (Jan 25 2010, at 09:17)

Do please take care to distinguish “systemic” and “systematic,” which are not synonyms.

At some point somebody is going to bring up neuroanatomy to explain why “so few” women are involved in information technology. Then somebody’s going to ask why women are so terribly important and special while, say, disabled people aren’t.


From: Bryan (Jan 25 2010, at 11:50)

I think that self confidence plus competence are the key combination, and it takes self confidence to admit when you don't know something AND convince that you can acquire that knowledge/skill ... but you need some sort of track record to induce belief in confidence.

So this is all about getting the platypus on the ladder (when I was taught the mathematics of induction, we had an analogy of step 1: get the platypus on the ladder, step 2: take a step, step 3: repeat step 2 ...) ... and that's what it takes to succeed ... in most anything.


From: Mark ThreePointThreeSix (Jan 25 2010, at 13:52)

For what shall it profit a {wo}man, if {s}he shall gain the whole world, and lose {her|his} own soul?


From: Rob (Jan 25 2010, at 19:20)

I read Shirkey's original post with a good deal of interest.

Unlike big bro, I work in a vastly female dominated profession, yet the majority of upper management in it is male (which would describe me). I also work up close to government, and you see a lot of female jam there. In fact, I suspect that in a decade or so, damn near all the senior leadership of our public servants will be female.

I think that Shirkey is basically right; women do tend to be a bit more rules based, and men a bit more risk tolerant. To put it in management-consultant speak.

Being risk tolerant can pay off big time in the private sector; but for every male in upper management in my biz there is a field full of male career corpses who blew it (metaphorically speaking).

Being rules based and patient really works in areas like government though, where risk-takers are abhorred.

I think it all comes down to the analogy of the husband refusing to ask for directions and thereby driving the wife nuts.

That, and perhaps the male bell curve, which seems to be flatter and wider than the female version. Which of course means absolutely nothing for any individual person.

But for damn sure there is a huge difference between the confident risk-taker and the self-promoting jerk who is truly despicable. Me, I always thrived on the theory of being the quiet guy in the corner that isn't scared to take it on, and gets a track record of getting the job done (even if he doesn't have a clue what he is doing when he starts).

The one thing I've noticed over my career though, is that while women generally tend to be better at dissimulation than men, damn near every successful senior exec I have known was a very very skilled liar, and used the skill for more personally productive ends.


From: David Carlton (Jan 27 2010, at 17:17)

A more recent contribution to the discussion that I thought was quite interesting:


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