January 26th, 2010 | 1:00 pm

Should Women Act Like ‘Self Aggrandizing Jerks’?

filed under Breaking the Glass Ceiling

negotiatingBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

In a recent blog post, Clay Shirky, a world-famous new media scholar and consultant, wrote, “not enough women have what it takes to behave like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks.”

This is bad for women, he reasons, because, “people who don’t raise their hands don’t get called on, and people who raise their hands timidly get called on less. Some of this is because assertive people get noticed more easily, but some of it is because raising your hand is itself a high-cost signal that you are willing to risk public failure in order to try something.”

Men, on the other hand, seem to have less of a problem with stretching the facts in order to promote themselves. “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.”

Shirky, a professor at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, believes that women are too risk averse to exaggerate the truth about their abilities (or even advertise the abilities they do have) to succeed. He believes the remedy is to teach women to take more risks and promote themselves more – “asking women to behave more like men.”

“I sometimes wonder what would happen,” he writes, “if my college spent as much effort teaching women self-advancement as self-defense.”

Teaching Women How to Behave Like Men

But is it really that simple? Just teach women to behave more like men, and they will reap all the benefits of 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”?

I doubt it.

Shirky says that women are afraid to take risks because they’re worried about what people think of them. He says, “the fact that other people get to decide what they think of your behavior leaves only two strategies for not suffering from those judgments: not doing anything, or not caring about the reaction.”

This line of thought, to be fair, isn’t original to Shirky. It’s fairly common to read that women can achieve more simply by learning to negotiate better, and we’ve covered the topic in The Glass Hammer as well.

Yes, asking for a raise or promotion is usually the first step in actually getting one. And risk-averse (one might even say “humble”) behavior is probably one reason behind the wage gap that still persists today.

As Washington Post reporter Shankar Vedantam explains, “If a 22-year-old man and a 22-year-old woman are offered $25,000 for their first job, for example, and one of them negotiates the amount up to $30,000, then over the next 28 years, the negotiator would make $361,171 more, assuming they both got 3 percent raises each year.”

Which Risk is More Detrimental?

So is the answer, then, just to teach women to negotiate better?

Unfortunately, it’s just not that simple. Women, in fact, suffer disproportionate penalties for engaging in the type of behavior Shirky is encouraging them to adopt.

For example, a Carnegie Mellon and Harvard study by Hannah Riley Bowles, Linda C. Babcock, and Lei Lai showed that women are actually often penalized for negotiating. Bowles explains, “What we found across all the studies is men were always less willing to work with a woman who had attempted to negotiate than with a woman who did not.” She continued, “They always preferred to work with a woman who stayed mum. But it made no difference to the men whether a guy had chosen to negotiate or not.”

The reason that women choose not to raise their hands, negotiate salaries, ask for promotions, and generally act like “self aggrandizing jerks” is not only because they are averse to risk that exists in a failure to deliver on overpromised skills, but they are also averse to the risk that exists simply in asking in the first place.

As Whitney Johnson, founding partner of Rose Park Advisors, Clayton M. Christensen’s investment firm, writes in the Harvard Business Review, “When men ask for something, they are being proactive; when women ask, they are being pushy. It’s a double standard to be sure, but it’s also a double bind — if we don’t ask, we don’t get; if we do ask, we may be shunned.”

There are different societal expectations that exist for men and women — and simply teaching women to act more like men is not likely to be an effective solution to the “self aggrandizing jerk” problem. Perhaps the folks in charge need to be taught to recognize that the problem doesn’t lie solely in women’s choices and behavior, but in the responses of those on the receiving end of that behavior as well. It’s both disappointing and telling that someone like Clay Shirky, who, as a university professor, is one of those folks in charge of promotion, recommendation writing, and mentoring both male and female students — and is still unable to recognize all of the risks women face in attempting to work toward advancement.

8 comments

  1. finance executive

    Thank you for revisiting this topic–it is a significant factor in “soft” gender discrimination and needs to be taken more seriously. The disparity is particularly acute in financial services, where women are frequently rebuked for adopting the conversational style men admire in themselves (and in corporate leaders). Deference at all costs is the way to earn favorable comments at review time and preserve one’s job. Fortunately, academics have begun to focus on this quandary and its consequences. For solid objective analysis, see the work of Alice Eagley (Northwestern University).

  2. Kathy

    Flat logic like the numbers you quoted – the 22 year old who negotiates an extra $5K earns $360K+ more over 30 years – doesn’t really reflect real life. The woman who attempts to negotiate $5K more is labeled ballsy and overbearing and loses the job to a fellow who “is a better fit with our team.” How much does that cost her? If she can’t take the $25K and make up the difference by stellar performance over a year or two, she can leave. What Gen Yer is staying 28 years at a place that doesn’t offer fair opportunity?

  3. Mary

    I really liked this article and the topic. I’m a professional woman that has worked in a male-dominated field for most of my career. In order to get noticed, I did have to put myself out there and be assertive – opinionated. However, it has, from time to time, been a double-edged sword. I’ve been relatively successful in my field and industry and am highly regarded. However, I have alienated men that have been less inclined to banter or negotiate with a woman for a myriad of reasons, which I don’t feel compelled to articulate at this time. Women should always take the high road and ask for what you want and deserve. Further, women should never let another colleague, whether it’s a man or a woman dictate your competency or worth – chances are they either have ulterior motives or just coming from a different paradigm. However, that shouldn’t stop a professional woman from being introspective and keeping an ear open for feedback. Just like everything else in life – just because someone says it doesn’t make it true. Managing a career isn’t formulaic – you have to be open, flexible and really know your stuff to succeed. Knowledge is power.

  4. Hugh

    Thanks for this insightful article. I am well aware that women often underestimate their value, or undersell it compared to men – but from a male perspective I had not been aware enough of the risk of a counter-productive reaction to a woman negotiating for something that she merits. At the same time I really like Mary’s response: every situation is different, and not all men or women are the same. Don’t let a generalised picture of what happens in organisations hold you back in your own case. If something is merited, go for it – with skill, assertively, and if possible with a touch of good humour (which invariably disarms). One question: will women achieving senior positions be generally any less likely than men to feel threatened by assertive, up and coming women? I hope so, but there is no guarantee of this. We all need confident, aware, flexible, fair and forward-looking leaders, whatever their gender.

  5. Leslie

    Bravo Hugh, both for being a reader of this blog, as well as making such a gender neutral statement as we look for in leaders, regardless of their gender.

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