Book recommendations

Machiavelli, women, and the art of talking back

By Larry Gennari
Boston Business Journal

For my daughter, a high school senior, this is the season for college tours, a return to more “normal” traditions, and a focus on planning for next year’s adventures far from home. She’s smart, irrepressible, a percipient writer, and possessed of a sharp EQ she inherited from her mother. So, as she grows into a fuller person in the broader world, I’m trying to distill and dispense as much advice as possible this year, much of it borrowed, some of it learned, all of which will be met, at least at first, with eye rolls and a polite, dismissive thanks. I know, I know… you have to pick your spots. Truer still, you have to choose great sources and examples.

The late and wonderful Mary Oliver advised: “You must not ever stop being whimsical. And you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life.” NPR’s Stacey Vanek Smith, co-host of the podcast Planet Money and author of the disarmingly powerful new book, Machiavelli For Women: Defend Your Worth, Grow Your Ambition, and Win the Workplace, would agree wholeheartedly. Vanek Smith’s premise is simple and true: despite decades of progress, most women are still not thriving and rising to the highest levels of power and too many take daily disrespect, including “overtalk” (male lawyers interrupting even female Supreme Court Justices) and “he-peats” (her idea is not a good one until he repeats it) in stride. Small wonder 90% of CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies are men, corporate boards are more than 80% male, and women still earn only 80 cents for every dollar a man makes.

Using an unlikely 500-year-old political manifesto as a platform, Vanek Smith advises women to observe what’s happening, strategize, and know and then grow their own power. Her tips on negotiating for a raise, a new title, and basic respect in the workplace, are practical, smart, and clear-eyed. Every woman, and indeed, every businessperson who knows a woman, should read this timely book.

You’ll find examples of Vanek Smith’s advice in action in Michael Lewis’ riveting new title, The Premonition, a chronicle of the federal government’s chaotic first response to the pandemic and how brave and smart officials like Dr. Charity Dean, former assistant director of California’s Department of Public Health, unflinchingly cut through misinformation, bad science, and bureaucracy to implement health measures that saved lives. Lewis is perhaps America’s best non-fiction/business writer and his description of how women like Dean asked simple direct questions and weren’t afraid to lose their jobs to do the right thing is detailed, infuriating, and incredibly entertaining.

Not that moving past strong opinions and intransigent male decision-makers is anything new for women.  Our workplaces, legislatures, and public debates have long been fraught with partisanship, misogyny, and unremedied discrimination.  So says writer and Smithsonian Museum curator Jon Grinspan, author of the recent book, The Age of Acrimony: How Americans Fought to Fix Their Democracy 1865-1915, centered on the inspiring and intertwined lives of Congressman William “Pig Iron” Kelly and his outspoken, activist daughter Florence. Turns out that when smart women and good people step up in business and government, we can make discernible progress on poverty, pay, equal rights, and the things that truly matter. This is a history well worth reading with lessons worth relearning.

We need these new books, more examples, and advice from long ago. As Machiavelli would advise: find a way to make change happen — “leaning in” most definitely is not enough.

 Authors & Innovators is an occasional column by Larry Gennari, a transactional lawyer, law professor, and chief curator of Authors & Innovators, an annual business book and ideas festival.  Gennari also teaches Project Entrepreneur, a business fundamentals bootcamp for returning citizens, at BC Law School.

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