Sunday, January 24, 2010

Clay Shirky's Rant: Fierce Women Are Everywhere (Else?)

Tim Bray did a writeup and link roundup in the wake of Clay Shirky's rant, and this reminded me of something I wanted to say about it: I've maybe seen a shortage of female self-promotion in technology, from time to time, but never in music or in acting. A guy who complains that women just aren't bold or aggressive enough to promote themselves has probably never talked to an actress in his life. Likewise, I follow a bunch of female DJs on Twitter and Facebook, and they're all constantly updating about their projects. They're relentless.

I have mixed feelings about Shirky's rant. I'm generally a Shirky fan, and I know a great book, very relevant, which I can't recommend enough:

Dr. Deborah Tannen, a linguist at Georgetown, has written many other books on gender differences in speech, one of which looks especially relevant. And there's plenty of research that shows subtle variations in communication patterns can cost money and lives.

However, you don't have to look hard to find female self-promotion in tech.

After screen-grabbing DJ Icon promoting her record, I asked myself where I might find an example of female self-promotion in tech. Amy Hoy was the first name I thought of, and the first tweet in her feed fit the bill. Seek and ye shall find!

If I were a parent or a young woman, I know exactly what I would do to solve this problem. I'd favor all-female schools. Girls do better at math and science in all-girls schools, for the same reason boys do better in arts classes at all-boys schools. Gender roles interfere with optimum performance. Create a situation without gender roles, and performance improves immediately. Problem solved.

But that only solves the problem within the limited, controlled environment of a school, ignoring the big wide world outside that environment; and there's a heated debate around whether a problem even exists or not in the first place. I don't want to get into that debate. It's loud, it's noisy, there's no data; it's a recipe for misunderstandings, anger, and wasted time.

Not only that, but Shirky says women should be willing to do anything to get to the top, and he's a middle-aged college professor with a name and great connections. If you're a middle-aged college professor who has the name and the connections to help a bunch of young, college-age women in their careers, and you're encouraging those women to do anything they can to get to the top, that's just the type of conversation which could go badly. So I'm going to hold off on saying anything more.