Earlier this week, a reader tweeted a complaint that a book list I posted back in 2015 didn't include any female authors. In retrospect, it was a valid complaint, but when I tried to clarify the situation via Twitter, I botched the job, hence this post.

The post contained a handful of very short, old-timey books that have been around basically forever (the earliest from 1903). It was an unusual post (for me) in that it contained only male authors, due to the time window I was thinking about.

Usually my book posts are gender balanced, not because I'm including token women, but because I don't think about who wrote a book but rather if the book is worth reading. For the record, though, here's a partial list of women authors whom I've recommended:

  • Alexandra Watkins: Hello, My Name is Awesome

  • Allie Broch: Hyperbole and a Half

  • Andrea Wulf: The Invention of Nature

  • Angela Duckworth: Grit

  • Anna Quindlen: A Short Guide to a Happy Life

  • Arianna Huffington: Thrive

  • Bari Tessler: The Art of Money

  • Caroline Webber: Queen of Fashion

  • Dava Sobel: Longitude

  • Denise Kiernan: The Girls of Atomic City

  • Denise Lee Yohn: What Great Brands Do

  • Dorie Clark: Stand Out

  • Ekaterina Walter and Jessica Gioglio: The Power of Visual Storytelling

  • Elizabeth Kolbert: The Sixth Extinction

  • Emmanuel Dagher: Easy Breezy Prosperity

  • Eula Biss: On Immunity

  • Jackie Woodside: Calming the Chaos

  • Jacquie McNish: Losing the Signal

  • Jessica DiLullo Herrin: Find Your Extraordinary

  • Jill Konrath: Agile Selling

  • Joanne Black: Pick Up the Damn Phone

  • Kit Yarrow: Decoding the New Consumer Mind

  • Tess Vigeland: Leap

  • Linda Richardson: Changing the Sales Conversation

  • Michelle Alexander: The New Jim Crow

  • Naomi Klein: This Changes Everything

  • Nely Galan: Self Made

  • Pam Didner: Global Marketing Content

  • Patricia O'Connell: Woo, Wow and Win

  • Rachel Swaby: Headstrong

  • Rebecca Solnit: Men Explain Things to Me

  • Sheryl Sandberg: Lean In

  • Susan Jeffers: Feel the Fear...and Do It Anyway

  • Sylvia LaFair: Don't Bring It to Work

  • Terri Morrison: Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands

These books should be in everyone's business library, not because they were written by women, but because they're excellent books.

You'll notice, though, that most of the books listed above aren't in the "a woman writing for women" genre. Why? Mostly because I don't feel qualified to comment upon such books because I'm outside of the intended audience.

Frankly, I don't think I can add much--or anything, really--to a discussion of whether The Girl Code (for instance) is worth reading. How the heck would I know?

That being said, it seems to me that some "by a woman for women" books do women a disservice by focusing on how they must change their personal behavior rather than on taking collective action and driving legislation. What's needed today, I think, is less "you go!" and a lot more "go vote!"

Also, some "by a woman for women" books tend, I think, to let men off the hook by foisting the primary responsibility for change onto the women (e.g., Cheryl Sandberg's​ Lean In) rather than where it belongs--on the men.

This problem also occurs during discussions of gender pay disparity, which tend to blame women (e.g., "they don't ask for raises enough," "they choose family over work") rather than on the hostile work conditions that result from a male-dominated corporate culture.

Beyond that general critique, I have three observations about the "by a woman for women" genre:

First, it seems to me that targeting a book towards 50 percent of the population inevitably limits sales of that book. While some books (Lean In comes to mind) do sometimes break through into bestsellers, many do not.

Now, it could be argued that even though books written by men today aren't usually positioned as being "for men," they tend to reflect a male viewpoint so strongly that they might as well be. I think there's some validity to that argument.

It could also be argued that men should be reading books that are positioned and marketed "for women" because that will help them understand how the business world looks from the female viewpoint. Also a valid argument, I think.

Indeed, around the same time as the "worth more than an MBA" post, I posted "The Top 10 Books for Women in 2015," where I specifically gave reasons why men should read these books. For example, in my review of Headstrong by Rachel Swaby in that post, I note that:

Why Men Should Read It, Too: The difficulties many of these women faced--simply because they weren't men--puts perspective on how unconscious gender discrimination holds back women today.

However, the point of market positioning is to reach a target audience by excluding those outside of the target. However much one might wish it were not the case, very few men are likely to pick out a "by a woman for women" book at the airport newsstand.

Second, I note that the "by a woman for women" genre often features book covers that resemble fashion shoots rather than traditional headshots. A great example here is Ivanka Trump's Women Who Work.

I think this marketing ploy tends to perpetuate the stereotype that, to be taken seriously, a woman must be conventionally attractive.

This is an even bigger issue today than it was 20 years ago, because open plan offices (now the norm in the corporate world) make many women feel, now more than ever, as if they're perpetually "on display."

Third and finally, some "by a woman for women" books espouse a "you can have it all" work/life balance philosophy that is only achievable by women wealthy enough to have personal assistants and nannies. I'm not sure this is entirely helpful. 

Overall, though, I'm not certain that worrying about how books are marketed and whether there's a woman author in an old and obscure blog post is worthy of a great deal of attention at a time when the fundamental rights of women and minorities are under direct attack.

My main thoughts about diversity nowadays aren't focused on gender balance in book lists (which I tend to avoid writing now anyway) but on whether my daughter might get scooped up by ICE or whether my son might get shot for driving while black.

Published on: Jul 14, 2018