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Book Review: What Works for Women at Work

Sharon Refvem, FAIA, LEED Fellow, kicks off the WIA Silicon Valley's first Book Review with this special post. 

Book Review: What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know

by Joan C. Williams and Rachel Dempsey

It has been a very long time since I last wrote any type of book report or review, but I have been inspired to do so both by the caliber of the work being done on the topic of gender equity, some of which is made so accessible in What Works for Women at Work, and the wonderful women who make up the AIA Silicon Valley’s Women in Architecture (WIA) committee.

What Works for Women at Work (WWWW) was written by a mother and daughter team and is supported by extensive research and interviews with over 100 highly successful women, including some who they refer to as the Wise Women, a concept that I will return to later.  Joan Williams is a highly accomplished Professor of Law at Hastings College of the Law at Cal and Founding Director of WorkLife Law. Her daughter, Rachel Dempsey, is a writer and attorney. The multi-generational perspectives that the authors provide adds an unexpected depth to the findings.

The book expands on what the authors identify as the four main types of bias experienced by women in the workplace and provides strategies to counter them. Most of the examples come from the legal profession, but they are applicable to any professional workplace that is, or was, traditionally male-dominated. While every woman may not experience every type of bias over the course of their career, few will escape all of them. They name the basic patterns of gender bias:

  • Prove-It-Again
  • Tightrope
  • Maternal Wall
  • Tug of War

The book is based on the premise that understanding gender bias can be powerful and a necessary first step to get past that bias. Two paths are highlighted in the book.

“Path one is to educate yourself. If you understand the biases working against you, you can learn how to “hack” them –manipulate them to lessen their impact or even work them to your advantage. Path two is to educate others. As long as we ignore unconscious biases, they’ll remain invisible…”

The book is divided into seven parts, four of which breakdown the different types of bias, include an action plan for countering that particular bias, and are summarized in this review. The remaining parts of the book are devoted to:

  • Double Jeopardy? – Touching on the experiences of women who are also people of color
  • Leave or Stay? – Discussing the dilemmas associated with making this decision
  • 20 Lessons – Listing the authors top 20 takeaways from their work on WWWW

Below is a brief recap of the four patterns as well as some of their subcomponents and countering strategies:


“Women are forced to prove their competence over and over, whereas men are given the benefit of the doubt.”

This section is packed full of familiar examples and unfortunate research results.  For example, studies show that men are judged on their potential while women are judged on their achievements, and that women are generally evaluated less favorably for work of comparable quality. Even on a team, independent of their actual contributions, women are assumed to have provided less input and leadership. There is also a disproportionate penalty for error for women, which, combined with lesser recognition for their contributions, translates into fewer opportunities. This outcome has cumulative consequences over the course of a career.

To lighten the descriptions of the biases a bit, there are boxed asides and lists of comebacks to use when facing bias. Some I found helpful, while others, like the second example below, seemed a bit too passive aggressive. These are a couple of the options listed as comebacks for someone who has stolen your idea and presented it as their own in a meeting:

  • “I think that’s what I said. If you’re disagreeing with me I want to understand what you are saying.”
  • “You may have been on your iPhone when I made that point.”

The action plan for Prove-It-Again bias includes the following strategies:

  • Beat the stereotype
  • Get over yourself
  • Know your limits
  • Address the bias with kid gloves
  • Play a specialized technical role

The example for “Get over yourself” is one of many passages that spoke directly to me. It highlights the difference between how men and women soccer players deal with a poor performance. Men tend to externalize the reasons – it was bad officiating, etc. – and shrug it off, while women internalize the failure. I witnessed this very phenomenon during my years on the women’s soccer team at the University of Oregon. It was one of the many life lessons I took away from that formative experience.

Women need to own their successes and learn to get past their failures to create a positive future cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy.


“Women risk being written off as “too Feminine” when they’re agreeable and “too masculine” when they’re aggressive.”

Women are forced to play by different rules in the workplace. Certain behaviors that are tolerated or even expected from men will earn a woman a reputation for being difficult to work with or ill tempered. There is a fine line for women between being perceived as nice but ineffectual, and competent but too aggressive or even bitchy. Either can block advancement. Shelley Correll, a sociologist at Stanford, is quoted on this topic:

“You have to be recognized for your competence. You have to have influence. You have to get other people to be able to go along with your ideas. You need to gain access to informal information or insider information. And you have to do all of this while avoiding being threatening, not upsetting the hierarchy, and creating the sense that you fit in the organization.”

The way women dress, carry themselves, or even answer questions sends a message. It is important to recognize what that message is and, if it is not the message you want or intend to send, make adjustments. Though often easier said than done, I have advised women for years to be conscious of their voices, especially during sensitive conversations. This was covered in WWWW as well – low and slow is the goal. The moment a woman’s pitch goes up or she begins speaking too quickly, the conversation can be lost. According to an article quoted in the book, Margaret Thatcher took voice lessons when she became the leader of the British Conservative Party in 1975 for this very reason.

Fair or not, studies show that women who have strayed too far onto the masculine side of the tightrope would do well to combine competence with likability, because women depend on both to be influential. For those with the opposite tendency, the recommendations include say no to office housework –  party planning, cleanup, etc. –  and stop apologizing. One of the Wise Women advised, “If you have to choose between being respected and being liked, go for respect every time.”

Maternal Wall

“Women with children are routinely pushed to the margins of the professional world.”

The maternal wall is just what it sounds like - become a mother and suddenly you start from scratch and have to prove your commitment all over again. The bias against women with children is especially remarkable in comparison to the lack of bias towards men with children (unless the men take a noticeable share in childcare duties). It is often seen as culturally acceptable and even considerate to overlook a mother for more complex or challenging assignments. However, this affects her career and prospects in a very real, immediate, and long term way.

There are some pieces of good news on this topic. Research shows that while reduced work hours results in negative earning impacts, flexible work arrangements that don’t involve too much lost “face time” do not. Finding a solution that works for you requires careful planning and regular communication.

Although this bias is one of the most common, it is the least challenged. Strategy number one for countering the Maternal Wall bias is letting people know that you remain committed to your work. Do not assume they know this or the void will be filled by biased assumptions or expectations. Other strategies include Sheryl Sandberg’s advice not to “leave before you leave”, to set limits, and to present solutions, not problems.

Know that the struggle is ultimately worth it. “Despite the stress caused by work-family tensions, numerous studies confirm that having a job keeps women happy and healthy.”

Tug of War

“All of the above pressures on women often lead them to judge each other on the right way to be a woman.”

Sadly, this bias describes women turning on other women and is more-or-less unique to women.

“Two 2011 studies found that a common strategy for women experiencing gender discrimination in the course of their careers was to stereotype, distance themselves from, and criticize other women.”

This is sometimes the path of least resistance. In an effort to fit in, some women find it easier to take on biases or at least not challenge them when they are present. In some cases this type of behavior is caused by a form of tokenism, the perception or reality that there is limited room for representation at the top.

“The irony of course, is that there’s been a lot of research that’s shown that as more women move into positions of power, the better it gets for all women. When women are in the minority, sex becomes a defining characteristic, which makes all the biases… much worse.”

The Tug of War bias is experienced differently by different generations and is strongly influenced by workplace culture. Just a few short decades ago, women had to be ready to challenge norms and cross lines to succeed. Younger women today enter the workforce with the expectation that things will be balanced and fair. While there is still more work to be done to reduce bias in the workplace, this shows that progress has been made.

One of the final pieces of advice offered in this section is something that many of us already know either by instinct or experience:

“…become involved in a women’s group or initiative ….a women’s group can serve as a remedy for isolation, as well as a place to address some of the problems women confront.”



Rather than trying to capture the many pertinent points in the final chapters: Double Jeopardy?, Leave or Stay?, and 20 Lessons, I leave it to those who choose to read the book to discover the wisdom there.

I found this book both enlightening and, in some instances, validating. It describes observations and confirms choices I have made along the way. Reflecting on some of the insights, I realized that though I have had a couple of female mentors during my career, I have never actually worked for a woman, nor had a female role model at any of the places I have worked. There have been many times that I had to take my own best shot at how to deal with a specific situation and some of those choices, good and bad, I found reflected in this book.

The authors’ choice to call on their circle of Wise Women for insight acknowledges the power that women can find in each other. It is part of what the Women In Architecture committee has discovered and, in a more informal way, what the Green Goddess Garden Parties, convened by Cal, Professor of Architecture Gail Brager, do for the outstanding collection of women in green who live and work in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Whether you are interested in the broader topics this book covers or insights into a particular type of bias, What Works for Women at Work distils extensive research and interviews into an accessible and thoroughly readable 300 pages. For those interested in a deeper dive, the meticulously listed notes section provides access to the research behind the writing. I recommend both the book and a search for your own personal circles of Wise Women.



Wait there is more… A companion workbook was also published to help women put the ideas in WWWW into action. It has sections addressing how-to: Write a resume, negotiate a salary, make connections, get promoted, know when to leave a job, and more. One can work through the over two dozen exercises one-by-one or focus on an exercise that addresses a particular issue. Perhaps another of the Wise Women of WIA will take on writing a companion book report.