Why, yes, as a matter of fact, my wife has had a bad week. Why do you ask?
Clay Shirky has some interesting things to say about this phenomenon:
If you walked into my department at NYU, you wouldn’t say “Oh my, look how much more talented the men are than the women.” The level and variety of creative energy in the place is still breathtaking to me, and it’s not divided by gender. However, you would be justified in saying “I bet that the students who get famous five years from now will include more men than women”, because that’s what happens, year after year. [...]
Part of this sorting out of careers is sexism, but part of it is that men are just better at being arrogant, and less concerned about people thinking we’re stupid (often correctly, it should be noted) for trying things we’re not qualified for.
Now I don’t know what to do about this problem. [...] What I do know is this: it would be good if more women see interesting opportunities that they might not be qualified for, opportunities which they might in fact fuck up if they try to take them on, and then try to take them on. It would be good if more women got in the habit of raising their hands and saying “I can do that. Sign me up. My work is awesome,” no matter how many people that behavior upsets.
He does come awfully close to “blaming the victim,” though. But I really like commenter Amy’s insights and suggestion:
As more than a few commenters have pointed out, one of the reasons why women are generally less assertive than men is because we are penalized for it; I too have been told by superiors that being “less direct” will help me get what I want, while working in a nearly all-male environment.
Moreover, this is a socioeconomic issue. The most assertive women I’ve met are those who come from wealthy backgrounds. They believe they are entitled to larger salaries, more respect, etc., just as many (more?) men believe they are entitled to such things.
Which brings me to my main point: Entitlement. Harmless behaviors like fibbing a bit to get your foot in the door, or faking it till you make it, are necessary strategies in a competitive labor market, but when it comes to being promoted or getting a raise, those who believe they are entitled to more will ask for it. Unfortunately, these people are often “arrogant, self-aggrandizing jerks”. Rewarding these individuals for this behavior, and not for the work they do, is simply lazy management. It perpetuates a broken system, where those who feel entitled to privileges receive them, therefore preventing qualified and hard-working individuals from moving up.
There is an easy solution: Making all salaries public. It will become clear who deserves their salary and managers will not be so willing to give women (and men) less than they deserve lest they are called out on their sexism/racism/classism/whatever. Claiming that it’s impolite to talk about money has succeeded in keeping people in their place, and it’s time for a change. (We can talk about it. It is just money, after all.)
(Emphasis mine. Hear, hear.)
Meredith Farkas partly agrees and partly pushes back against Shirky. Like Amy above (and, I think, rightly) she puts the responsibility for changing this situation squarely on the shoulders of those who educate, hire, and promote:
If you think there’s something wrong with the system as it is and you’re in a position of power, wouldn’t it make sense to change it? How about encouraging and trying to build up talented women in your classes so they feel more comfortable promoting themselves? [...]
I’ve used my limited success to promote others who I think are awesome — both male and female. Some of these people would be great self-promoters on their own and others just aren’t comfortable in that role. [...] I’m trying to create the sort of world I want to live in, where people are judged more by their talent than by their ability to promote themselves.
But what Shirky doesn’t delve into in his post is that the world responds to women acting like pompous blowhards in a much different way than it reacts to men doing so. To some degree, a man taking what he thinks he deserves, outright and forcefully, is just, y’know, being a man. A woman doing the same immediately marks herself as a bitch, a dyke, or other unsavory labels. It’s a cultural message reinforced all the time [...]
If women aren’t good at self-aggrandizing, it’s probably not an innate character default, it’s because self-aggrandizing doesn’t work for women the same way it works for men. And one learns behavior that works. I know a woman who confronted her boss after she was passed up for a promotion only to be torn down, called arrogant and too big for her britches, and subsequently set back at work because she dared ask about a promotion she rightfully deserved. Teaching women self-advancement techniques doesn’t do much when those traits are, for the most part, only valued in men.
And from Meghan O’Rourke:
Shirky doesn’t spend much time on the studies that show people are often put off when women self-promote. The problem isn’t simply (or even mostly) that women don’t raise their hands and say, “Me! Me!” It’s that when they do, they’re often met with a turned back or an eyebrow raised in subtle annoyance. Consider this comment from a reader of Shirky’s post (I thought it was a joke, but it seems not to be): “Dunno, the women I’ve worked with in the past that try to be all masculine and cocky, etc. are usually a total pain in the ass. It’s like they overcompensate and get it all wrong. I’m a dude BTW.”
This damned-if-you-do-self-promote, damned-if-you-don’t is one of those predicaments that can make you despair. I draw the line at taking Shirky’s advice that women emulate narcissistic assholes. A wholesale embrace of a world in which women get ahead by behaving more ego-centrically would, after all, just be another version of listening to male authority instead of claiming it for oneself.
Here’s what I know: my wife completely deserves a promotion she didn’t get, and everyone within a mile of her desk knows it. The day when women and men are judged and compensated according to their talents rather than their hype can’t come soon enough.
(Image via Dilbert)
Update (4/03/11): Via FlickFilosopher, I’ve just found out that Scott Adams — whose “Dilbert” cartoon I used at the top of this post — has revealed his sexist colors by comparing women’s struggle for equal pay with the demands of children and the mentally ill. (Apparently he’s an apologist for creationism and Intelligent Design as well.) Ah, irony. I suppose I’ll leave his image up, so that at least something he’s made is being used in an argument for real social justice. Not that he’ll notice.