By Meredith Farkas | January 25, 2010
A lot of people have written about Clay Shirky’s post “A rant about women” and I’m here to give my two cents FWIW. First of all, who in their right mind entitles a post “A Rant about women”? While he made some valid points in his post, the title and his gross over-generalizations really made it difficult to see anything good in the post. Shirky describes his concern that “not enough women have what it takes to behave like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks” like the men he sees taking his classes. He feels that people who lie, who are narcissistic, who promote themselves aggressively are the people who are going to be successful, and women just aren’t willing to do that. According to him, “there is no upper limit to the risks men are willing to take in order to succeed, and if there is an upper limit for women, they will succeed less.”
I guess I see a difference between risk-taking and compromising one’s values. I’m not a liar. I’m not a jerk (at least I don’t think I am). I won’t use people to get ahead like I’ve seen a couple of people do even in our profession. And yet I’ve had great success in my field, far beyond what seems reasonable given my limited years of experience. How did I achieve that success? By doing good work and taking risks. I’m not an aggressive person. I suck at asking for money and advocating for myself. I never overstate my qualifications. I’m just one of the many, many, many people in the profession who have good ideas and an interesting way of presenting them. The one thing that sets me apart from many of the other people out there with great ideas is that I’m not afraid to put myself out there and face possible rejection or failure. i have enough chutzpah to suggest to the head of ALA’s publishing wing that he give me a column in American Libraries since the worst thing that will happen is that he’ll say no. I write blog posts talking about how much I’d like to teach for an LIS program since the worst thing that will happen is that no one will be interested. I don’t risk incarceration or my con being discovered (as Shirky describes); I just risk my heart. And that seems to be enough.
The simple fact is, I’m not willing to compromise my values to get ahead. And if that makes me weak, if that holds me back, so be it. I’d rather go to bed at night feeling good about myself and knowing that the people I like like me too. Compromising my values would keep me up at night and would make me worry that I’d be found out (is impostor syndrome still called impostor syndrome if you are, in fact, an impostor?). There are lots of things I wouldn’t do to get ahead. I wouldn’t take a job I know I wouldn’t like but that would pay really well and would be a huge boost for my career (and, in fact, I turned down a job just like that a couple of years ago). I wouldn’t take a job in an area my husband would hate or where I wouldn’t feel safe raising my child. I would not be a happy person if I wasn’t true to who I am.
Where I agree with Shirky is that self-promotion and risk-taking are important skills that women too often lack. I barely spoke in class in college until I took a course called Women and the American Experience, which was entirely populated by other women. For once, I felt comfortable expressing myself and realized that my ideas were actually pretty good. I hate that Shirky seems to think that confidence or the ability to promote onesself are male traits. That’s B.S. I don’t think confidence is something born to men and not to women; I think it’s something that we learn (or not) along the way through our families, the education system and society. However, whether we are naturally confident self-promoting risk-takers or not, the fact is that we need to be to be successful. I know so many talented women who are afraid to put themselves in a position where they might fail or be humiliated. However, I also know a lot of men like this too. Men who are uncomfortable fighting for themselves or for their ideas. One of my colleagues has given two talks in the 2 1/2 years since getting his first professional position; both of which I arranged for him. He’s a smart cookie and a great speaker, but he just doesn’t put himself out there. This isn’t just a gender issue; it’s an issue for a lot of talented individuals out there who don’t seem to realize that they’re as awesome as they are.
Another thing that really bothers me about Shirky’s post is that he seems to reward jerky self-aggrandizing behavior. 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 was very lucky to have a mentor like Roy Tennant, who believes in nurturing and promoting young, talented individuals in the profession. He has given me so much great advice and encouragement that I likely wouldn’t be where I am today without his wise counsel. He is a well-known and respected librarian and uses his position to promote people around him. I completely agree with danah boyd who writes -
We need men as allies, men who both encourage women to speak up and who consciously choose to spotlight women who are talented. But, more importantly, we need men (and anyone with privilege) to consciously and conscientiously account for their own privilege and biases and to actively work to highlight and embrace diverse voices of all kinds. Your interpretation of others is just as (if not more) important in creating change as their efforts to impress you. The privileged cannot expect the disenfranchised to assimilate, as tempting as that may be. And even if that were possible, it wouldn’t give us the society we want anyhow.
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. Like Roy, 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.
I think Clay Shirky’s thinking — his promotion of basically being a d-bag — is just the sort of thinking that on Wall Street got us into the global financial crisis. Because it was a system that rewards “self-promoting narcissists” who make risky decisions for short-term personal gain that created this whole mess. And while most of those same people who created that mess are still making their $500,000 (or more) bonuses and can sleep at night just fine, I couldn’t. And, frankly, I’m glad about that. I’m glad that I have a moral compass. Are those the kind of values you want to promote in your profession? In your world? I refuse to bend so much to the world around me that I become someone I can’t respect; I’d rather try to make the world bend to my values. We can change things, bit by bit.