Women and work
Working women today have it better than ever before. But few agree on how to help them rise further—or whether they still need help at all
Work With Me: The 8 Blind Spots Between Men and Women in Business.
By Barbara Annis and John Gray. Palgrave Macmillan; 272 pages; $27.
To be published in Britain by Piatkus next month; 13.99.
Buy from Amazon.com
A Rising Tide: Financing Strategies for Women-Owned Firms.
By Susan Coleman and Alicia Robb.
Stanford University Press; 288 pages; $85 and 77.50.
Buy fromAmazon.com, Amazon.co.uk
The XX factor: How Working Women are Creating a New Society.
By Alison Wolf. Profile; 464 pages; 15.99. Buy fromAmazon.co.uk
PEOPLE have been holding heated discussions recently about women’s experience in the workplace.
The catalyst? A single Silicon Valley executive.
Last month Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook, published “Lean In”, a controversial manifesto on why women have not ascended to the most senior positions at companies.
She concludes that it is partly women’s own fault: they do not “lean in” and ask for promotions, pipe up at meetings and insist on taking a seat at the table.
Three new books will not have the same impact as “Lean In”, but they offer some interesting new perspectives on how women are coping at work, and what is holding them back.
Some of it is down to simple miscommunication.
Barbara Annis and John Gray argue in “Work With Me” that men and women are biologically wired to think and react differently to situations, and have “gender blind spots” when it comes to understanding their co-workers’ behaviour.
Ms Annis, who leads workshops on gender for big companies and governments, and Mr Gray, author of “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus”, a bestselling book in 1992 about relationship problems, have collaborated to produce an easy-to-read guide to workplace communications.
Women ask more questions, gather more people’s opinions and seek collaboration with co-workers more frequently than men.
Men view these preferences as signs of weakness, and women, in turn, grow annoyed by how competitively men work, and how quickly and unilaterally they arrive at conclusions.
If both female and male employees became more “gender intelligent” about how their work and behavioural preferences are hard-wired, it would contribute to a more harmonious workforce.
Women have been choosing to leave companies at twice the rate of men, and more than half the women whom the authors met in workshops were considering leaving their firms.
Women often tell their bosses that they are quitting for personal reasons, but the majority actually leave because they feel excluded from teams and not valued for their contributions.
Yet the reality is that women often have trouble communicating with other women at work as well, though the authors do not explain in quite as much detail why this is so.
Communication and gender equality are not just problems at large firms.
In “A Rising Tide” Susan Coleman and Alicia Robb look beyond women’s experience at big companies.
They focus instead on women entrepreneurs, who have the potential to become leaders in their field, earn a high income and hire more women.
In a positive shift, women have been starting more firms in the past decade.
However, these tend to be in the service and retail industries.
They also remain smaller than men’s firms.
Ms Coleman and Ms Robb point out that part of this may be by design; women sometimes want to keep their businesses small in order to balance their family responsibilities.
However, women also often lack the financing that male entrepreneurs enjoy.
They have fewer savings, so usually launch their businesses with less capital than men, and are less likely to apply for a loan for fear of being denied.
And they have not had as much access to the masculine world of Silicon Valley: in 2000 they obtained only 5% of funding from venture capitalists, a notoriously male-dominated industry.
During their first year of operation men raised 27 times more equity from outsiders for their start-ups than women.
How has the success of high-achievers differentiated them from other women?
In “The XX Factor”, Alison Wolf, the director of public policy and management at Kings College London, argues that there are now around 70m highly educated, high-earning women around the world.
They have more in common with elite men than with other women.
These grandes dames tend to marry more often and have fewer children than less-educated women.
They spend more time working, and, unexpectedly, more time parenting.
Ms Sandberg also makes this point.
As the demands on women in the workplace have increased, so too have the standards for being a good, involved mother—which adds to the challenges for women at the top.
Ms Wolf and Ms Sandberg ultimately differ, however, on whether the glass is half full or half empty for women.
Ms Sandberg’s book is a call to female arms to change their behaviour so they can rise further.
Ms Wolf concludes with an economist’s detachment. She says that given how much things have improved for women in the past century, it is “a little surprising to find so many elite women still arguing passionately for directed, top-down social change—change designed to improve things for female elites”.
Most people agree that more needs to change in the workplace. Men still occupy most top jobs, do not feel comfortable mentoring younger women and judge young men differently from young women.
However, after decades of women failing to gain equal representation in executive suites, it is notable how many books now focus on women altering their behaviour, rather than men changing their way of doing things.
Women cannot change their fate on their own. What happened to the responsibility for men to “lean in” to listen and advance women in the workforce, as well?