Growing up, I loved to debate. With anyone. My debating tone used to drive my mother batty because she thought I was yelling at her. Exasperated, I would often bark back that I was simply debating. Over the years, I realized that my debating tone is one of such confidence that people believe me to be stating facts, not opinions. My mother interpreted it as yelling; my classmates interpreted it as arrogance. I also began to realize that it was the same tone as that of my male peers. I never apologized for my opinions, never deflated them with “I may be wrong but I think…” I asserted. Confidently. And loudly.
Why am I telling you this? Clay Shirky’s “A Rant About Women” has provoked all sorts of conversations in the blogosphere and on Twitter. And Tom Coates rightfully pointed out that one interpretation of Shirky is the problematic encouragement of self-promotion and lies. While a lot has been said on this topic, I feel the need to speak up and say more. Because, as I said, I’m loud.
I’m terrible about self-promotion. I get all squeamish about the whole thing. I’m dreadful at throwing my name into the ring when there is an open call for something that I want. The idea of nominating myself for an award makes me want to vomit. And I’m TERRIBLE about taking compliments; I blush and run away. But there’s one thing that I’m damn good at that has gotten me pretty darn far in this lifetime: speaking confidently. I can walk into a room and be a ball full of butterflies and speak assertively. I sound like I know what I’m talking about even when the voice in my head is having a panic attack. And the weird thing is that, because I’m a woman, people read my assertiveness either as arrogance or expertise, even when I’m just stating my opinion. Why? Because women don’t do that. Women don’t talk like that.
There’s nothing that upsets me more than deception. As a teenager, I had my world spun apart by lies. So you’re not going to find me engaged in trickery. But what I’ve found is that people interpret my assertiveness as dishonesty and this still baffles me. It’s as though, because I’m a woman, if I don’t apologize for every thought I have and I’m proven wrong, I must’ve been lying because I convinced someone of an untruth. Confidence, when misinterpreted, can be interpreted all sorts of problematic ways.
Amidst the questions of women’s assertiveness, we must also call into questions our interpretations of the messages they put forward. Cuz many women are immediately labeled “bitch” the moment they speak with the kind of assertiveness that would be considered average for men. And that double standard also sucks. If I’m honest with myself, I’ve definitely gone out of my way to look young and cute and fuzzy and lovable in order to avoid that label. And to smile even when I don’t feel like smiling. Because, in many environments, if I look as serious as I feel, my message does not get across. Of course, this can also be a costly signal because plenty of other folks have dismissed me for being young. I’ve found that it’s a sin to be young in academia while it’s a sin to be a serious woman in the tech industry. Needless to say, my identity development is mighty confused.
As Tom rightfully pointed out, there are many layers on top of this. It’s easy to move into a binary of Men vs. Women, but race, ethnicity, nationality, accent, sexuality, religion, class, and any form of cultural background you can imagine play into this at every level. Just look at the biases you have when you’re interviewing someone of a different background… the expectations you have. And imagine what they’re experiencing trying to give the right impression when they know they’re being interpreted along a standard that they cannot possibly live up to. If you need to think about this issue a bit more and don’t want to read scholarly materials, there’s Gladwell. I have the privilege of being white, a native American English speaker, being able to speak geek and academic and street speak depending on context, being able-bodied, and relatively attractive in a heteronormative way without being too attractive. But I can imagine plenty of configurations and impressions that would automatically be rejected. We can’t forget about those folks.
While I strongly support any and all efforts to get women to speak with confidence about what they do and who they are, assimilation won’t get us to be where we should be. Far too many academic women tried this, a practice that I always thought of as out-manning the men. It was a survival mechanism for them but dear god it’s terrifying. We don’t want that in other industries too. What we want is diversity.
Diversity is one of those sticky terms that people seem to boil down to creating a Benetton ad. Diversity isn’t about some magical collection of five differently colored skin tones. It’s about bringing different perspectives and backgrounds to the table and creating an environment that values what can be gained from different voices who’ve taken different paths. Skin color (or gender performance) is often interpreted as a reasonable substitute for this and, for many reasons, it has been historically. 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. Of course, that’s darn tricky. Because you need need similarity AND diversity to be successful. But this is a rant for another post.
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.
At the same time, I do think that we also all have a responsibility to make an effort to get our voices heard by people who are different than us. This is especially true for women and other marginalized populations. Sure, it’s a burden to have to speak back to power over and over and over and over again. But that’s also a valuable skill. Making a conscious decision to break expectations tingles at the soul, but the doors that are opened can be awe-some.
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 am not an angry girl / but it seems like i’ve got everyone fooled / every time i say something they find hard to hear / they chalk it up to my anger / and never to their own fear” — Ani Difranco