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

What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know
Joan C. Williams and Rachel Dempsey
New York University Press

What working women need to know and how to use that knowledge to achieve personal growth and professional development

This is an updated edition of a book first published in 2014. Its subtitle refers to patterns of behavior that women need to understand as they navigate their careers “in the sea of office politics.” That need is greater now than at any prior time that I can remember. These are the four on which Joan Williams and Rachel Dempsey focus:

Prove-It-Again!: Women are required to prove themselves again and again and again — much more often than men do — in order to demonstrate that they are equally competent.

The Tightrope: This pattern is established by men who prescribe how women should behave. They cannot be too feminine or they will create “Prove-It-Again problems; if they are insufficiently feminine, they will seem to lack social skills especially empathy.

The “Maternal Wall: This pattern consists of both descriptive bias (i.e. strong negative competence and commitment assumptions triggered by motherhood) and prescriptive bias (i.e. disapproval on the grounds that women should be at home or working fewer hours).

The Tug of War: This pattern develops when each woman attempts to navigate a career path between accommodating and rejecting masculine assumptions and traditions.

Williams and Dempsey provide an abundance of invaluable information, insights, and counsel — much if not most of it revealed during interviews of dozens of women who have succeeded despite engagement in one or more of the four patterns. They are real people in real situations who have learned how to play and win a “game” that is usually officiated by men based on double-standard rules established by other men.

For example, in Chapter 3, Williams and Dempsey share several strategies to cope with the “Prove-It-Again” bias and they explain HOW to execute each effectively:

o Trump the Stereotype (Pages 44-46)
o Get Over Yourself (46-49)
o Know Your Limits (49-51)
o Address the Bias — With Kid Gloves (51-53)
o Play the Specialized or Technical Role (53-55)

Gloria Steinem once observed, “Any woman who chooses to behave like a full human being should be warned that the armies of the status quo will treat her as something of a dirty joke; that’s their natural and first weapon. She will need sisterhood.”

In Chapter 10, Williams and Dempsey recommend a “Tug of War Action Plan”:

o Recognize the Limits of the Sisterhood (206-208)
o Senior Women: Remember That the Younger Women’s Experience Is Different (208-210)
o Younger Women: Senior Women May Not Have as Much Power as You think (210-212)
o Managing Down Is Just as Important as Managing Up (212-214)
o Make an Enemy into an Ally (214-215)
o Get Women Working Together (215-217)

Some of the most valuable advice is provided in the two chapters that comprise Part VII, 20 Lessons: “The Science of Savvy in 20 Lessons.”

The lessons “are the takeaways from 35 years of study of experimental social psychology and 127 interviews of successful career women. It’s not easy; don’t hesitate to get help. And good luck!” (Chapter 14) and “Conclusion: Jump-Starting the Stalled Gender Revolution.” (15)

I agree with Joan Williams and Rachel Dempsey that organizations are changing so slowly that women need tools now to navigate the world as they find it. But the real solution is to level the playing field.

“In the meantime, women need not only stand and wait. We have provided some savvy to help you play the hand you are dealt or to go find a different game. Better yet, become the dealer or invent your own game. Then you can make your own rules — and make them fair.”

What Works for Women at Work is a brilliant achievement. As each new year begins, however, I again hope that over time there will be less need for books that address gender-specific issues in the workplace. When and how that occurs will, in my opinion, depend almost entirely on how many well-qualified women are in the C-suite.

 

 

 

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