News & Opinion

Progress or Paper Ceiling?

Sally Haldorson

September 29, 2010


In the 2008 edition of our annual year-in-review, In the Books, I wrote an essay titled: "For Women Only? A Look at Trends in Business Books Written by Women. " It's a topic that always intrigues me.

In the 2008 edition of our annual year-in-review, In the Books, I wrote an essay titled: "For Women Only? A Look at Trends in Business Books Written by Women." It's a topic that always intrigues me. Business has historically been a men's racket. Powerful women in business have been anomalies. This is not news to anyone. The tides are slowly changing, and while there are plenty of discrepancies that remain between the roles and the pay that women in business receive versus their male peers, high paid-high profile women in business are no longer so much of a surprise. This changing landscape is reflected in the number of business books published that are written by women. In 2008, I was inspired by the male-centric best sellers lists to take a look at why female business authors were not having more success at the top of the charts. I asked the question: "Is there truly a paper ceiling that hinders if not blocks a woman from being a successful business writer? And if so, where does the fault lie for this discrepancy? Authors? Audience? Publishers? Society?" Since then, I have kept an eye out for new books written for and by and about women to see how they are presented and how they are selling. My co-workers, knowing my interest in the subject, drop new books on my desk periodically. As a result, I've developed quite a pile on my desk that demands some handling, and inspires me to do some recommending. First, I checked out our Inc./8CR best seller list, and am happy to say that women authors (writing general business books) are enjoying some success! Our number one book for the month of August was The Corporate Lattice: Achieving High Performance in the Changing World of Work by Cathleen Benko and Molly Anderson. Coming in at #5 is Different by Youngme Moon and Lynn Carruthers. At #13 is The Right Fight: How Great Leaders Use Healthy Conflict to Drive Performance, Innovation, and Value by Saj-Nicole Joni and Damon Beyer. #15 is The 2020 Workplace: How Innovative Companies Attract, Develop, and Keep Tomorrow's Employees Today by Jeanne C Meister and Karie Willyerd. To me, the success of the authors above indicates that women authors are slowly breaking through the paper ceiling I suspect has long limited authors and their publishers from thinking ambitiously about the size (and yes, gender) of audience their ideas can attract. But full integration of women in business at all levels is the goal and a number of books that have come out on the topic over the past 6 months or so indicates that we still have a ways to go. If you've followed our blog regularly or read The Keen Thinker newsletter, you've probably had a chance to read the review of The Female Vision our owner, Carol Grossmeyer, wrote, declaring the book, "important for women who, after reading, will not only feel less alone as I did, but will find a helpful guide to begin tapping into their "real power at work;" and important for men who want to help create an environment for their female colleagues and employees to create and contribute their best work." This book is an example of a subset of books that have recently come out championing the value women's unique abilities bring to the workplace. In The Female Vision, authors Helgesen and Johnson (as well as Marshall Goldsmith, who introduces the book), warn that by turning a blind eye toward the needs of female employees (e.g. alternative work schedules) or their skills (e.g. a more broad-minded and less tunnel-focused approach to problem-solving), businesses deny themselves access to talent and growth. Another book that tackles the same topic is How Women Mean Business: A Step by Step Guide to Profiting from Gender Balanced Business Author Avivah Wittenberg-Cox's book argues that "[a]ll the evidence shows that balance leads to more innovation and better business performance -- after all, women are most of the market and much of the talent." This book is geared directly toward leaders who want to transform their companies into more balanced organizations with Wittenberg-Cox's four steps to change: Audit, Awareness, Align and Sustain. Coming at the issue from a slightly different direction is Lynn Cronin and Howard Fine's Damned If She Does, Damned If She Doesn't Rethinking the Rules of the Game That Keep Women from Succeeding in Business. "The corporate system--the way the business world operates--generates rules of behavior that create common guidelines for what is acceptable and what is not. These basic, respected rules of business work well for men but can inadvertently create paradoxes that put women in no-win situations and limit their opportunity to succeed in a manner comparable to men." For Cronin and Fine (as well as Helgesen and Johnson, and Wittenburg-Cox), progress for women in business has stalled, and they are determined to reengineer the corporation to allow women to break through. Really, these books are for a gender-neutral audience, for all people who are interested in bringing in--and keeping--the best talent. In this next grouping of books, the authors lean toward guiding women executives and strivers themselves toward becoming more effective instead of concentrating on organizational change. In December of 2009, Selena Rezvani brought us The Next Generation of Women Leaders: What You Need to Lead but Won't Learn in Business School which "encourages younger women to be their own advocates when it comes to professional growth and advancement, and it provides tangible how-tos on negotiating the workplace as a woman." This is a good primer for maneuvering through the first few years of employment and promotion. High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout by Dr. Sherrie Bourg Carter comes out in November. Basing her approach on the greater number of women in leadership roles, Bourg Carter, a psychologist, echoes some of the concerns in The Female Vision, that many women in executive positions turn their backs on their careers, deciding a corner office simply isn't worth it. She strives to answer the question: "What causes them to give up, melt down, or just walk away when they seem to have it all? And more important, what can be done to prevent it?" In a similar vein, Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction by Marcia Reynolds, looks at the root causes for why women leave jobs and become "wander women," looking for greater satisfaction, trying to solve their restlessness by moving on, even when success has been or can be achieved. "Reynolds helps wander women understand the roots of their restlessness and make their wandering a conscious strategy, not a reaction." Most people think of Sun Tzu's The Art of War to be aggressive and Machiavellian, but conflict was not the message The Art of War was meant to encourage. So Chin-ning Chu wrote The Art of War for Women: It's About the Art, Not the War. Chu clarifies, "It is a set of strategic thinking skills designed to help you achieve your objective in the most efficient way possible." This is particularly helpful for women, Chu asserts, because "[a]s intelligent and accomplished as we may be, there are very few of us who are comfortable with either direct confrontation or situations where our triumph means someone else's defeat. We are natural negotiators and problem solvers; most of us prefer win-win situations to winner-takes-all." And for a picture of how a woman who has, one supposes, mastered all of the above situations, Meg Whitman, former president and CEO of eBay, has written The Power of Many: Values for Success in Business and in Life. And really, Whitman's book brings us full circle back to the points brought up in The Female Vision. Whitman based much of her decision-making on trust, not a strategy usually promoted in business schools. In her book, she encourages listening, teamwork and flexibility: strengths that women often bring to the table and should always be encouraged to use to their advantage. *** I'm sure the above list of books is an imperfect one, with many other great new books by women authors available for both the innovative organization and the women who continue to swim upstream against a tide of conventionality--and I'd love to hear about them if you've got any recommendations. But the reality is, despite the stack of books that has gathered on my desk, the progress women authors have made into the upper echelon of best selling business books doesn't put them in the majority: a glance at this month's New York Times best seller list for business hardcovers shows no women authors (or even coauthors) at all. Perhaps the paper ceiling is still well in place.

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