Thursday, April 23, 2015

Learning What Works

I remember thinking that What Works for Women at Work, a book of information about common types of bias women face at work by Joan Williams and Rachel Dempsey, looked like a useful book when it came out early last year. I also remember thinking that I couldn't trust myself to read it right then, because I suspected it would hit very close to home, and I was in a fragile place.

I can now say that I was right on both counts.

I have somehow found myself on the hook to give a short talk about how women can self-promote (don't ask... I initially said no on grounds that this isn't something I'm all that good at myself!) and since I of course want to do a good job, I knew that the time had come to read this book. I want to tell people the right advice- which is most definitely not that you just need to self-promote like a man. There is plenty of evidence that doing that often backfires. See, for instance, the HBR article I discussed a couple of years ago.

Anyway, I bought a copy of What Works for Women at Work, and set aside some time yesterday to read through the sections most relevant to my topic at hand. It is a good book: written with an easy to read style, well-referenced so that I can look up the data to support their statements about bias, and with some helpful ideas for how to navigate through the biases to achieve your career goals.

And yeah, it hit close to home. The two authors are from two different generations (they are in fact a mother-daughter team). Joan Williams is in her 50s, and her introduction to the book was so painfully true for me that I almost started to cry. As I read on, I definitely recognized a lot of things that have happened to me over the years, and I began to realize why I deviated from my original plan and suddenly quit my job last year. I have a better understanding of how I could like and respect my former colleagues and at the same exact time be unable to stay in that position. I have said before that I just burned out, but the first two sections of this book provide an explanation for why I burned out.

If you're curious, or want to read along at home in the book, I think I burned out from exhaustion from having to "prove it again" so damn many times and from exerting so much effort to stay balanced on the f%&#ing tightrope they describe.

Even now, a full year after the events that led to my sudden resignation, I find reading this book fairly devastating. I have no idea what would have happened if I'd tried to read it last year.  I wish I had read it 10 years ago, but even if it had existed, I might not have recognized how much I needed to read it at that earlier stage in my career. (Side note to any early career people out there: read this book now, before you begin to get the promotions and such that will put you on a collision course with these implicit biases. Forewarned is forearmed and all that.)

Reading it now is making me feel a little better about my uncharacteristic decision, though. I am starting to think that I acted so suddenly because I was in a type of immediate danger: if I'd stayed longer, I might have become so burnt out that I would have been unable to salvage my new career path from the remains of my old one. At some point, the instinctive self-preserving part of my brain overruled the rational, planning part and made me act.

So here I am, having mostly picked up the pieces, but still trying to make them fit back together in a stable way. I find that I am unbelievably motivated to get to stay my own boss. If I'm completely honest, I'm also feeling fairly motivated to "prove it again" just one last time, which means, of course, that I can't hang up my tightrope walking shoes quite yet.

Photo from Flikr user Wiros:


  1. Anonymous6:17 PM

    It's on my "to-read" shelf waiting for my brain to be able to handle non-fiction again (along with Scarcity... after I finish reading Work Flow for Stata). I have, though, read some of the original research that it's based on (and I've seen more research in the same vein-- that Lise Vesterlund talk on service work is just amazeballs) and I'm not sure whether to be happy or sad that Women Aren't Stupid. The economist in me thrills at the neatness of rationality (women are rational actors too, they just face different constraints!) while the fact that women do have to be better than men for realz just, you know, sucks. Stupid patriarchy.

    1. I have been meaning to watch that talk since you posted it. I agree, it is nice to see people recognizing that women aren't stupid or inept. We're just playing under different rules, even if we're on the same game board as the guys.

    2. Anonymous3:50 PM

      Definitely watch it! Or listen to it while doing something else (though it does have some pretty stunning graphs).

  2. I'm going to get this right away.

    Early in my first career, I read a few books for women in the workplace, and I remember one that advised things like throwing a pen on the table during a discussion. Much of the advice in that book seemed childishly aggressive, and I don't remember other specifics. My main memory is that it was a book full of advice that felt unnatural to me. I did get more from Why Good Girls Don't Get Ahead, But Gutsy Girls Do. It was a little hokey at times, but fit me better.

    1. Anonymous1:31 PM

      A friend said that, when meetings get testy, she plays with her MIT "rat" ring. It's actually their beaver mascot, but looks like a rat.

      A male friend said that he does the same. He works at a famously aggressive .com and he doesn't like to be alpha male.

    2. I fiddle with my rings when I'm uncomfortable with the antagonism in the room, too!

      I also recently read Deborah Tannen's Argument Culture. That had a lot of good things in it that made me think. I'm going to read her Talking from 9 to 5, too, I think.

  3. As I move from architect managed by others to architect managing others, this knowledge seems much more critical.

    Added to wish list. Thanks!

  4. I remember recognizing your quitting suddenly was a move to preserve yourself, it was something I really wanted to do some years ago for somewhat similar reasons. Because of that, I advised a colleague, not too long ago, that it was far better to quit than to hang on for the sake of the few good people when the rest of the environment was so toxic that people were getting sick and they were reacting in really stressed ways.

  5. Anonymous1:28 PM

    I'm going to buy and read it, too. I'm a big fan of Joan Williams' Unbending Gender book.

    I wrote a series, inspired by Joan Williams' research and writing. I even met her in line at the airport, once.

    1. Oh, yeah, now I remember that series! Thanks for the link.

    2. It's so discouraging that I've internalized so much crap over the decades. NSF wants me to own my online persona in order to encourage younger women entering tech and I was scared of opening myself up for more harassment.


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