Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Over the past few days, several posts and conversations have led me to reflect on what it means to be a woman in today’s society, and where we’re going from here. I’d like to share my thoughts. Let me just give a little overview of what’s been happening:

A few days ago, NYU professor and media researcher Clay Shirky wrote a post titled A Rant About Women, which has ruffled some feathers and sparked a lot of commentary in response. Here’s a few clips from his rant:

And it looks to me like women in general, and the women whose educations I am responsible for in particular, are often lousy at those kinds of behaviors, even when the situation calls for it. They aren’t just bad at behaving like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks. They are bad at 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.

Now this is asking women to behave more like men, but so what? We ask people to cross gender lines all the time.

It’s tempting to imagine that women could be forceful and self-confident without being arrogant or jerky, but that’s a false hope, because it’s other people who get to decide when they think you’re a jerk, and trying to stay under that threshold means giving those people veto power over your actions.

I don’t want to manipulate the tone of the piece by pulling those quotes out of context, but they were the ones that stood out most to me. I interpreted much of what he said as a call for women to do more lying and self-promotion in order to get ahead in society. Whether his intention was to make a statement about the disparity caused by the system, or the failure of women to play by its rules, I don’t know. You can read his full post here and decide for yourself.

Having tried to contact Shirky in the past myself, I felt compelled to respond. Here is the comment I left on his post:

Hi Clay,

I started to write a post in response to this rant, but I realized I wanted to speak directly to you, so I’m just posting here.

You seem to suggest that women need to behave like ‘arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks’ in order to get noticed, but I wonder, is that how you think we must act in order to get noticed by YOU?

I’m a grad student at the New School in a Media Studies program, and so of course have come across your work. I’ve tried to contact you via Facebook to discuss the ITP program at NYU and to find out the possibility of collaborating, but never received a response. I’ve tried to get in touch with you on Twitter, but haven’t received a response. I’ve tried to enter a conversation with you by building on some ideas of Jeff Jarvis’s and yours on algorithmic authority in a post, but didn’t receive a response.

I’m currently on the homepage of Nokia’s IdeasProject website, and share space with you on the “Ideator” page, sandwiched there between IDEO’s Tim Brown and sci-fi author Vernor Vinge. Douglas Rushkoff is looking forward to having me in his class next semester so we can share ideas, Howard Rheingold has said he likes the way I think, and John Hagel tells me he loves my stuff. On Twitter, I chat with Paul B Hartzog, Michel Bauwens, and Trebor Scholz. Brian Solis and David Armano retweet my posts and link to my work. I’ve written guest posts for Georgetown University’s peer-reviewed journal (one of my articles is actually on their homepage now), for unstructure, and {grow}, among others. My blog has attracted over 30,000 visits in 2 months, and sparked interesting conversations in the comments sections, and led to new opportunities and partnerships in real life.

I’ve done this all rather quietly, just by thinking deeply about things and putting in an effort to write in a fashion that is simple, approachable, and engaging. Never have I felt it was necessary to be “arrogant” or “jerky” or an “anti-social obsessive” or a “pompous blowhard” in order to display confidence in my abilities.

I’ve managed to impress the people listed above by acting as an intelligent, capable woman.

What do I have to do to capture your attention?

– Venessa Miemis

I felt a little karmically sick after leaving the comment because I don’t like that kind of name-dropping, but the point was just to illustrate that women don’t have to behave negatively in order to get noticed.

A few days after that, I saw that social media researcher danah boyd also wrote a post in response to Shirky’s rant, titled whose voice do you hear? gender issues and success. It’s great to have a fellow female out there who can clearly articulate her thoughts and also expose her vulnerabilities without apologizing for it. She digs into the gender biases we face, and points out that female confidence and assertiveness often get labeled as bitchiness, but argues that there’s no point for us to try “outmanning the men.” She makes some delightful statements about my favorite topic – the need to think differently:

But bringing in a woman whose attitude and approach is just as masculine as the men isn’t going to help your team break outside of its current mindset. They key is to bring people who think differently than you.

In thinking about creating parity, we all need to look around and account for our biases. Whose voices are you listening to because they’re the loudest or the most like yours? Are you going out of your way to seek out people who approach the world differently than you? Everyone needs to make an effort to make visible what has become invisible.

I would love to see more women stand up and say “me!” and I vow to continue to help younger women assert themselves. But let this not push the onus entirely to women. 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 thought her sentiments were well-put, and all of this has made me wonder – What are the expectations for women (or what should they be) as we progress into an increasingly interdependent global society?

I think this needs to be looked at in a larger societal context, and at how our systems are structured. Everything I talk about on this blog is about seeing the world in different ways and shifting between multiple perspectives in order to discover new approaches to solving problems. For me, this topic is no different. I think we’re in the middle of a lot of big changes in society, and it’s becoming accepted that encouraging collaboration and diversity is a better formula for fostering innovation than keeping information in silos, and departments homogeneous.

I just came across a recent article from the Economist, Female power, which reviews the role of women in the workforce around the world. As I read through it, it seems clear that the problem has never been the lack of assertiveness or intelligence among women – the problem is systemic. Our structures haven’t been set up in a way that allows for a woman’s success. But now, as we are transitioning into a service economy/knowledge economy/creative economy, or whatever it’s being called this afternoon, the opportunities for equality are presenting themselves. I liked this passage:

The rich world has seen a growing demand for women’s labour. When brute strength mattered more than brains, men had an inherent advantage. Now that brainpower has triumphed the two sexes are more evenly matched. The feminisation of the workforce has been driven by the relentless rise of the service sector (where women can compete as well as men) and the equally relentless decline of manufacturing (where they could not).

The article then points out that today women make up the majority (51%) of professional workers in the US, and the trend is likely to continue:

The Bureau of Labour Statistics calculates that women make up more than two-thirds of employees in ten of the 15 job categories likely to grow fastest in the next few years. By 2011 there will be 2.6m more women than men studying in American universities.

It ends on an uplifting note, highlighting the changes that are being made worldwide to create systems that don’t force women to choose between careers and families – from advances in company policies, like flextime and home-working options, to conveniences for working mothers, like the length of school days and availability of after-school programs for children.

A similar article in the New York Times, In Germany, A Tradition Falls, and Females Rise, also addresses the social revolution taking place that’s allowing women to take their place alongside men in the workplace. It ends with this great line:

“Many obstacles remain, and a backlash is always possible,” said Ms. Hagemann, the history professor in North Carolina. But, in Germany and elsewhere, once unthinkable notions are now being entertained. “All change,” she said, requires “a change in the head.”

Then just this morning, this inspiring list of women entrepreneurs passed through my tweetstream – Women 2.0’s Female Founder Successes of 2009.

When I see stuff like this, I feel encouraged that we really are moving towards a place of equality. In the meantime, I think it’s important for us as women to be true our nature, and not sell out to the behaviors often applauded in the current system. This sentiment was well put by @renatalemos, in her own response to Shirky:

we all have our lenses. life in a patriarchy looks different for males and females. what determines our “beingness” in terms of gender is not a simple equation. gender is COMPLEX. now one thing is simple: the rules of society were established by MALES. so if women play by the book it will definitely increase their chances of success. so you’re saying: be aggressive. act like a guy. you’ll be better off! of course. this is how the game works. we know what the rules of the game are. and yes, you’re right. your diagnostic is precise. but the medicine you’re prescribing for us, women, does actually KILL us as WOMEN.
there are different waves of feminism:

1st: break the chains.
2nd: learn to walk.
3rd: start to dance.

all kinds of different women are scattered accross these different stages. what you are saying belongs to a 2nd wave: hey, learn to walk, but walk like men! well, i would kindly ask you to reconsider that argument.
we shall move to a 4rth wave of feminism, one in which women are liberated not by playing by the rules of men’s game, but by embracing their own FEMALE power, which is very different from male power. in essence. in expression, in everything. not a male power that is based on war and competition; but a female power that is based on LOVE and CO-CREATION.
when the female powers of love and co-creation are valued in the ECONOMIC life of the world, then we´ll be moving from a patriarchy to a pluriarchy
not a patriarchy, not a matriarchy: a PLURIARCHY.”

Well said, Renata. I too think it’s all about a balance, about us benefitting from the strengths from both sides. It’s so easy to get sucked in to the norms, to do what society says we should do, and gauge our happiness and success on other people’s standards. Maybe losing both my parents while still in my 20s has given me the ability to see how little time we really have and that there’s nothing more important than being true to your ideals and ethics. I guess I had my mid-life crisis 30 years early. But I clearly remember thinking to myself, ‘my GOD, what am I doing with my life? Am I really going to continue doing a corporate job I’m not passionate about, behave in a way that is not true to myself, and then later find that I’d never been real, that I’d never really lived?’

The past few years have been a process of (re)discovery, and I’m happy with who I’m becoming. I’m not behaving like an “arrogant self-aggrandizing jerk,” and I’m proud of that. Maybe my path to “success” will be a little longer because I’m not a shameless self-promoter – that’s ok. I think we’re seeing a shift in the values we find commendable in society, and it’s not about men or women being better. It’s about being co-designers of a healthy, equitable society. It’s about keeping an eye on the big picture, and trying to live up to a standard that’s captures the essence of what it means to be human. And I don’t think that’s going to be accomplished through acting like anti-social obsessives or pompous blowhards. It’s going to be through empathy, altruism, and collaboration.