The XX Factor

The Trouble With Embracing Your Inner Narcissist

Lauren, I’m glad you posted about Clay Shirky’s ” A Rant about Women “-his blog post asking whether women may not be narcissistically self-aggrandizing enough to get ahead. In a sense, I’m one of the women Shirky talks about. I find it hard to boast in print; when I read his rant, I’d just written a personal statement designed to persuade a committee to give me an honor I want. When I showed a draft to a friend (and DoubleX contributor), her response was, “You’re not being self-promoting enough. You’re being a woman about this. Stop doing that.”

But I think Shirky misses something important when he assumes that finding it hard to promote oneself on the page translates to being averse to risk-taking in the workplace, or calling out “Me!” Me!” in the classroom. It may not. My theory is this: Women falter when they’re called on to be highly self-conscious about their talents. Not when they’re called on to enact them. Think of it this way: Writing a self-evaluation is a narrow form of highly self-conscious self-presentation; risk-taking and raising one’s hand are a form of engagement that is more self-forgetful, integrated into the rhythms of work and study. Many women I know (and many men ) find the first hard but not the second.

Finally, as you rightly point out, 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.