It’s Not You, It’s the Workplace: A book review by Bob Morris

It’s Not You, It’s the Workplace: Women’s Conflict at Work and the Bias that Built It
Andrea S. Kramer and Alton B. Harris
Nicholas Brealey (August 2019)

How gender biases have impact on personal and professional development…for better or worse

There are all manner of limits to a career path. Many are self-imposed. Others are the result of a workplace culture that remains hostage to what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

I agree with Andrea Kramer and Alton Harris: “Women’s distinctive difficulties in dealing with other women, just like their difficulties advancing in gendered workplaces, are driven by stereotypes and the biases these stereotypes foster. These difficulties are not because of women’s fundamental nature, not because of the unique way they are socialized, nor because they are inherently jealous or envious of other women. Women’s distinctive conflicts are about their workplaces, not their natures.”

Kramer and Harris organize their material within four Parts: First, they examine “the myths, stereotypes, and misconceptions about the causes [NOT symptoms] of women’s workplace conflicts”; next, they discuss “the realities of gendered workplaces for ambitious women and the difficult choices such as workplaces present to them”; then they examine “how gendered workplaces and the stereotypes that prevail in them affect women’s same gender relationships with women who have social identities different from their own; finally, in Part IV, they provide a framework for “how [their] specific suggestions can be comprehensively implemented.”

Obviously, women will always have conflicts with other women just as men will have conflicts with other men. In healthy organizations, principled dissent is encouraged, if not required. Conflicts in these organizations are free of prejudice (i.e. pre-judgments based on stereotypes) and usually involve differences of opinion about the given what, how, and/or why. However, shared values and common objectives are essential to the success of collective effort.

I commend Kramer and Harris on their brilliant use of several reader-friendly devices, notably the  “Making Things Better” section at the conclusion of each of the first nine chapters. The abundance of valuable information, insights, and counsel they provide will help leaders in any organization — whatever its size and nature may be — to understand and thereby manage much more effectively issues relevant to business challenges such as these:

o Women’s workplace relationships with other women: dos and don’ts
o Gendered workplaces limited by “stereotype straitjackets”
o Social identity in the workplace environment
o Overcoming women’s identity conflicts
o Attackjng workplace biases in collaboration with men who are also affected adversely by them

Here’s a key point: efforts to diminish (if not eliminate) the causes of women’s various gender-driven — bias-driven — conflicts at work can succeed only if those efforts are a collaboration of men and women who provide effective leadership at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise. In their book, Andrea Kramer and Alton Harris provide a “blueprint” for the architecture of that workplace environment, accompanied by the information, insights, and counsel needed to build it and then strengthen it.

The seven-step initiative they recommend will pose challenges because interpersonal conflicts are inevitable in any human community.  It is imperative that members embrace these challenges as opportunities for collaboration and accommodation, opportunities  that are mutually beneficial.

However different they may be in many respects, all healthy organizations have a workplace culture within which principled dissent is essential to personal growth and professional development. In my opinion, that is their “secret sauce.”

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