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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Acting Like a Man


posted by Silvana
A few months ago, I had coffee with Ann Friedman, who writes for Feministing and edits The American Prospect. One of the things we talked about was the difference between the way men and women perform in job interviews. Friedman said that more often than not, women are surprisingly self-abnegating in interviews: uncertain, hesitant to promote themselves or say that they have a certain kind of experience or skill, or that they're qualified.

Having just arrived in DC and on the job hunt, I was listening carefully. Over the last several months, I've periodically reflected on her observation and what it means for me.

I'm a pretty confident person. I think most of my friends would probably say that I'm the most confident person they know, with the possible exception of knowing my fiance, who is also very self-assured. Of course, he and I both agree that I have better self-esteem of the two of us, so I think I win. But that's neither here nor there.

I couldn't help wondering, after talking to Ann, do I do it too? Am I another one of the legions of women who goes into a job interview wanting to kick ass and then comes out with a "Yeah, I guess I'm pretty good at that...I think."

Probably not. But I certainly could be stronger and do a better job of promoting myself. And I've been thinking about it even more in the last week. There's a dialogue rumbling around the internets since Clay Shirky published his Rant About Women, which is getting a lot of attention. For somewhat of a counter-point to what Shirky wrote, read Deanna Zandt's commentary.

Shirky says that female students aren't succeeding at the same rate as male students, despite having the same talent, because they refuse to promote themselves, tell white lies, or brag. He writes:
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. My friend talking to the reporter remains the sad exception.

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.
That's a false dichotomy. Men being "better at being arrogant" is sexism. Zandt seems to accept Shirky's "acting like men" formulation and say that women shouldn't have to act "like men" to get ahead:
Asking women to be more like men (which is different than what Shirky claims we're doing when we ask men to be "sensitive" and "listen" — that's just asking for a little humanity, there) falls on a spectrum of prescribing feminine behavior that is dangerous and unhealthy. We're putting the onus on women to fit themselves into a culture that doesn't value them enough to begin with. It sounds a lot like misguided sexual assault prevention tactics ("how not to get yourself raped!"), and Shirky goes there himself when he points out the time colleges spend teaching women self-defense. Me? I cringed right there. Where are the colleges teaching men not to rape women?
I disagree with this. When did self-promotion, confidence, and even occasional arrogance become the exclusive domain of men? I believe that we can have a sea change in how women behave without it being a submission to the forces of patriarchy. And I firmly reject the notion that women are "naturally" inclined to be more collaborative, less arrogant, and less self-promoting than men. Zandt doesn't say that, but it's running as a subtext through what she wrote.

In order to answer the question of what behavior is "natural" to men or women, you need to look at girls. Pre-pubescent girls, girls who have had healthy childhoods in a loving environment and a stimulating education. They are not retiring. They do not deprecate themselves. If they are not shy (and some of them are) they will happily tell you all about the awesome things they've done and how great they are. They are just as arrogant as the boys, maybe even more so. They compete with each other and with boys, they try furiously to make themselves stand out.

I was one of those girls. And let me tell you, I was punished mightily for it, starting right about the time that puberty crept up. Teachers, friends, and friends' parents repeatedly told me I was "conceited." This was often not even for saying anything, but merely for succeeding in a given activity. I was lucky, though. These messages were never reinforced at home. My dad wasn't a cheerleader-type parent, but he never cut me down, either. I'd tell him about how girls at school shunned me after I succeeded at something, whether it was getting a role in a school play or winning the spelling bee, and he'd tell me that I didn't need to change my behavior. He didn't tell me I was better than them, either, or that they were "just jealous." He just said, you are all changing and growing up and maybe some of them will stay your friends and some of them won't. I know it hurts, and I'm sorry. (Ps, my dad is awesome).

So I managed to retain most of that childhood exuberance. But I'm still surprised by my instincts toward self-doubt. Not to say that self-doubt is bad. Self-doubt can be great, especially when it's justified. I'll never forget when I read my first deposition transcript of a deposition I'd participated in, and found myself reading the word "sorry" coming at the beginning of almost ever time I opened my mouth! Of course, in a room full of old white guy lawyers, it's no wonder I felt like an interloper. I still find myself looking back on job interviews and thinking "man, I could have given a better, more confident answer to that question."

I loved the example that Shirky gave in his piece:
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.
This isn't acting like a man, and I refuse to accept either Shirky's or Zandt acceptance that this behavior would be "crossing gender lines" for women (Shirky) or "asking women to be more like men" (Zandt). These are natural, human ways of behavior that women are pressured, cajoled, and outright prevented from engaging in, from puberty on. Humans are an ambitious bunch, and we're self-interested and selfish. I don't think we need to jettison that aspect of human nature in order to live in a more just, free, and collaborative society, as Zandt suggests. What about ambition that seeks power and authority in order to bring about justice? That's the kind of ambition I have.

As Anna at Jezebel notes, a major reason why women don't engage in self-promoting, ambitious behaviors is that when we do, we're punished for it. This is surely true. But this doesn't mean that the solution is not do it. It means that women and men need to work together to change the culture, particularly the workplace culture, so that ambition and overt confidence aren't a liability for women. The more women who put themselves out there, the more common the behavior will be, the less remarkable. And some of those women will succeed and find themselves in positions of power and authority. And they will teach the women below them how to take risks, and show them that there lie more than dragons.

I, for one, will pledge to pave the way for other women to be bold and take risks, even at the potential cost of my own success, or at least a bit of my pride.

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