I did not have high expectations for What Works for Women at Work (New York University Press, 2014) for two reasons. First, I tend to be skeptical about advice manuals for working women generally. They tend to blame women for our career woes without any attention to structural sexism of institutions. Second, the advice offered tends to suggest that women need to mimic men to get ahead.
This book is not a typical advice manual for women, as the authors refuse to claim a particular vision of womanhood as appropriate for the workplace. Instead, they reassure readers that there’s no right way to be a woman and they provide tips on how to overcome common stereotypes that working women face.
Rather than provide just their opinions, Joan C. Williams and Rachel Dempsey rely on 127 interviews with women at the tops of their fields, including business, government, medicine, law and academia, to construct their advice. The interviewees represented a range of ages, backgrounds and ethnicities.
No leaning here
Frankly, I feared that What Works for Women at Work would be a retread of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In (Random House, 2013). It didn’t take too long to realize how wrong I was. Authors Joan C. Williams and her daughter Rachel Dempsey point out how bad the common advice for working women can be for our careers and our well-being.
From the opening chapters, Williams and Dempsey confront the reality of gender bias in the workplace and note that women must be savvier than men to get ahead.
The authors explain that “conventional” advice assumes that women lack ambition, don’t negotiate and derail their own careers. However, ambitious women who negotiate are often penalized because women are in a double bind of cultural expectations regarding ideal workers and womanhood; these expectations often clash.
Williams and Dempsey point to the powerful effects of implicit gender bias, which is more subtle and harder to pinpoint, on women at work. Ingrained stereotypes about women in general impact individual women in varying ways, so they document four recurring patterns of bias: Prove-It- Again!, the Tightrope, the Maternal Wall, and the Tug of War.
Prove-It-Again! is when women have to prove their competence again and again to be seen as equally competent to men.
The Tightrope is about the expectations for female behavior, in that women who are seen as too feminine are judged incompetent but women who appear too masculine are penalized for lack of social skills.
The Maternal Wall describes the bias mothers encounter, in which their competence and commitment come into question.
Finally, the Tug of War describes the ways in which women’s different strategies in the workplace come into conflict, which often leads women to judge other women on their performance of womanhood.
Rather than dwelling solely on the bias and harassment women face at work, Williams and Dempsey also offer action plans to counter the four patterns. They provide tips for defusing bad situations as well as methods to make women savvy at office politics.
Williams and Dempsey offer valuable lessons on how to become savvy at the office:
• Network, network, network!
• Record your accomplishments as they happen. Not only that but report them to higher-ups. Focus on facts rather than bragging.
• Pick your battles wisely. Figure out what is worth fighting for and ignore the rest.
• Bias breeds conflict among women, so resist the urge to judge other women on how they act in the workplace.
• Don’t waste your time and talent on an unworkable situation. Leaving is an option.
Race in the equation
Unsurprisingly, race also matters in the treatment women receive at work, and the book pays attention to the intersection of gender and race in the workplace. Women of color often face more scrutiny than white women, and they are more likely to report gender discrimination in interviews.
Black women have to work harder to prove their competence, and they are rated more harshly than white women or black men when things go wrong at work.
Latinas also face questions about competence, but also describe being treated as maternal figures in the workplace.
Contrastingly, Asian American women describe being understood by coworkers as competent, but also lacking leadership abilities.
Disturbingly, women of color face more harassment in the workplace than white women. What Williams and Dempsey make clear is that gender bias differs by race: Women of color and white women experience gender bias in different ways.
This means there’s no uniform approach to the workplace that will help all women. Instead, initiatives for women in the workplace have to engage the diversity of experiences to help women succeed.
Buy it or ignore it?
I recommend this book for any woman who wants advice navigating the workplace, but men should also read it to comprehend the ways in which bias impacts hiring, career advancement and retention of women. Confronting the reality of gender bias is the first step in improving the workplace for women, but institutional change is the only way for women to gain equality at work.
Williams and Dempsey emphasize the necessity of flexible career paths that allow leave or part-time work, so that women and men aren’t penalized for care-giving, as well as methods to control implicit bias in hiring, evaluations, assignments, promotions and compensation. Overall, this is the one advice book all working women should have.
Dr. Kelly J. Baker is writer and columnist for Chronicle Vitae, where she posts about gender in higher ed. She is also the author of The Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915– 1930 and The Zombies Are Coming!: The Realities of the Zombie Apocalypse in American Culture.
Baker, Kelly J. (2014, August). MOVEABLE TYPE: What Works for Women at Work: Not a Typical Advice Book. Women in Higher Education, 23(8), 14.