HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Women and Leadership: A book review by Bob Morris

HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Women and Leadership
Various Contributors
Harvard Business Review Press (November 2018)

God hates gender inequality. She really does.

This is one in a series of volumes that anthologizes what the editors of the Harvard Business Review consider to be “must reads” in a given business subject area, in this instance barriers to women becoming C-level executives. I have no quarrel with any of their selections, each of which is eminently deserving of inclusion. If all of these articles were purchased separately as reprints, the total cost would be $109.45 and the practical value of any one of them exceeds that. Given the fact that Amazon US now sells this volume for only $16.34, that’s quite a bargain. The same is true of volumes in other series such as HBR Guide to…, Harvard Business Review on…, and Harvard Business Essentials. I also think there is great benefit derived from the convenience of having a variety of perspectives and insights gathered in a single volume.

In all of the volumes in the HBR 10 Must Read series that I have read thus far, the authors and their HBR editors make skillful use of several reader-friendly devices that include “Idea in Brief” and “Idea in Action” sections, checklists with and without bullet points, boxed mini-commentaries (some of which are “guest” contributions from other sources), and graphic charts and diagrams that consolidate especially valuable information. These and other devices facilitate, indeed accelerate frequent review later of key points later.

Why another book about women and business leadership? Consider: “Women occupy 40% of all managerial positions in the United States. But only 6% of the Fortune 500‘s top executives are female. And just 2% of those firms have women CEOs.” What’s the problem?

In Women and the Labyrinth of Leadership,  Alice Eagley and Linda Carli observe, “In the language of psychologists, the clash is between two sets of associations: communal and agentic. Women are associated with communal qualities, which convey a concern for compassionate treatment of others. They include being especially affectionate, helpful, friendly, kind, and sympathetic, as well as interpersonally sensitive gentle, and soft spoken.”

What about men? They “are associated with agentic qualities, which convey assertion and control. They include being especially aggressive, ambitious, dominant, self-confident, and forceful, as well as self-reliant and individualistic. The agentic traits are also associated in most people’s minds with effective leadership — perhaps because a long history of male domination of leadership roles has made it difficult to separate the leader associations from the male associations.

There are nine other articles in the book, plus a “bonus,” Sheryl Sandberg: The HBR Interview. The material — together — will help you to achieve several important strategic objectives. More specifically, you will learn how to

o Better understand the path women must take to leadership positions
o Learn the root causes of the barriers that exist for women in the workplace
o Check your own gender biases
o Distinguish between confidence and competence in your colleagues
o Manage a moire effective gender-diversity program
o Recognize the issues women face when speaking up about inequities and inequalities
o Help women re-enter the workforce after taking time off
o Help women accelerate personal growth and professional development

In or near the downtown area of most cities, there is a farmer’s market at which merchants offer slices of fresh fruit as samples of their wares. In that same spirit, I now offer these brief excerpts from several of the essays in this anthology.

“These days, the threat to women’s ambitions comes at a later phase of women’s lives, when they have families and are advancing to more competitive positions in their work. Women who pursue careers must cope with job structured to accommodate the life cycles of men with wives who don’t have full-time careers. And they must suffer the social pressure to fulfill more traditional, ‘feminine’ roles. It’s a situation that still creates unnecessarily agonizing choices. Too often, when the choice must be made, women choose to downsize their ambitions or abandon them altogether. At each prior time when women gained new opportunities, the early stages of change are exhilarating, but also painful.”

From “Do Women Lack Ambition?” Anna Fels

* * *

“Many people believe that bias against women lingers in the business world, particularly when it comes to evaluating their leadership ability. Recently, we had a chance to see whether that assumption is true. In a study of thousands of 360-degree assessments collected by INSEAD’s executive education program over the past five years, we looked at whether women actually received lower ratings than men. To our surprise, we found the opposite: As a group, women outshone men in most of the leadership dimensions measured. There was one exception, however, and it was a big one: Women scored lower on ‘envisioning’ — the ability to recognize new opportunities and trends in the environment and develop a new strategic direction for an enterprise.”

From “Women and the Vision Thing,” Herminia Ibarra and Otilia Obodaru

* * *

“Although no single solution will fit all contexts, managers who understand the dynamics of linguistic style can develop more adaptive and flexible approaches to running or participating in meetings, mentoring or advancing the careers of others, evaluating performance, etc. Talk is the lifeblood of managerial work, and understanding that different people have different ways of saying what they mean will make it possible [for women] to take advantage of the talents of people with a broad range of linguistic styles. As the workplace becomes more culturally diverse and business becomes more global, managers will need to become even better at reading interactions and more flexible in adjusting their own styles to the people with whom they interact.”

From “The Power ofTalk,” Deborah Tannen

* * *

“The typical harassment scenario we see in the news involves a clear organizational power dynamic: boss and subordinate. So it may surprise some people to learn that most harassment involves a lateral rekationship: a coworker, who doesn’t officially have power over  the target. Harassment is still a crime rooted in power, but it.s impirtant to understand who’s harassing women and how.”

Also, “Sexual harassment at work is far from an isolated experience. The regularity of these incidents makes it evident that a larger culture of harassment exists; it’s not just a few bad apples who are abusing their power. The data from the survey of respondents at age 30  to 31 shows that more targets endured multiple instances of harassing behaviors than experienced a single incident. This was true across every type of harassment.”

From “Now What?” Joan C. Williams and Suzanne Lebstock 

* * *

Q:  I think I’m right in quoting you as having said at one point, that at your age — and you’re not even remotely old, 43 — that it’s too late for your generation. I didn’t quite understand that.

I don’t believe that women in my generation will achieve 50% of the top jobs in any industry. But I hope to still be alive when we get to 50% of Congress or we get to 50% of the CEO jobs. But I don’t believe it will be my peers who do that. I would love to be wrong.

Q: It’s not too late to join the struggle or to push the ideas?

Absolutely. It’s not too late. And we can keep increasing [the number of me4n as well as women involved in the struggle], but with no progress in these 10, 15 years — the numbers are going to have to be very, very dramatic for that to happen. We need to commit ourselves to those working toward it happening.

If my book [Lean In] is a “manifesto” or “feminist manifesto,” it’s one that is saying we need to commit to real equality. And what real equality means is more women in leadership roles and more men helping at home.

From “The HBR Interview: An interview of Sheryl Sandberg by Adi Ignatius”

* * *

Frankly, I have become weary of articles and books that focus on gender specific issues. Despite assertions in the Declaration of Independence (1776) and then in the Constitution (1789), women were not eligible to vote in the United States until 1920. Segregation was not declared Unconstitutional until 1954. Thereafter, until recently, very few women have served in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, were elected a state governor, were promoted to the rank of general or admiral in the military services, and have served as CEO of a Fortune 50 or even Fortune 500 company.

Gender biases result in gender illegalities and inequalities. Enough!




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