Books: Female wiles in a macho marketplace

The author offers much evidence of the hostility women face at work, but she is full of contradictions, finds Richard Reeves.

by
Last Updated: 22 Mar 2016

She wears miniskirts, she has long blonde hair and a great big smile, and she sparkles. She even dares to talk about her figure. She's a girl ... Of all the ways to describe Susan Greenfield, the eminent scientist, this is not perhaps the one Professor Greenfield herself would choose. But Margaret Heffernan is on a crusade to talk up the feminine side of her subjects. So Bronwen Hughes, a senior research director, is 'a bubbly vivacious blonde', and Glenda Roberts, who has the fairly important job of managing mergers and acquisitions for Microsoft, is 'a gorgeous black woman with a tiny waist and a big beautiful brain'.

The irony of these descriptions is that Heffernan's book is an attempt to free women from the stereotypes imposed on them by men. In playing up the sexual attractiveness of the women who populate the book, she is in danger of falling into precisely the trap she identifies.

A pity, because her central thesis - that women are still fighting a losing battle in the men's world of work - is important. There are compelling examples of how far we need to go to create anything like a level playing field. Some, indeed, are shocking: Chris Carosella, former VP of a Fortune 100 company, recalls a senior management meeting in which she disagreed with one of her male colleagues. His retort afterwards? 'Chris, don't you know you're just the c*** at the table? No-one cares what you think.'

There are dozens of pieces of anecdotal evidence showing the harassment, humiliation and downright hostility many women face. If this is the book's greatest strength, its greatest weakness is in failing to link these examples to structural causes - or to realistic solutions.

The section of the book that has attracted most attention - and some derision - is the one in which Heffernan suggests women adopt a variety of guises to survive the macho marketplace, becoming either an invisible woman, attempting to offend no-one; a geisha, smiling and flattering her way; a guy (a quasi-man), visiting strip joints and puffing cigars; or a bitch, adopting a ruthless demeanour.

Like all stereotypes, hers desperately oversimplify yet they contain a grain of truth. So long as workplace culture is defined along male lines, women will distort their true personalities to get ahead.

And she is on strong ground in decrying the masculine separation of 'work' and 'life', insisting instead in seeing work as a critical part of life.

In the strongest chapter, she perceptively dissects the nature of power and its source: skills, confidence, relationships, reputations, alliances and money. If you accumulate enough of these, you can develop 'portable power', which stays with you wherever you go.

But in one of many contradictions of the book, Heffernan often assumes that women are less powerful than might be the case. So the breakthrough of women into senior management positions happened only 'when it served men's interest' - which is a one-eyed view of feminist advance.

And there are moments, too, when her frustration with her fellow women looks to be based on a quaint view of their motivations. On two separate occasions, she says she has 'never entirely understood where today's women got the idea that they weren't responsible for their own financial health'.

Given the labour market participation rates of women, I don't entirely understand where she's got the idea that 'today's women' don't take this responsibility.

And Heffernan's barely veiled contempt for women who choose to spend time out of the labour market raising children undermines her call for solidarity. She was on a plane to a conference 10 days after giving birth.

As a result, she was the 'school's deadbeat mom. At Thanksgiving and on Mother's Day, I was the one without painted toenails, who didn't bring handrolled sushi or home-baked cornbread. I just didn't do that stuff.'

There are a few insights to be gained in the book, though none that couldn't be picked up more easily elsewhere, and the odd stark reminder of injustice - most useful perhaps for a male reader. But it was almost certainly more fun for her to write than it is to read. The book opens with a wonderful quote: 'Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.'

Heffernan attributes the quote to Nelson Mandela. It is, of course, originally from a poem by Marianne Williamson. Men, eh?

The Naked Truth

By Margaret Heffernan

Wiley £16.99

MT price £14.99

To order, visit www.mtmagazine.co.uk

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime