What Works for Women at Work: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: January 30th, 2014 by bobmorris

What Works for WomenWhat Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know
Joan Williams and Rachel Dempsey
New York University Press (2014)

How and why what works best for women at work will work for men as well.

In the Foreword, Anne-Marie Slaughter observes, and I agree, “If women act on the prescriptions I these pages and men begin to understand the deep culturally embedded biases and assumptions that mean a book like thus still needs to be written, the workplace will be a better place, the United States will be more competitive, and the intertwining of work and family life will be easier for all caregivers.”

Joan Williams and Rachel Dempsey focus on “four crisp patterns that provide the framework for this book.” They are Prove-It-Again! (a descriptive bias), the Tightrope (a prescriptive bias), the Maternal Wall (both a descriptive and prescriptive bias), and Tug of War (i.e. between accepting or resisting masculine traditions based on various biases). Williams and Dempsey devote a separate chapter to each of the four patterns. Throughout their lively as well as thoughtful and thought-provoking narrative, they provide an abundance of information, insights, and counsel from a wide variety of sources – including their own wide and deep experience – so that their readers will have the tools needed now to navigate the business world as they find it.

That said, I commend them for acknowledging, “Simple formulas are highly misleading, not only because different women face different problems but because different women can face different problems at different pints in their careers. The truth is that women have to be politically savvier to survive and thrive in historically male careers.” That is, play with much greater skill the hand they are dealt or go find a different game. “Better yet, become the dealer or invent your own game.”

These are among the dozens of business subjects and issues of special interest and value to me, also listed to indicate the scope of Williams and Dempsey’s coverage.

o “Shifting Perspectives” on women and their problems (Page 10)
o Know the Rules, Then Break Them (15-20)
o Men’s Successes Are Attributed to Skill, While Women’s Are Overlooked or Attributed to Luck; With Mistakes, It’s Just the Opposite (29-34)
o Five Strategies to “Make Achievements Stick” (44-56)
o Eight Strategies to Cope with Gender Biases in the Workplace (89-107)
o Spotting Maternal Wall Patterns (127-151)
o Spotting Tug of War Patterns (179-204)
o How to Be a Great Boss (212)
o Five Ways to Be a Great Boss (216)
o Dealing with Difference from a Young Age (227)
o How Being a Latina Varies from East to West (239)
o Asian American Women (246-252)
o Five “Signs” re Whether on Not Your Workplace Is Right for You (262-273)
o Four Strategies to Leave — But Not Leave Yourself Hanging (281-288)
o The Science of Savvy in 20 Lessons (293-298)

In addition to the aforementioned primary patterns of resistance to women’s advancement (i.e. Prove-It-Again!, the Tightrope, the Maternal Wall, and Tug of War), combinations of other strategies are also offered for the reader to consider. With great care, Williams and Dempsey offer them within a co text, a frame-of-reference, so that their reader is better prepared to select those most appropriate. It should also be noted that observations such as “Men’s Successes Are Attributed to Skill, While Women’s Are Overlooked or Attributed to Luck; With Mistakes, It’s Just the Opposite” do not have universal application, to all women in all situations. For men as well as for women, the most insidious biases tend to be unspoken. In many instances, they are illegal.

According to Joan Williams and Rachel Dempsey, they focus on what women can do for themselves, given the fact organizations are changing so slowly and so insufficiently. Women need tools now to navigate the world as they find it. But the real solution is to level the playing field.” I agree, presuming to add that institutional solutions can substantially benefit men as well as women. Therefore, men need to become actively involved.

What works best for women at work will work for men as well.

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