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'That's What She Said' review: The acknowledgement gap

A book review by Robbie Myers

Robbie Myers | NYT 

That’s What She Said What Men Need to Know (and Women Need to Tell Them) About Working Together by Joanne Lipman William Morrow/HarperCollins Publishers 297 pages; $28.99 In early January, James Damore, a software engineer, sued Google for workplace discrimination, accusing it of bias against conservative white men. Mr Damore was fired by Google last summer, after posting a now infamous analysis of why the company had failed to hire more female engineers. Among other reasons, Mr Damore argued that women’s biology was at fault, as it rendered them less capable than men of handling high-stress jobs. Declining to acknowledge such “facts,” Google, he wrote, had “created a politically correct monoculture that maintains its hold by shaming dissenters into silence.” One wonders what Mr Damore would make of Joanne Lipman’s new book, That’s What She Said: What Men Need to Know (and Women Need to Tell Them) About Working Together. Ms Lipman was until recently the editor in chief of USA Today and chief content officer of its parent company, Gannett, and as she documents in her book, even before the exposure this fall of the movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s decades of sexual predation, men were already pretty freaked out about what they should and shouldn’t say to their female colleagues. Ms Lipman has pitched her plea to men, as she understands that they need to be at the forefront of any systemic change, but she seems to understand that her primary readers will most likely be women. (As she discovered while researching her book, most diversity training fails because it puts men on the defensive — as if they were all guilty of crossing an ever-shifting line. It’s hard to imagine a man eyeing her book and thinking: “Just what I’ve been waiting for! Women tell me what I need to know!” The title of her second chapter, “She’ll Make You More Successful,” may have more appeal.) Ms Lipman has sympathy for men in power, writing in her introduction that “the politics and vocabulary of ‘inclusion’” have made it “more fraught than ever for men to engage in this dialogue.” It’s an unfortunate opening salvo, as one could surmise that Ms Lipman’s compassion for white men burdened by the demands of “outsiders” is the organising principle for what’s to come. It’s not. Instead, she offers a persuasive examination of the innumerable institutionalised prejudices, roadblocks and often unconscious undermining that women face in nearly every aspect of public and private life. Some of her facts will be familiar to HR directors, women’s studies scholars and reporters who cover gender equality. They will likely be revelatory to nearly everyone else. Ms Lipman, a former journalist for The Wall Street Journal and the founding editor of the short-lived Condé Nast business magazine Portfolio, is a skilled assembler of data and a graceful storyteller. She starts with a sketch of just how male by default the universe is, from the standard office temperature (set to accommodate the higher metabolic rate of 40-year-old, 154-pound, suit-wearing men) and male-centric design at Apple (the iPhone 6 Plus was too big for many women’s hands and pockets) to the potentially dangerous side effects for women of the original prescribed doses of Ambien, a drug that was tested only on men, a still-common practice.

All due, in part, to the lack of women in decision-making roles across industries and sectors, which, the data clearly show, is a financial mistake. The Google case study is among several Ms Lipman uses to propel a narrative about the uncertain status of women in the workplace. She recounts how jealousy of the woman who built the Tupperware company into a household name in the 1950s drove its founder to fire her and write her out of the company’s history, and she explains why Iceland is the only country in the world where men and women share power in almost equal numbers: After the global financial crisis of 2008, Icelanders embraced the idea that the bank failures were, as the female director of the country’s Chamber of Commerce put it, the result of a “penis competition” among bankers. Not only did Icelanders jail unscrupulous bankers but they also elected more women to government posts, including that of prime minister, and mandated that women make up 40 per cent of corporate boards. There is much to recommend this book, especially now, when record numbers of women are organising, preparing to run for office and demanding change. So it’s a bit disheartening to get to the end with only a handful of paragraphs on sexual harassment. Ms Lipman managed to fold in a reference to Harvey Weinstein, but if there’s one thing missing, it’s a consideration of how sexual harassment, and the perhaps less quantifiable issue of why men fear ascendant women, lead to the disparities that she documents so persuasively. She is optimistic that men are capable of acting not only out of self-interest — though it’s true, more female colleagues will make them richer — but out of the same moral imperative that once led privileged white men to abolish slavery and to “give” women the right to vote. Ms Lipman offers 12 “tips and takeaways” for moving forward, one of which inspired her title. To address what we might call the “acknowledgment gap,” she exhorts those paying attention in a meeting to repeat a statement that a woman has already made, to ensure she’s recognised for it. Like her other suggestions, it’s a nice idea, one that’s been circulating among working women for a while. It reinforces her conviction that we must be vigilant in matters large and small if we want to shift the culture. Here’s Tip 13: Legislate equal pay. © 2018 The New York Times News Service

First Published: Sun, February 04 2018. 22:26 IST