Book Club – ‘Why men win at work: … and how we can make inequality history’ by Gill Whitty-Collins

In January we met to discuss ‘Why men win at work:… and how we can make inequality history’ by Gill Whitty-Collins. This book looks beyond the facts and figures of gender bias in the workplace and studies the psychology of gender inequality. Described as “…an almighty set of recommendations” by Sunday Times Magazine and “A must read for everyone working for a big corporation…” by Lorraine Candy, author. Find the book online here, or try out an Exeter independent here!

Gill Whitty-Collins was relatively late discovering gender inequality, as some women are if they are privileged enough never to have experienced overt discrimination and harassment earlier in their career or have not been brought up to recognise their privilege. Multiple members have commented in past WiC meetings that they only appreciated the issues around gender inequality and other diversity issues in the workplace after commencing their PhD or postdocs in some cases. Gill Whitty-Collins says she has mentored hundreds of women during her career and through this will have gained insight into how gender inequality has affected many women. The gender spectrum is acknowledged but the simplistic men/women binary is described and generalised, which is not intended to take away from people whose experiences do not fit these generalisations; workplace diversity benefits people from all genders.

Gill Whitty-Collins takes a complex and nuanced issue and simplifies it into key themes and messages, including to-do lists for individuals and organisations. This makes the book a palatable and straightforward read, which hopefully encourages more people to read it and take onboard the messages within. Our members generally found lots in the book that they identified with and recognised from their own lives and careers.

The overarching message of the book is that men win simply due to people believing that they are best at their jobs, but of course, this isn’t true, with lots of data supporting that women are just as competent, intelligent and have just as much leadership capability.

Gill Whitty-Collins persuasively and powerfully describes the key reasons why people believe this (under which there is lots of complexity not always covered in the book, though we guess the book is intended to be as straightforward as possible).

  • First, there is the invisible power of culture. Performance correlates to how well people feel they fit in, and in a male dominated culture, women find it harder to be their authentic selves, and don’t perform as well as they could in a more diverse culture.
  • Secondly, confidence is rewarded more than competence (meritocracy is a myth than women believe much more than men).
  • Thirdly, the excellent umbrella theory; management are only aware of the top of the umbrella not what is going on underneath. They look underneath if it all goes wrong, but women need to show them what is going on at other times to be rewarded for it. Men typically take more time for self-promotion and networking, whereas women focus on doing their core job role well, often having less time for additional activities due to their higher household burden.

Some of the points raised by our members include identifying with the sentiment that ‘Men are afraid women will laugh at them, and women are afraid that men might kill them’. It is easy for the privileged in society to not realise or forget the existence of underlying dynamics that don’t affect them and considerations of those who are in a minority.

We also felt like the book includes excellent practical advice, for example, in dealing with conflict; humour can be a useful tool to defuse tension. The author’s position as an industry leader enables insightful useful practical advice.

Although the consensus is that ‘Why Men Win at Work’ is a powerful, practical, and persuasive book that is ideal for sharing with newcomers thinking about diversity, the brevity of the book means that underlying complexity is not fully addressed, nor are other protected characteristics beyond the occasional brief mention, and intersectionality of gender with other characteristics is not covered. Some WiC members feel there are points in the book that we don’t fully agree with such as the assertion that sport might be an easy fix for increasing woman’s resilience to failure, or that men are better at taking criticism (or do they often deflect blame?). Some of the ‘The science bit’ chapter is thought to be inaccurate by our members, and we would suggest using the book as an opener, and then with an engaged audience you can start more nuanced diversity conversations, and encourage the reading of books by specialists who have debunked some of the past ‘science’ on gender, e.g., Inferior, Invisible Women, Delusions of Gender and Testosterone Rex.

The additional chapter in the new edition on Covid-19 highlights that flexible working during the pandemic has not helped equality, with women taking on more household and childcare responsibilities, and so although flexible working can help some women, there need to be a range of changes to organisations and societal attitudes to improve gender diversity at senior levels in the workforce.

Gill Whitty-Collins concludes the book with tips to drive equality, for both individuals and organisations, some of which include:

For organisations:

  • The importance of gender diversity at 50:50 at all levels throughout the organisation, as well as recruiting women. Set goals and change systems and processes to deliver it.
  • Hire and measure leaders and managers on their inclusive behaviours.
  • Hiring for diversity (NOT hiring for people who fit in) to eradicate the existing dominant culture and ensuring adverts don’t bias toward existing dominant culture.
  • Paid parental leave should be not just equally available to men and women, but men should be actively encouraged (or even enforced) to take an equal share of it.

For everyone who this will help:

  • Make time for networking and self-promotion.
  • We can sound more confident by not undermining self by ending phrases with questions.
  • Realise that everyone is winging it sometimes and putting on a performance.
  • Reframe imposter syndrome and humility and thoroughness.
  • Say goodbye to perfectionism and make friends with failure.
  • Are you your partner’s servant?
  • Be proud to say you are a feminist and be your authentic self when leading.

For men (as allies of women and non-binary persons):

  • Be open supporters of women and non-binary colleagues and champion their work.
  • Feminism is good for everyone and great for business.
  • Don’t hire ‘mini-me’s!’ – hire for diversity.
  • Watch your language (don’t use words like ‘bossy’ or ‘pushy’ about women that you wouldn’t use about men) and watch your behaviour in meetings (help everyone contribute).
  • Sponsor women. Go beyond just mentoring and proactively support and champion women. Share and encourage them to seize opportunities and advocate for them for promotions and development opportunities.
  • Take your paternity leave and do 50% of the household work. You can also watch interviews with Gill Whitty-Collins talking about the book on her website.

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