Whose gender bias is it, anyway?

Book cover of How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back
A quick browse through 2020’s top self help titles for women reveals why Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith’s latest book,  Rise, should be read. It stands out in a bevy of other books that exhort women to deal with finding their passion, unleashing their creativity and finding joy in tidying up, for its focus on female executives on the lookout for fulfilling careers. The authors argue that men and women typically present such different self-limiting behaviours in business that previous self help books, including one written by Mr Goldsmith himself, are not relevant to them. Women executives, the authors have found in the course of their careers as leadership gurus and career coaches, are often held back by 12 commonly held habits that hinder their professional growth. Some are predictable, such as “negative mind sets” while others less so (like “overvaluing expertise” and “perfectionism”). True to the self-help genre, they assure readers to develop a greater self-awareness of these habits and suggest strategies to change them.

Fluidly written, How Women Rise is a seductive amalgam of case studies and strategies. At first glance, many female readers will be able to identify with several habits they mention. Expecting others to spontaneously notice and reward one’s contributions, the unending quest for perfection and the reluctance to claim one’s achievements are some pitfalls the authors warn against. Using insights from their leadership coaching experience, Ms Helgesen and Mr Goldsmith suggest strategies for readers to emerge from, what they refer to as “stuckness”.

Each chapter in Part II of the book is fetchingly named after a bad professional habit that dogs the career of many female executives. As one progresses through these chapters, however, it becomes evident that the authors have missed, and indeed, are guilty of, one bad habit. It can be called: “It’s Always Your Fault”. Across the world, women have been adept at blaming themselves for all their problems and, disturbingly, this is something this book tends to do. 

Though all women cannot blame their flagging careers on the unconscious gender bias and the lack of enabling gender positive infrastructure in most countries — the fact is that this is a reality. Women across the world have endured structural gender biases all their lives, which has impacted everything from their self-esteem and education levels to prospects of career advancement. After they have hit their heads against the corporate glass ceiling for the last many decades, it is frustrating when the authors posit that it is women themselves who sabotage their own work lives.  

How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back
Author: Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith
Publisher: Random House Business 
Pages: 256
Price: Rs 499

In fact, some of the obstacles in the careers of professional women do, and it should come as no surprise, stem from their male colleagues’ attitudes. At work, men are praised for taking risks and asserting themselves, but women are held to a different standard. They’re rewarded for being nice and helping others — qualities associated with supporting roles, rather than leadership roles. When a woman is called “ambitious”, it almost always has negative connotations. The authors themselves refer to a study that found that when being considered for promotion, women are more likely to be evaluated based on their contribution while men are more likely to be evaluated on their potential — nebulous criteria that often result in a less qualified man getting the promotion.

The authors write about how men and women experience the workplace differently. They agree that a commonly held female perception is, in fact, true — that men often have trouble hearing women when they speak. Surely, these are the sorts of attitudinal and behavioural changes that are needed before women are asked to change their own behaviours. Without these basic changes, it is entirely possible that women who are inspired by this self help book to change their self-limiting behaviours, may find their careers still remain in a rut…

Further, the book makes no reference to the inequitable division of domestic labour across the world, which makes it that much harder for women to meet their professional aspirations. Lack of good childcare and elder care facilities, inadequate public transport and loopholes in legislature that protects gender equity in the workplace are other equally significant reasons women may not have careers and professional trajectories they are satisfied with. 

Research, in fact, suggests that nations such as Sweden, which are truly committed to gender equality in the workplace, have put in place such infrastructure to enable women to thrive professionally. In this context, some of the strategies the authors suggest — which boil down to the idea in this essentially man’s world, women should take a leaf out of the book of that obnoxious co-worker who spends a calculated amount of time on self-promotion and leveraging professional relationships— are somewhat trivial. Instead of suggesting that the onus of reviving a woman’s career, which is a product of generations of discrimination and bias, lies squarely on her shoulders — the authors should have written a self-help book to enable her male co-workers gain insights into their conscious and unconscious gender biases.

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