Sunday, February 28, 2010

Femonomics reads: Gail Evans' "Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman"

I recently picked up Gail Evans' 2000 business playbook for girls, Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman: What Men Know About Success that Women Need to Learn. Unlike many business books, it is actually a quick read, so major props to Evans for that. Too many business reads are 250-page books that should have been a 10-page essay.

Evans has had a very successful career, having served as EVP at CNN, taught B-school classes at Emory, and written a New York Times bestseller. Although retired, she still offers speaking engagements, and has been booked by such multinationals as Coca-Cola, JPMorgan Chase, Microsoft, and Johnson & Johnson. She has a lot to offer any career woman (or man), and much of her advice in the book is solid.

So, the book is a good read, especially for those that have serious inter-personal issues at work, but like most such books, it should be taken with a grain of salt. The hook for this book is not Evans' qualifications, but rather the gendered nature of her advice, and it's not all good.

The book's primary explanation for the differences between men and women in the workplace is a Freudian emphasis on childhood play. According to Evans, men play sports and women play relationship-centric games with dolls, and this shapes everything from our communication style to our understanding of workplace rules and how we manage our workload. This framework is such an overgeneralization as to be almost useless in explaining behavior. Lots of women play sports, lots of men don't. Lots of other experiences shape our professional behavior.

Play Like a Man is also entirely anecdotal. Although Evans never claims to speak for every businesswoman, she also fails to qualify many of her examples. Many of her examples fall outside the norm of my experience, and lead me to believe that her industry(news media) must be particularly unwelcoming of women. (NOW agrees that the women are sorely represented across the media industry.)

Evans strongly believes that there are inherent differences in men and women that explain much of the difference in professional success. One example:
Men and women approach jobs the way they approach their relationships: men, who are polygamy-oriented, always look for multiple opportunities; women, who are monogamy-oriented, want their job to be long-lasting. We can become so attached to our company that sometimes we refuse to leave even when we're miserable...Probably because we find risk so frightening.
She also has a section describing how women are not naturally funny, cannot initiate jokes, and take themselves way too seriously - a major problem when humor so often strengthens relationships. Cringe-inducing, I know. I actually don't know any humorless women, and think that the harpy without a funny bone is a mythical creature invented to satisfy some narrative. Myself, my friends, and all of my female colleagues laugh frequently, and I hope you see some of that humor come through in Femonomics posts ;-)

The greatest failing of this book from a feminist stance, however, is that Evans promotes conforming to the status quo, even while exposing some of the worst double-standards (he can be aggressive, she can't; he can be ugly, she can't, etc.) She also denies the existence of a glass ceiling, maintaining that women are their own worst enemies. While this may be good short-term advice in achieving business success, it won't work for all women, and does nothing to advance us to a more egalitarian workplace. While I agree that you have to pick your battles, I think this is different that completely conforming to an unfair system.

I do think Evans has a lot to share with us, and her book does have some great stuff in it (particularly about having simultaneous or sequential careers, and how "opting out" to raise children is not the end). I recommend the book to men and women who are having problems at work because of inter-personal difficulties or communication failures, but it is certainly not a panacea. I'm going to read her new work, She Wins, You Win: The Most Important Rule Every Businesswoman Needs to Know. To wrap it up, here's a video of her explaining her first book to Larry King:


  1. Very interesting... I've never read it, but may do so now out of curiosity (haha)... Where does she get the idea that men are 'polygamy-oriented' and women are 'monogamy-oriented'? Does she back this up with any research?

  2. Nope, no research, it's a purely anecdotal book. To be fair, that was probably the craziest statement in the whole piece. I assume she (mis)heard it somewhere?


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