What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know has been my favourite work-related read in long while. It’s straightforward and doesn’t sugar coat what it means to be a woman in the workplace. Joan C. Williams and Rachel Dempsey comb through 35 years of research and 127 interviews with successful women to provide the reader with a book packed full of advice. I recommend this book to any woman (or any ally) looking to understand more about biases at work.

In their book, Williams and Dempsey discuss four patterns of gender bias:

  • Prove It Again: When women have to work twice as hard to get half as far.
  • The Tightrope: When women must choose between being liked and being respected.
  • Maternal Wall: When mothers are assumed to be incompetent and uncommitted.
  • Tug of War: When gender bias turns into conflicts among women.

They also cover Double Jeopardy, which is how gender bias differs (and is often worse) for women of colour.

Throughout the book, Williams and Dempsey recognize that not all of their advice will work for (or be attractive to) every woman. I really appreciated that they pointed out that sometimes what works for one woman could get another woman into trouble.

I would have loved to have read information on transgender women, women with disabilities, and more on lesbian women, but I also understand that we need more research on a variety of women’s experiences. Overall, What Works for Women at Work is an excellent book full of experiences that you’ll identify with and advice that you’ll appreciate.

Next NerdLab YYC Read

For those of you who are also interested in hearing about other women’s experiences, join us for our next book club meeting in February. We’ll be reading Lean Out: The Struggle for Gender Equality in Tech and Start-Up Culture edited by Elissa Shevinsky. This book features 25 essays from a variety of people including women of colour, LGBTQ women, transgender people, and people who identify as agender.

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##“What Works for Women at Work” Book Club Discussion Questions

Download Discussion Questions (PDF)

  1. What piece of advice or personal story most resonated with you and why?

  2. What are some examples of gender bias you’ve experienced in your workplace?
    • Prove It Again: Needing to prove yourself repeatedly
    • The Tightrope: Walking the line between being liked but not respected or respected but not liked
    • Maternal Wall: Feeling your competence and commitment questioned once you become a mom
    • Tug of War: Tension among women based on different styles of navigating bias in the workplace
  3. What piece of advice or personal story did you most dislike or feel strongly against and why?

  4. Are there strategies that you use to navigate / minimize / reduce gender bias? Were there strategies that you hadn’t thought about or plan to try from the book?
    • Form a Posse: Team up with people to publicly celebrate successes
    • Gender Judo: Use a mix of “masculine” and “feminine” traits to be assertive and approachable as needed
    • Strategic “No”: Say “Yes” to one or two pieces of office housework, then say “No” and provide alternatives for the rest
    • Ask for Help: Bring others on board to share office housework
    • Be Explicit: Counter assumptions about mothers by being explicit about your career goals and choices
    • Make an Enemy into an Ally: If someone is undercutting you, call it out, find common ground and propose mutual support
  5. Are there strategies that you’ve seen other women use?

  6. The authors discuss the differences in survival/success strategies used by women in different generations. Senior women often minimize gender and junior women feel like they shouldn’t have to. Have you experienced tug of war issues with other women due to this generational divide?

  7. Do you employ different strategies if you are navigating or surviving at work, versus trying to make changes? Do you think these strategies need to be different?

  8. Women of colour often have to deal with both gender and racial biases at the same time. How do the 4 gender biases differ by race according to the book? How can you be aware of your own racial biases?

  9. What was the best part of this book for you? What is this book missing that you would like to read more about?

  10. What other resources would you recommend for handling gender biases in the workplace?