Book Review: What Works for Women at Work, Joan C. Williams and Rachel Dempsey, 2014

Being a scientist is tough, but being a scientist who is female is tougher than being a scientist who is male. I know this because it has been my personal experience. I have had negative experiences during my training and work in my chosen profession that are shared by my female colleagues, but not one of these episodes have been shared by my male colleagues. I am therefore forced to conclude that most of these negative experiences are a direct result of my gender.

Equality and affirmative action have made some gains in the past decades and I am especially grateful. Without the work of these tireless pioneers I would not be a university professor. Sexism and misogyny have not gone away though; instead they have become subtle and in some ways more nefarious. Women experiencing sexism today risk “death by a thousand cuts”. One event by itself is survivable, but a lifetime of these smaller insults takes its toll. After a while you start to question whether it’s all in your head. I am being too sensitive? Pick your battles carefully. Don’t rock the boat. I’m sure he didn’t mean to come across that way, he’s a nice guy. Sexism and misogyny are clearly still a problem in science and academia. Two recent examples include the fiasco with the Ask Alice advice column at Science Careers and the illuminating interview of an academic couple in the journal Science .

What Works for Women at Work helps to articulate the subtle biases that women experience in their professional lives and is particularly relevant to scientists as a large portion of the interview data was collected from female researchers. The book focuses on four patterns that the authors identified in their data that represent challenges for women in their professional lives due to cultural and societal biases around gender. They are:

1) Prove-It-Again! I’ve already shown you that I’m a competent individual, but because I’m a women I need to prove my competence over and over and over again. If I’m meeting you for the first time you will make (often incorrect) assumptions about my competence just because I’m a woman.

2) The Tightrope. Women should behave a certain way. If I don’t act a certain way and I’m a woman then I’m trouble. Act too feminine; well you must be an idiot, so you’ll have to Prove-It-Again! Act too masculine and you are abrasive, aggressive, don’t play well with others, are difficult to work with, and lack social skills.

3) The Maternal Wall. If I don’t have kids then something must be wrong with me. Once I do have kids then I’m not serious about my career and somehow using my uterus has made me into an idiot and not fully committed to my work. If I chose to have kids then I should be at home mothering them 24/7 and therefore should “lean out” or give up my spot to someone who is fully committed to their career.

4) The Tug of War. Traditionally academia was a man’s game and was based on a monastic model of education. Do I try to play the game like the guys do? Do I do the opposite so that I can maintain my femininity? Can I attempt to change how the game is played? How are other women playing the game? Is there space for only one token woman in the game? Women often disagree with how other women are navigating this landscape; these disagreements are characterized as “cat-fights” and used to bolster the idea that women are irrational and emotional creatures.

That’s quite the stacked deck…certainly not a level playing field.

The strength of this book is that it clearly defines these biases and provides concrete examples of the behaviours that are the result of these biases that negatively impact professional women. The most valuable part of this book is that it goes one step further and provides strategies for combatting each of these biases. The authors are especially savvy since they recognize that one strategy will not work for everyone and they therefore offer multiple options that could be used alone or in conjunction through the course of a career. The strategies are realistic and take into account that you are playing a rigged game where you will likely be unable to change the rules of the game.

Part V of the book addresses the additional challenge of Double Jeopardy faced by women of colour who have to combat biases based not only on their gender, but also on their race. As a white woman this section of the book revealed my ignorance on the experiences of people of colour in academia. I need to do better.

The two final chapters of the book deal with the difficult decision of how to recognize a toxic environment and how to decide if it is worth staying, or whether the best career move is to leave. The final part of the book summarizes the book’s take home messages as 20 quick paragraphs.

I wish that this book had been available to read when I was just starting out my career in academia. It would have saved me many sleepless nights as a graduate student and post-doc, especially after I had my kids. I wouldn’t have felt so isolated and might have had better coping strategies than righteous anger. I’ll be recommending this book as a read to my trainees in an attempt to combat the “old boys network” culture that still pervades many aspects of academia. If you are a male academic wanting to be a real ally to your female colleagues, but don’t know where to start, reading this book would be a great first step. Perhaps the best analogy (especially if you are a gamer) for how “others” experience life can be found on John Scalzi’s website.


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