August 2014Volume 20Number 2PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)

Book review

There are lots of advice books out there for working women. Negotiate more, they tell you. Be nicer, they tell you. Wear pants suits; don’t wear pants suits. A new book for women in the professional workplace, however, takes a different approach. What Works for Women at Work, by Joan Williams and Rachel Dempsey, explains the gendered behavior patterns and gendered political dynamics of the American workplace and offers a range of strategies for handling them.

The subtitle of the book is Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know. The authors interviewed 127 successful women leaders in the American work force, over half of whom are women of color. The authors also reviewed hundreds of relevant social science studies. They boiled down their findings to four major patterns that women encounter in today’s workplace.

First, there’s the “Prove-It-Again!” dynamic. While men are often hired and promoted based on their potential, women more often are hired and promoted based on their performance. Thus, to get ahead in their careers, many women have to prove themselves over and over and over again.

Second, many women encounter “The Tightrope,” a narrow range of acceptable behaviors in the workplace. Be too nice, and you might not be respected. Be too aggressive, and you might not be liked. Yet women especially often need to be both liked and respected to succeed in their careers.

The third pattern the authors identify is “The Maternal Wall.” We live in a society that expects mothers to be available to their children 24/7 and expects professionals to be available for work 24/7. The impossibility of doing both creates workplace dynamics that impact all women, both mothers and non-mothers.

Finally, “The Tug of War” describes negative behaviors between women that may arise as we deal with the other three patterns. This pattern apparently is the least prevalent of the four.

For each of these patterns, the authors first explain clearly the behaviors involved. Then they provide action plans for handling each pattern. Lawyers will appreciate that this book does not recommend one right answer for a problem. Instead the book provides a range of possible approaches, laying out various factors to take into account. Along with these more detailed explanations, helpful side bars highlight key information or outline specific steps to take. Some side bars list quick comeback lines.

Women who have worked in the legal field for some time will recognize easily the four workplace patterns. It is affirming to read about the many scientific studies that explain our experiences. (The craziness? It’s not us). Older lawyers may have figured out the hard way many of the strategies presented. Yet the book is still full of interesting information and helpful tips, including suggestions for working with the newest generation of women lawyers.

Women who are newer to the legal workplace will have their eyes wide open that much sooner if they read this book. They will gain insights into working successfully with both their male colleagues and the more senior women in the office.

The inter-generational aspect of this book is no accident. Author Joan Williams is a Distinguished Professor and the Director of WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of Law. Author Rachel Dempsey is a Yale law student with some background in journalism. They are mother and daughter, and they purposely brought the voices of two generations to this book.

The liberal use of interview quotes brings out many other, diverse voices. Thus the tone of the book is conversational and informal, even while it summarizes a lot of social science studies. Perhaps its best feature is that it does not try to tell any one how they should behave. It simply gives us information we can use to make conscious choices about how to be effective and successful in the workplace. This book is a very helpful read for all women lawyers, especially those who aspire to leadership positions. ■

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