Shirky to women: ur doin it wrong

Shirky to women: ur doin it wrong

UPDATE, 1/19: Follow-up post is here.

A post from Internet analyst/author/smart-person Clay Shirky titled “A Rant About Women” has got quite the discussion going around the Intertubes. Read (or at least skim) it before continuing; let me also take this introductory opportunity to do the obligatory feminist thing and thank the dude for taking time out of his busy schedule to wrestle with the giant questions of why don’t women do as well as men at X. Here it comes… thank you. OK, so I’m being a wee bit sarcastic, but seriously: it really is nice to see these conversations happen outside of the usual suspected fora of listservs, blogs, etc, all for and by the ladies.

Much of the resulting discussion has been a bit heavy-handed on both sides– “OMG, he’s totally right!” “OMG, he’s totally wrong!” Some great points have already been well covered by others, especially Jezebel blogger Anna’s point that women aren’t allowed culturally to be the aggressive jerks that successful men are. This was also the place where I had the most visceral reaction — the conclusion that we need to teach women to be more like men: more assertive and aggressive, demanding of what they want and need. This approach to solving the “where are teh womenz” problem misses the mark in a way that 70s & 80s power feminism also missed the mark for me. The “we’re just as good as men” statements and subsequent actions set the wrong frame. It assumes:

  • Men’s success and ways of achieving it are the gold standard.
  • Women’s lack of success and lack of use of men’s ways is the deviant behavior. (as in, “deviant from the norm,” not deviant as in “naughty”)
  • Therefore, women should act more like men to be successful.

Personally, I’m just not that interested in acting more like a dude for the chance that my work gets more widely recognized or that I get paid more to do it, and I suspect many other women aren’t, either. It’s sort of, just maybe, one of the myriad of reasons we haven’t been acting like dudes since women’s lib, y’know?

What’s far more interesting to me is shifting the cultural consciousness around what being successful means, and what it then takes to achieve it. Creating a more holistic standard to which men and women both can hold themselves, and then compete/collaborate, etc., offers us an opportunity to break down terribly unhealthy versions of masculinity and femininity that oppress us all.

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’ve been looking for an excuse to post about this great piece from Jill at I Blame the Patriarchy, wherein she rewrites one of those email chain letters telling women what to do in order not to get themselves attacked, into a guide for men on how to prevent sexual assault. Now seems as good a time as any:

Sexual Assault Prevention Tips Guaranteed to Work

1. Don't put drugs in women's drinks.

2. When you see a woman walking by herself, leave her alone.

3. If you pull over to help a woman whose car has broken down, remember not to assault her.

4. If you are in a lift and a woman gets in, don't assault her. You know what? Don't even ogle her.

5. When you encounter a woman who is asleep, the safest course of action is to not assault her.

6. Never creep into a woman's home through an unlocked door or window, or spring out at her from between parked cars, or assault her.

7. When you lurk in bushes and doorways with criminal intentions, always wear bright clothing, wave a flashlight, or play "Boys Who Rape (Should All Be Destroyed)" by the Raveonettes on a boombox really loud, so women in the vicinity will know where to aim their flamethrowers.

8. USE THE BUDDY SYSTEM! If it is inconvenient for you to stop yourself from assaulting women, ask a trusted friend to accompany you when in public.

9. Carry a rape whistle. If you find that you are about to assault a woman, you can hand the whistle to your buddy, so s/he can blow it to call for help.

10. Give your buddy a revolver, so that when indifferent passers-by either ignore the rape whistle, or gather round to enjoy the spectacle, s/he can pistol-whip you.

Don't forget: Honesty is the best policy. When asking a woman out on a date, don't pretend that you are interested in her as a person; tell her straight up that you expect to be assaulting her later. If you don't communicate your intentions, the woman may take it as a sign that you do not plan to rape her.

Men-folk: see how terrible and condescending and infuriating it is to be on the receiving end of this kind of thing? Jill’s list o’ tips makes me laugh and cry a little.

Tactics to solve gender inequality that don’t address the wider cultural discrimination and structural oppression, that only put the problem in women’s own hands, do nothing but perpetuate a system that keep women “in their place.” This is shockingly unappealing to us at the receiving end of said place assignment.

UPDATE, 1/19: Follow-up post is here.

* When I was at SUNY-Albany, there was a program for men only called “A Few Good Men,” though I don’t know what the content was. If anyone has references to good programs (though I’m skeptical they’re offered at the same frequency and with the same enthusiastic energy as self-defense for women courses), please post them in the comments.

  • amanda
    Posted at 21:25h, 18 January

    Oh for crying out loud. I wrote this fantastic and erudite response and then squashed it with a back button (up arrow? It does that? I didn’t know.)

    Anyway. What I was trying to say is that I’m kind of appalled that he’s only just noticed this now (Shit. I’ve known this since high school and it never helped me change my behavior. I still wait for other people to notice my awesome and rely on the likes of, oh, you, to aggrandize my self.) and that it isn’t some part of the foundation of the ITP curriculum. Why the eff are people paying tuition if some lessons on how to win friends and influence people don’t come with your degree? Which I know goes in the “women should change” bucket, but still. He just figured this out? Now?

  • Myrna the Minx
    Posted at 21:26h, 18 January

    Fabulous post! You pick out every thing that bothered me about Shirky’s post. It’s a good “Thank you, but…” post. I know a lot of people’s response is to give men a cookie who speak out about gender discrimination, but we need always need to take a close look at what they’re telling us. The academic and supervisor in me also thinks that Shirky should have had a conversation with that male student before agreeing to write a recommendation. And thanks for posting the Sexual Assault Prevention Tips!

  • Jonathan Stray
    Posted at 09:01h, 19 January

    Your “Sexual Assault Prevention Tips Guaranteed to Work” post is indeed a painfully funny reminder of the one-sidedness of Shirky’s arguments.

    But Shirky makes specific recommendations to women, which seem essentially sensible to me. They boil down to, “if you want something, ask for it.”

    As you point out, this is a very incomplete treatment of the issue. So, given the male role in all of this, what would be the corresponding recommendations to men?

    – Jonathan

    • deanna zandt
      Posted at 10:41h, 19 January

      @Jonathan. Thanks for asking! One of the best things men (or any person of privilege) can start with is recognizing that you bring privilege to everything you do, and then asking yourself, “Okay, now how do I make myself useful?” A concrete example is a male friend who organizes a tech conference–he knows that he’s got some blinders on when it comes to finding panelists and speakers. So, when people suggest a dude for a particular slot, he then asks them to suggest 2 women for the same slot. That way he’s at least got a wider pool to choose from, and it also raises the awareness of the suggester. There’s little things like that which can go a long way towards gender equity and creating a culture that naturally involves women’s decision making from the outset.

  • Joanna
    Posted at 10:36h, 19 January

    My take-away from the Shirky piece was “dude! you mean you make your students write your recs for you? what a lazy slob!” I write my own freaking letters of recommendation, therefore avoiding the blaming-the-student-for-not-blowing-his/her-own horn altogother

  • Jen Welker
    Posted at 10:39h, 19 January

    Thanks for your rant. You’re way more articulate than I could ever be.

    I’d also like to add while I understand the point that Shirky is trying to make, he still lacks the understand of how it is to actually be a woman in similar situations.

    A couple of weeks ago I went to a local mechanic to pick up a work vehicle. One of my male coworkers accompanied me to drive one of the vehicles back to the shop. I approached the serviceman at the counter with the check and the keys to vehicle in hand. I asked what work was completed. The gentleman behind the counter proceed to tell us what was wrong with the vehicle while looking directly at my male coworker though I was standing right in front of him. I was very annoyed yet did not say anything, which annoys me even more. Why didn’t I speak up??? Back at the office, I asked my coworker if he noticed how the man never looked at me once. He said he didn’t, of course, but added that HE felt extremely uncomfortable walking in there behind me like he was LESS of a man.

    My point here being, while in theory acting like our male counterparts (sweeping generalizations aside) will help us women-folk get jobs, make more money, etc…in actuality it just makes the men hiring us feel threatened and uncomfortable. Deep down beneath all their new found sensitivity I feel there are few men that are or will be comfortable with being beat by a woman at their own game.

  • suburbancorrespondent
    Posted at 15:40h, 19 January

    This whole argument (his and yours) misses the mark. Men and women are different. If you have a male boss, he tends to understand better and gravitate more towards people who communicate like he does – that is, the men. So, the professor preferred the self-aggrandizing letter. If that had been a woman professor, she may have not liked that type of approach and written a reference that was not so warm and glowing for the person.

    Women tend to take a collaborative approach in studies and in business (to totally overgeneralize here). Men in charge need to recognize this as a separate but equally valid approach to getting things done. And women in charge need to recognize that the way men do things to get ahead works also.

  • Jessica
    Posted at 17:46h, 19 January

    I agree with you in general here — Clay Shirky’s assessment is short-sighted and illustrative that he lacks even the smallest amount of empathy.

    However, I disagree that asking women to be more like men is unlike asking men to be more like women — you could argue that both requests (at least as interpreted by the requestor) are looking, as you say, for a little humanity (humanity defined as the quality of being human, not the quality of being humane).

    Also, some could call asking men to be sensitive a similar kind of behavior prescriptive.

    Perhaps asking men to find their sensitivity is just as reasonable as suggesting that women should ask for what they want. Both genders have something to add here, and as always, there’s a happy medium to be found on a smaller scale than Shirky’s “rant” suggests.

  • Marinka
    Posted at 18:59h, 19 January

    I will return to comment when my blood pressure climbs down. If I’m not back before December 2010, have a Happy New Year!

  • greg
    Posted at 21:00h, 20 January

    I read Shirky’s post (as much as i could stand). As a man, i would be much farther ahead if i behaved as he suggested. But i choose to value things like truth and accuracy, and detest hype and self-aggrandizement. So it’s not a woman’s thing; it’s a choice as a human being. I’m willing to take the consequences. One of them is that i have more female friends than male, so it’s not all bad. ;-)

  • Jennifer
    Posted at 11:12h, 27 January

    You said it so beautifully, I feel I can breathe again post-Shirky’s article. I keep saying that the problem with 80s feminism is that it made us feel we had to be like men to be accepted. Why should we? I don’t WANT to be like a man, and I hate the pretense. Same with sexual harassment laws – it’s all about us not wearing provocative clothing, nothing about them learning how to be respectful and professional even when faced with a women they find attractive. Since when is their erection our problem?

    And LOVE the anti-rape list!!!

  • danielle
    Posted at 23:15h, 17 April

    Some of the most shamelessly obnoxious self-promoters I know are women…does the guy who wrote this article live in a polygamous compound in Utah or one of those flyover states where it’s still the ’50s?

  • Julia Barry
    Posted at 17:27h, 15 September

    Headed over to revisit this post today as a result of the WomenWhoTech Summit!

    Just wanted to add in reply to one of the comments — one program that turns macho logic on its head and helps men prevent rape and violence against women is Mentors in Violence Prevention:

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