whose voice do you hear? gender issues and success

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

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29 thoughts on “whose voice do you hear? gender issues and success

  1. Esme Vos

    Excellent post! But remember, the world is a very big place and there are women in places like the Philippines, Taiwan, China, and other countries who are strong, combative, run their own businesses or are in senior managerial positions and who are respected – yes even in cultures that are very macho. Recently, as part of covering early stage startups for my site PJEntrepreneur.com, I came across two Asian women, Claire Chung who is now based in Lisbon, Portugal; and a very young serial entrepreneur named Marissa Louie, based in San Francisco. Claire just started a shopping site dedicated to socially responsible luxury goods made by independent designers in places like Africa and India. Claire wants to help widows in India, for example, who are marginalized by the beliefs about women and caste. These are women who have very good skills making beautiful, high-end products that provide a way out of the ostracism and extreme poverty they are facing.

    Marissa Louie is very young (25 or 26 years old) but she’s already on her third startup – Heroex – a local one-hour delivery service that beats the prices of Fedex and she wants to use delivery persons from communities where young people don’t have jobs. So here are two non-white women who are very strong and have their own minds, who don’t take their lives for granted and set up businesses that benefit not just themselves, but others around them. I think that is the strength of women – we care a lot about other people and want to involve others, and it’s not just about us.

  2. Bruce Gruenbaum

    Hi dana,

    Great post. As I read your first 4 paragraphs, I felt like I was reading a description of myself, until I hit the sentence “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.”

    See, I’m a 40-something year-old white South African who has experienced identical reactions to my own confidence. When I am assertive about something, it is because I know for a fact that what I am saying is true. Many people that I have worked with have found this intimidating and difficult to deal with.

    As you went on to point out, it is not only a gender thing. It could be any number of things that make you unpopular for your opinion. An example that I like to use is a gentleman by the name of Michael Schumacher. He is the most successful Formula 1 motor racing driver of all time, but was often widely panned for what was perceived as arrogance. The fact is that Schumacher’s knowledge of his subject is so good that he always has the right answer and that is not arrogance. It’s confidence.

    People who are as confident in their opinions as this do come across as intimidating and arrogant. This scares senior management in large corporations because having a really smart person recommend something that goes against the status quo can result in management looking foolish.

    I guess what I am trying to say is that you should not feel that it is only your gender or your appearance that plays into this. It is the intimidating nature of your confidence. People will certainly use gender, appearance, nationality, and other things as excuses to ignore you, but the intimidating confidence is the real source of fear.

    And for the record, I am an avid reader of your blog and consider you to be one of the smartest people I know in this industry.

  3. renata lemos

    dear danah,

    my name is renata lemos and i am a social media researcher in brazil. i really admire your work and have been citing it around here. your response to clay shirky was in so many ways similar to my own “from patriarchy to pluriarchy, a reply to @cshirky’s rant” – http://post.ly/JIMm – that i decided to share it with you here:

    “dear clay,
    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.”

    you are right: the key is diversity.

  4. Isaac B2

    Thanks, dana — I hadn’t seen Clay’s piece (which I enjoyed), and your take on it was also interesting — smiling when you don’t feel like it so people will listen, and then not being taken seriously or being seen as too young… i hear that a lot.

  5. V

    I loved your post, very inspiring. In the past I was considered to have a low esteem but my experiences have changed me to become more assertive. But if you were to advice young women today on how to become more assertive, what would you say? I’m curious to know.

  6. zephoria

    V – To be honest, I have no idea how to encourage women (or anyone) to be more assertive. The self-esteem movement of the 80s did that but with some really problematic costs.

  7. Scott Ellington

    Clay’s post begins with the case-in-point example of his former student’s request for a written job recommendation. Clay’s third paragraph asks the reader to guess the gender of the student involved, I guessed correctly; sociopath.

    Showmanship and chutzpah also describe the personality property he correlates with gender. I think the conflated binary is a good deal more like conscience/self-interest, and conscience doth make cowards of us all. Hubris does the opposite, largely without regard for hot-button polarizing attributes that divide blog readers and podcast listeners.

    I think success in every field of human endeavor, particularly the conduct of business, understates, even denigrates the humbling virtue of conscience, the voice that only losers listen to.

  8. Carmen Hudson

    Your post is inspiring. Your understanding of privilege – and your ability to write about it – is breathtaking. Thank you for your candor.

    I responded to Clay Shirky’s post (http://people-shark.blogspot.com/). Your eloquence spoke to what I did not. That speaking loudly, being the best, self-promoting jerkiness does not achieve the same results for all.

    Well done. And thanks.

  9. Ally B

    “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.” *Stands up and claps* Great job! I’m blown away by this post.

  10. Anthropop

    hi danah,

    my responses to the Facebook post (‘Race and Social Networking Sites: Putting Facebook’s Data in Context) also relate to this message, both relative to the question of who is seen as/assumed to be authorized to speak, and how Facebook can be used to present the facade of diversity in the absence of a genuine commitment to having respect for different perspectives, experiences, and positionalities (i.e. a ‘diverse’ group of Facebook ‘friends,’ and what it does and does not mean/indicate/index). as others have already said, very much appreciated the post.

  11. ProbablyShouldBeAnonymous

    What a great post. I have my own story as a woman in higher ed. I was an educational technologist. I don’t think of myself as especially loud or even that self-promoting. But I do think of myself as one with some decent ideas for how to use technology effectively and thoughtfully for teaching and learning. And I think of myself as accomplished as I give talks every year, some invited, I’ve written papers, a book, some book chapters. I’ve gotten a fair number of external grants. All of these are in collaboration with faculty members and students. Even now, I am on a Fulbright scholarship in which I am teaching and doing research. I sound like a ‘real’ academic, don’t I? Well, I was not a professor, but merely an administrator in the IT department at my former college and when I asked for a leave of absence without pay to go on my Fulbright, I was told to go and not come back…that my position was eliminated.

    Granted, the college was hit hard by the economic downturn, and yes, they had to make cuts here and there, but when all the dust settled, there were not that many lay-offs (firings) at the school but my boss chose me. Why? My take on it is that I threatened him. Quietly, and without arrogance or sycophantic behavior, I tried to set an example by acting professionally and scholarly. If I had acted more like a man, whatever that means, I would still be out the door. It wouldn’t have helped if I had behaved like a self-aggrandizing jerk. I saw another woman in my department, loud and self-promoting, skewered by my boss. Now she’s thriving at another college (because she really IS top-notch). The self-aggrandizing male jerk in my department who hasn’t done nearly as much as I have…he’s still got his job.

    I am convinced that I was let go because I was a woman but it is extremely hard to prove on court.

    One further thing lest anyone think I’m fretting about my future. Because I’ve done pretty well for myself, I’m quite excited about my future. If things work the way I hope they do, I won’t be answering to any flaming jerk bosses anymore.

  12. And Whose Face Do You See?

    In response to my previous comment, which was not posted (though I am not sure why): Could you please explain your comment moderation policy to me (directly, offblog)? Especially as I have commented on the very issues of privilege, power, race, and who is *always* seen as and assumed to be authorized to speak (as well as assumed to be honest and trustworthy), I am not sure what boundary I transgressed in responding to this message. I tried to communicate the profound pain of not only having the experiences that you write about above because of gender, but the added sadness of having these experiences because one is a black woman who often isn’t even seen as a human being, much less a social equal, such that I am told by white male Berkeley anthropologists who claim to be committed to anti-racism and feminism to “leave your ‘privilege’ critique at home if you want to be friends.” I thought my candor would be appreciated (by you, especially in relation to what you wrote above), as well as my unorthodox rumination/approach, especially given that my observations cited scholarly research and are directly germane to your work on SNS/Facebook. I really don’t understand what I wrote that was beyond the pale (no pun intended). Somehow there has been a miscommunication: All I was really saying is this: even with an undergrad degree from Yale and a graduate degree from Berkeley, I will *never* be assumed to be authorized to speak–much less not assumed to be prone to violence, from ‘the ghetto,’ an affirmative action lackey–because of how I look. For me the question is not simply, Whose voice do you hear?, it is also, Whose face do you see? Sadly, even in writing honestly about painful experiences with racism and sexism, it seems that in the end I am only ever understood to be an irrational Angry Black Woman. So how do I (get to) ‘speak truth to power’–or speak ‘truth’ about power?

  13. Shava Nerad

    I get the same thing – arrogance for confidence (and love of debate). Yet I see my male age-peers in the MIT hacker culture of the late 70’s forgiven for my style because guys are like that. I adopted my trademark little black Greek fisherman’s cap 32 years ago because looking like a baby dyke got men to listen to me as an assertive woman. I wore black jean and a jeans or leather jacket so much, I once debated rms for three hours over lunch as to whether wearing a dress when I was being honored at MIT was capitulation to the establishment, or just showing I had freedom to wear what I wanted, could carry it off, and usually just *ignored* the rules even though I knew them. (I won 😉

    Today, with 32 years in computing and 28 of that working on the Internet, I self-promote generally by stating or implying my background first. But today, I often find that my lack of the “proper dignity” of a woman of a certain age (I wax enthusiastic – always have – ADD? Crazy wisdom? Who knows…) hits me into the arrogance or lack of credibility department.

    My thoughts at 50? I’m pretty satisfied with the phenomenon that my being female and, well, *me*, has served as a useful idiot filter as much or more than it’s been a barrier to resources I really needed. I have spent less time placating narrow jerks (male OR female – a lot of women are judgemental on this stuff too, and can be utter harpies on women who don’t conform). And I have been able to ration my stamina more on impossible problems than impossible people.

    My response to Clay’s thesis (elaborated from Twitter): Men might be bettered by adopting what you seems to think is wimpy honesty. Maybe there should be real consequences for this tolerance of brash “boys will be boys” lying, beond making others suffer from puffed up incompetents and their collateral damage – like the financial crisis.

  14. z_californianus

    Danah writes:

    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.

    In contrast to focusing on what individual men or women can do, which is strongly suggested by the post above, there’s a view about sexism and other forms of oppression according to which it’s not just that people’s attitudes need to change, it’s that there’s a systemic problem in institutions and in various communities and sub-communities. The relationships which determine how someone’s identity is formed and what the person expects of him or herself and others is shaped by the broader context. Someone need not have a particular attitude or belief about women to be sexist and someone who has non-sexist attitudes may well be a perpetrator of sexism by participating in the community in a way that reinforces the suppression of women.

    In academia, at least, the kinds of things that need to be done include supporting women’s studies departments and the study of gender more generally; identifying and recruiting talented women for faculty and administrator positions; harshly and visibly punishing sexual and gender-related misconduct; teaching and evaluating students in a disciplined manner aimed at strengthening content and ideas and leaving little or no scope for personal judgements about the individual presenting those ideas. Many institutions are now pursuing courses of action like those I mention above.

    The task of reforming institutions and communities falls to everyone.

    Dana’s blog post is especially valuable because she’s provided such an articulate account of the sense of what it’s like to have to contend with sexism. It’s fortunate for all of us that she’s managed to find a way, given all the constraints she and other women face, to develop and share her ideas and to develop support for her work. Maybe being louder or promoting one’s self or doing the other things Clay Shirky suggests would help some women attract the attention of some men and women who ignore quieter women. That recommendation, however, represents one of many lateral moves a woman can make in a sexist context—the context itself being where the real problems lie.

    Maybe in some places already things are changing. We have a black president; slavery ended just over 100 years ago. Racism is still a defining aspect of American culture. Women probably have a few generations at least before significant irreversible progress is made.

  15. Katinka Hesselink

    Ah, thank you. You’ve put a label to something I never realised. I’m just like you in this respect: I sound self confident & that makes people think I’m sure. Simply because it’s not ‘feminine’ to state opinions confidently.

    I’ve learned a bit to put ‘I think’ in there. But in general that doesn’t work, because I’m just too good with words to not sound confident.

    Perhaps I should just learn to accept that people will misunderstand because they don’t expect my kind of behavior from a woman. After all – I do have to survive in a mans world and if we all behave like proper women, how are things going to change?

    As for changing what individual people do as opposed to asking the world to change… sorry, but I really can’t wait for the world to change. I have to live in it now, and to have some help in learning why my presentation doesn’t seem to work sometimes, or gives the wrong impression, it helps to know that it’s a gender based difference.

  16. fs

    I find this to be an interesting conversation, but rather one sided. We women always talk about men not taking us seriously unless we behave in a certain manner or men not being our allies, but what about women helping women? As a women scientist, I find other women scientists to be far less friendly (not necessary on average, but in the extremes) than men scientists. Women need to also look to each other rather than thinking men are going to help them.

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  19. robert gonzalez

    I work as a teacher in southern california. Trust me, there are a plethora of alpha female teachers that speak to be heard and demand to be correct. I am a quiet male, and rarely give my opinion, even if its asked for. I work all around women who talk down to me as if I NEED their opinion… I have dated several women that are also this way. Men do this because they are (mostly) narcissistic buffoons, and women should not aspire to be this way. My friends have always been highly educated women who know they could crush my intellectual abilities at any moment, but chose to be cordial and agreeable because its the human thing to do.

  20. Colleen

    just read shirkey’s article. I can just imagine the response if I said, “my stuff is awesome you should write about it.” If the reader knew it was a woman writing it would he/she respond differently? My money says yes.

  21. Tracy Mendham

    Thanks for the reminder that we can work on how we listen and react to others, making ourselves and the world we live in more comfortable and tolerant.

    “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.”

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