The 'self-help for women' book revolution...does it actually help?
Updated: Aug 29
Recently I decided to 'Marie Kondo' my bookshelves, so there would only be books that 'sparked joy' so to speak. I hadn't looked through them for a while and wasn’t so much surprised but disturbed to find an overabundance of self-help books. This instructional mini-library even had sub-sections: in one area was a pile of books to help me get rich; in another, a snooze-fest of classic business titles; and then there was a vast array of books to guide the ambitious woman into leadership positions. I found not one but three copies of Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg! How, when, why? I thought.
To be fair, I’ve been associated with ‘women in leadership’ for some time, so people have gifted me books to support my interest. However this whole sub-genre of ‘women in leadership’ books has always raised some real issues for me. For a start, by its very existence it means that women have more reading labour than men if they want to be up to date on how to be a successful executive. e.g. A male executive may have these seemingly non-gendered titles for bedtime reading…
But on the other side of the bed, his wife might have to top up that sort of standard business fare with books pertaining to her gender:
Hmmm - that seems unfair for a start i.e. She has double the reading.
And there are some women who fall within that odd catchall category of being an ‘Asian’, which I do having been born to a Japanese mother, and thus might also feel compelled to read this book on the left. So that's three books for me and one book for him.
No wonder women are not getting ahead as fast as men, they are too busy reading!
To help women wade through all this extra curricular reading, there is this compilation from Harvard Business Review on the right that helps women “better understand the path women must take to leadership” and “reenter the workforce after taking time off--and create opportunities for them to reach their ambitions” amongst other things. Are women supposed to be grateful for this?
There seems to be a constant stream of books coming onto the market telling women what to do (see left for some typical advice)...but when you look really closely, the messaging can be contradictory.
For example, these two seem to differ how 'nice' a woman has to be:
Are women supposed to lean in or dive in*?
*BTW: I assumed author of Dive In, Glenn Llopis, was a female (Glenn as in Glenn Close, I thought). In fact I assumed Glenn was the person pictured on the book cover. But alas, this is a picture of Glenn Llopis on the left. Anyway, I digress...
It seems no-one can even agree on the conceptualisation of the patriarchy:
One thing is for sure though, if you want to get ahead, there is a strict dress code.
A tight-fitting black suit.....
...and impractical footwear:
(In case you were obsessing about crimes against fashion, know that most of these books were written within the last 15 years. Imagine choosing to wear stilettos and a black pencil skirt to climb an actual ladder! Who chose these outfits?)
It seems that publishers of female self-help books have created a new visual gender code. While pink is commonly thought to be a ‘girl’s colour’, the publishing industry has decided that fuschia pink is for women who mean business:
If you don't believe me, you could go to a seminar like this one that combines fuschia pink and the shoe thing.
But wait there’s more. I would not be doing this literature review service if I neglected to mention the big factor women are told they do not have: CONFIDENCE.
In case you miss the subliminal messaging, here it is again with a splash of fuschia:
With all these rules regarding how to be for women it was with some relief that I came across this book which spoke to my own personal mantra:
The problem with this ever expanding cache of 'women in leadership' self-help literature is that it has become so dense, it acts like a bank of sandbags in a flood. While many would love the patriarchy to be washed away, these books are designed to hold the essential structure of it in place. In other words, women become distracted into thinking that they must change in lots of different ways to fit in to the system rather than the other way around.
I mean, look at these gems that encourage female leadership in the ministry, the oldest patriarchy in the world. Just like Eve, the woman needs to deal to her 'self-defeating behaviour' and not complain about any injustices. It's basically up to women to change.
So you can see why I did a clear out of my own collection of such female-targeted self-help material. I bundled up all my instructional ‘women in leadership' titles and sprinkled them like fairy dust around various book crossings in the neighbourhood. Two days later they had all disappeared! So my new long-term research project will be to observe if this particular suburb spawns the next wave of female business leaders. Somehow I doubt it.
There is one section of my collection that I will not part with. And that is a selection of biographies and autobiographies featuring women who have played by their own rules rather than those of the patriarchy. My personal favourites are women who lived creative and slightly outrageous lives - scandalous women like Peggy Guggenheim, Lee Miller and Idina Sackville. Sure they were born into privilege but they used this privilege not to conform to the system but to buck it, ignoring the petty judgements of others.
In the words of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Laurel Ulrich "Well-behaved women seldom make history".
But don't let me tell you what to do. Listen to your inner compass about who you want to be, what you want to do, and become that. And then don't write a book about it.