I backed into this rant from technology professor Clay Shirky through a super response from Gabriella Coleman, also a professor at NYU (a great one, I hear). Shirky tells a story about a request for a recommendation wherein the student self-promotes in hyperbolic fashion. Shirky asks his readers to guess the gender of the subject, as if the answer is obvious. However, if it weren’t for his foreshadowing headline or the way I found the post, I literally would’ve flipped a coin. Where he sees as “duh” difference between young men and women, I see no stereotype within the context of the story he delivers.
Perhaps this is because I’m exactly the kind of arrogant jerk man he describes except that I am a woman, and I prefer to use words like passionate and confident. I have what I call a giant case of “exceptionalism,” and we should thank my parents for this healthy fact. When I’m met with a challenge like “only four people are accepted to Stanford’s PhD program in Communication every year,” I apply anyway, reasoning that I could just as easily be one of those four people.
This is not blind optimism or arrogance. I do my research. After reading their work, I emailed incredible professors at Stanford and promoted my ideas. I received encouraging, yet sobering responses (only take students with prior funding, going on sabbatical next year, etc.). I applied. I “failed.” I was not supposed to be there (yet?); I found my right place for now at NYU. However, if we are to believe Shirky, I am an exception among women, a group too meek and mild to enjoy success. He’s right. He’s wrong.
People who take risks are by their very nature, exceptional. It wouldn’t be a risk if it were the norm. One point for Shirky. However, exceptional hearing and behavior is not a gendered trait. When I “fake it until I make it” (something I had to do frequently for the likes of Microsoft), I am not behaving like a man. I find this characterization mildly insulting. Minus ten points for Shirky. Or am I just an exception to my gender? The trouble here is with the definition of success. The better question here, and one that makes his rant moot, is: Do men and women define success differently? I’d wager that they often do define it differently, but not in a systematic sort of way. The ingredients that go into this determining process are shaped by societal forces much larger than gender.
Shirky’s experience “lying” to the professor to get into a class reminded me of the time I walked into the office of the artistic/managing director of the theater where I worked. I was a pup of 23, and tired of the revolving door position above mine, that of marketing director. The thought of winning the trust of yet another boss annoyed me. I summoned that exceptional voice loud enough to say, “hey, I can do that job.” I asked my departing boss if she thought I could do it. She said no. The truth is, it didn’t matter what answer she gave me, I was going to go for it anyway. This drive had zero to do with my genitalia.
I made an appointment with the big boss and asked him to make me the interim marketing director, and to promote me fully once I’d proven I could do the job well. Arrogant? Maybe, but notice I saw things from his perspective too, and limited his risk with the trial suggestion. Manly? Hardly. Womanly? Uh, why does Shirky make these distinctions?
I do want to say that the road to my full promotion was ghastly at times. I remember typing under a program deadline early on and watching as red drops appeared on my white keyboard, a surreal, cinematic yet all too tangible reminder that risk taking sucks. The nosebleed said so much for “success.” Yet the first mainstage production I marketed broke the theater’s 20-year box office record. I did not achieve this feat by myself, and this is where humility comes in; we had a giant cast making this happen. Are women more humble than men? Again, this is the wrong question. It’s just silly. Gender is expressive; gender is fluid; gender is often not important.
Am I advocating for some sort of post-gender reality? Hardly. Shirky brushes sexism aside in his rant, as some sort of inconvenient truth, something real, but something outside of his argument. Shirky never had to stare at someone across a desk and be told he would be paid a fraction of what his work was worth according to the market simply by virtue of the contents in his pants, not his resume. Sexism in this country is pervasive, not something to be treated as a red herring. It is institutionalized in the research supporting one very common definition of success: salary. Until women are paid the same as men for equal work, I’d rather like to talk about sexism. Gender certainly matters, but in my humble opinion, not in the way Shirky thinks it does.
P.S. I’ve tried “acting like a man” and asking for the going rate (a.k.a. the man’s salary) at the negotiation table. Funny, my “arrogant self-promotion” has never worked in this department, but sexism isn’t really the problem, according to Shirky. If only I could grow a pair, right? W….T….F?