April 19, 2010

Rant on Aggression Is Our Filter (for Now)

On Friday, Clay Shirky was on NPR talking about why NPR doesn't use nearly as many women sources as men.

I love listening to Clay talk and he's a dear friend. And of course in the NPR On The Media interview, he and the host discussed the irony that *he* was on to discuss this.. instead of a woman. But since he wrote this post: A Rant About Women, about how his women students weren't nearly aggressive enough about promoting themselves as "arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks," NPR decided to have him on their show.

Basically, while I like that Clay and others like NPR are discussing this issue, I disagree with one part of his blog post and his interview answers on NPR about why NPR has a lack of women as sources, or why women aren't getting the jobs men get, or why women aren't as successful.

Aside from the fact that news producers are responsible for finding good interviewees (not interviewees finding news producers) which was the NPR story focus, I have a real problem with the idea that *aggression* is the appropriate filter for quality and relevance. It's not that I think Clay is advocating for aggression as our filter but rather he's accepting it without question. It's just that this Aggression Filter is so implicit that we all accept it without question.

What is the Aggression Filter?

Depends on the circumstance, but it almost always involves someone having to be aggressive in some way in order to be taken seriously and noticed, either through some sort of online or public yelling, or outrageous actions or marketing language spewed out to get people's attention. Often it's a deep loud voice when in person (this favors men) and could involve various ways that people get into something, like the agenda to speak at a conference or camp (diving head first into an agenda wall is going to filter for people literally willing to hurl their bodies at the speaker's wall or who have big bodies to muscle past others). Or it could be the person who gets someone to recommend them with ridiculous language, or gets some other loud-mouthed social media guru to speak up for them. Whatever it is, it's often behavior that could be quelled by peer pressure and social norms that look past the loud behavior to focus on what people do that qualifies them. When the standard for getting noticed is all about marketing language and yelling loudest, pushing through physically or behaving with obnoxiousness, we have a filter that only notices aggressive acts to the exclusion of good work and quality offerings.

As the internet+social media self-promotion machine amps up what was already a problematic Aggression Filter for finding value, we further reinforce our already broken system for how we find interesting, relevant people to talk about ideas, speak at events or create anything of quality or fill jobs.

I don't believe there is any correlation between aggression and quality of ideas, products, new startups, books, jobs or anything else. Yelling loudest to self or otherwise promote just means the yeller is loud and an obnoxious, pompous jerk (Clay and I definitely agree on those descriptors).

The Aggression Filter is what needs fixing. We need filters in tech that de-emphasize aggression to find what is interesting, innovative and risk-taking in any strata where people compete for value. The future of tech innovation depends on it, and so do women.

However, that said, I do very much agree with Clay when he says that women don't dive into uncharted waters with the confidence that men do. I see men all the time donning a new title for themselves for which they have little experience, and then plowing ahead to find the people with experience who can help them learn or do the parts they don't know. Many men may not even say anything about their lack of experience and just fly by the seat of their pants willy nilly. For example, a new startup founded by a guy might find him claiming the CEO role, and then hiring a COO to run the finances and operations. He may never have been CEO before, but he just takes the challenge. Most women I know want to make sure they have all the possible requisite experience under their belts before facing a daunting title like CEO. And if a funder suggests that maybe a more experienced CEO should be brought in, women are often quick to give up the reins. Not always true, and there are prominent examples where this hasn't happened... but often I see this abdication by women in one form or another.

What's key for women? Being willing to take the risk, fearlessly face criticisms, jump into the unknown and ask for the help needed to get things done. What shouldn't be key? Aggressive behaviors bordering on "jerk."

For now, I'm going to call my desired value-set the Thoughtful Risk filter.

What is the Thoughtful Risk Filter?

It's a filter for finding acts and people who take risks, that then includes evaluation of the thoughtfulness or usefulness of the product, book, job-seeker, pundit, prospective student, startup or company offering. In other words, just risking isn't enough, we want to see something of value.

Another example of the differences that fall along gender lines I've noticed comes in hiring. When I hire male engineers, I find they often overstate their qualifications and skills, and not just by a little. Hiring women engineers, I find that they almost always understate what they bring to the project. So I normalize. And I often find that in a room full of those men and women I've hired, they are pretty equally matches (when normalizing for years of experience).

I'd like to see women take leaps more often by founding startups, and see tech development, startups and VCs think smarter about how to build something of value via a Thoughtful Risk Filter, not through the Aggression Filter, which is what I see so often as the proof point for figuring out who gets money and who doesn't. With so many aggressive guys pitching so many alpha-male VCs, and the subconscious, unexamined Aggression Filter in place, we get a lot of garbage funded. Often the premises getting funded are utterly silly, and we all have to wait around 2-4 years for the users, founders, press and the funders figure out "this dog don't hunt."

People taking thoughtful, planned risks is where it's at. I'd like to see more women thoughtfully risking in the future. But in order to do that, we must shift what we value going forward and encourage people to perform for a Thoughtful Risk Filter. However without more women in partnership roles at VC funds, or pressures from Limited Partners (those who give money to VC funds) we may not see this change soon in the tech development ecosystem. But a value shift in the community would likely put pressure on funders.

People in the tech ecosystem can model, teach and support confidence in women to risk thoughtfully, even if these women fear criticism, or the exposure of their weaknesses as they do it. But if we don't value thoughtful, insightful risk over aggressiveness displayed by the "arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks," no matter whether it's a startup funding pitch or a job recommendation, we won't get people performing for a Thoughtful Risk filter.

When aggression is our filter, we burn people out, often women but men also, and fast. It's not pleasant or life sustaining to constantly be in an environment where aggressive measures are the gauge for what has value. Worse for women, it goes against the way we socialize with the world in communitarian ways over competitive ways. Though I don't think most men like it long-term on an endless loop either. We squander good people when we use aggression as our standard, and in the end, get less quality innovative work than we need.

There's a reason Caterina Fake posted this photo below from the Hunch white board stating rules that support a less aggressive and more thoughtful workplace, and it's not just because people work better with defined work times, breaks and single tasks on which to focus. It's because expecting people in a work environment to "do everything at once" and "stay the latest in the office" and "email at all hours" which many start ups do, encourages aggression as a filter for defining who on a project is worthy, who has control and what the best ideas, the best people and the best work are, instead of the most thoughtful, most useful and most well executed work for innovation.

(image by Caterina Fake)

I get that we are far from living with a Thoughtful Risk value set in tech (whether start up or established environment) as a rule, but we need higher minded goals and to convey these values through social pressure in our interactions. Just playing along with the current Aggression Filter value set only steers away women from tech opportunities, keeps women lower down the ladder, and our products just aren't as good without diverse inputs, nor do they speak to the majority of customers who are in fact women. I realize not everyone plays the aggression game in Tech, but most do in some way. Aggression Filters will only shift with conscious effort and social pressure by us to value Thoughtful Risk Filters.

It's us who can make it better for women in tech, as well as better products, services and companies as a whole because we decide to change what we value. We are responsible for enabling a system that supports aggression and we are responsible for changing it to something better.

Posted by Mary Hodder at April 19, 2010 08:44 AM | TrackBack


I agree with some of your points, but disagree with others. As a woman who has done well in traditional male fields like Chemistry (my undergraduate degree), intellectual property law and the wireless industry (Muniwireless), I have observed how men and women behave over the course of many years. Here are my thoughts:

- Aggression (loudness, vulgarity, nastiness) has been the way to be noticed and it is practiced mostly by men. But there are also a lot of men who are turned off by that mode of behavior. In fact, the men who get noticed and invited to conferences to speak are a small subset of MEN and it's the ones who are not invited that are more interesting and have something to say.

- The Hunch workplace rules are similar to what Jason Fried at 37 Signals has been saying. There are many men - not the loud aggressive ones we keep hearing - who think this way.

- Women do not put themselves forward as much as men because women are more prone to doubt the value of their ideas and their work. There are historical and cultural reasons for this. I think women let their feelings affect their decisions more than men.

- When I started MuniWireless in 2003, I knew next to nothing about large scale WiFi networks. When I started calling wireless companies in early 2004 to get advertising, I knew I was competing with well established publishing companies in the wireless industry, but despite my uneasy feelings, I just went ahead and made those calls.

- I agree with you that women in general are less willing to deal with uncertainty and perhaps my own personality - I am comfortable with "winging it" - has to do with my success. So for example, when a conference organizer asks me to speak about a topic in wireless I don't know much about, I say yes, then panic mildly and do lots of research so by the time I speak, I know enough to give a valuable presentation. I think most women would say, "Oh no I don't know much about that, call X."

- We have to live in the world that is given to us today. We cannot wish it were otherwise although we can take steps to change it. Therefore, if you believe in what you are doing, you have to put yourself forward, not in an obnoxious manner, but you do have to push -- no one will come to you and roll out the red carpet. I think many women push only a little, then when they don't succeed, when they see men getting the plum jobs and speaking slots, they blame the world, play the victim (and enjoy playing the victim), and give up.

- There is a solution: if you don't get invited to the party, start your own party and send out invitations.


Posted by: Esme Vos at April 22, 2010 07:18 AM

Doesn't look like that photo was actually taken by Catarina, nor taken at Hunch, according to a comment on the photo:

Lorena says:

Hilarious... I don't know how that picture got to your hands, but I took that with my iPhone on a board I sketched for my team in Ask.com while VP of User Experience. It actually got more detailed than that, all in the quest for achieving higher quality of focused time and better work/life balance. The results did not last too long as the rest of the company was drumming at a different workaholic beat. Lesson: The whole corporate culture has to be brought in unison to the philosophy... Otherwise the heroes are not seen so. _Dahveed

Posted by: Liz Lawley at May 3, 2010 01:47 PM