The XX Factor

Do Women Need Self-Promotion Training?

Last Friday, blogger and professor Clay Shirky posted an interesting, if unfortunately titled (” A Rant About Women “), blog entry about how women screw themselves career-wise by not acting like self-aggrandizing jerks when the moment calls for it. He starts with a story about a student who asked him for a recommendation and submitted a screed of personal merits so overblown and fantastical that it “would make an Assistant Brand Manager blush.” But the result of the student’s pomposity was not a bad recommendation; rather, Shirky, in the process of toning down the letter, realizes that he ended up writing the best letter of recommendation of his life for this student. And probably undeservedly. The gender of the student? Male.

Shirky goes on to lament the fact that in his years of teaching and working, the talented women around him never really mastered the role of egotistical self-promoters, even when obnoxious behavior would benefit them, even when the men around them do. He writes:

And it looks to me like women in general, and the women whose educations I am responsible for in particular, are often lousy at those kinds of behaviors, even when the situation calls for it. They aren’t just bad at behaving like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks. They are bad at 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. Whatever bad things you can say about those behaviors, you can’t say they are underrepresented among people who have changed the world.

Now this is asking women to behave more like men, but so what? We ask people to cross gender lines all the time. We’re in the middle of a generations-long project to encourage men to be better listeners and more sensitive partners, to take more account of others’ feelings and to let out our own feelings more. Similarly, I see colleges spending time and effort teaching women strategies for self-defense, including direct physical aggression. I sometimes wonder what would happen, though, if my college spent as much effort teaching women self-advancement as self-defense.

It’s a valid point-if, ironically, a little bit overblown. (I know plenty of women who are comfortable with blatant self-promotion. Myself included.) 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- as Jess just pointed out , Sandra Bullock was nominated for a Golden Globe for her role in the The Proposal , a movie that was essentially a Taming of the Shrew remake wherein the powerful, hated boss lady just needs to be taken down a notch-and her lowly assistant’s boner is just the trick. (One of the last lines of the movie is an employee shouting to Reynolds before he kisses Bullock: “Show her who’s boss!”)

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.

Photograph of Ivanka Trump by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images