And now a third way for men and women at work

Justina Hart on Shere Hite's latest project to break down the gender barrier
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Shere Hite is best known for The Hite Report, her ground-breaking book about female sexuality in which she introduced a blushing world to the phrase, "clitoral stimulation". Now living in Paris, the American writer who is often labelled a "glamorous" feminist, has a new quest: how can we change the fundamental way in which men and women interrelate at work?

This is a tall order, but true to her anti-Vietnam campaigning origins, Ms Hite gets straight to the point. In the late 1990s, she argues, it is redundant to keep "banging the drum of the gender war". We have to alter the way in which we are programmed to deal with one another if we are to use male and female talents effectively. Part academic study, part interactive survey, part forum for open interviews with employees and CEOs - she invites readers to respond to questions in the book via e-mail. This is self-help of a sort, but more far-reaching than that aimed at the Bridget Jones brigade.

While those in their twenties and thirties believe they already relate to the opposite sex in a very different way from their parents' generation, many educated young women are shocked to experience sexism and sexual bullying for the first time when they switch from university to office. Ms Hite argues that the way we grow up does not reflect the way society has grown up. The workplace still endorses old-fashioned stereotypes: women are changeable and liable to run off and have children; men are power-hungry and aren't expected to hold the baby. Promote a woman in the wrong organisation and you might be accused of having an affair. In this context, it makes sense to conform.

None of this is new, of course, but Ms Hite takes the issue a step further. Her concern is that we have become so used to reports about the long hours' culture, unequal pay for women and the glass ceiling, as to be almost immune. She argues that many of these studies are superficial, while little is being done on a psychological level to help us adapt to a changing social order and prepare for a more successful future. Her objective is to break down the old oppositions of male as hunter, female as gatherer. Her main solution is that we must learn to see opposite-sex colleagues as potential buddies rather than potential love objects.

Sprinkled throughout the book are "brain software commands" along the following lines: "Software to delete: is she or he date material? Software to install: I'm in a new situation. Here's my chance to try something new!" The idea is that readers can "reprogramme" their brains like computers by memorising new attitudes that they will eventually absorb, thus saving them from ending up in the psychiatrist's chair. Although these commands do reinforce her points, they seem tritely condescending and are unlikely to be swallowed whole by a British audience.

Far more constructive are her frank interviews with top (male) bosses from around the world, which ask how changing family values are affecting the workplace, why more women aren't yet ensconced in their companies' boardrooms, and what they think of Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky. Ms Hite talks to Rudolph Giuliani, mayor and chief executive of New York City and to Dr Mark Wossner, chairman of the Bertelsmann Corporation. Some of the men are forward-thinking and eager to offer their own ideas. A CEO of a telecommunications company in Spain - a country in which some women still stay at home until they marry - says: "I believe that women's advancement is virtually unstoppable. Women will be the ones running the world in 100 years." But the German, Mr Wossner, believes that women have the right to be educated, but if they don't then combine bringing up families with working, they will "cause the collapse of civilisation". Oh dear.

Ultimately, Ms Hite is interested in human advancement not man-bashing. She looks beyond the prejudices that are damaging women's progress at work to investigate how men and women think about men and women at work, and how women deal with other women. She finds that men enjoy working with women but 67 per cent would feel threatened if there were an equal number of women on the same footing. "Men also deserve sympathy," says Ms Hite, "when so many are trying to behave perfectly with their new female colleagues." She believes that men are beginning to change their way of thinking in the way that women have done over the past 25 years.

Women have a lot to learn too: "My boss is a bat from hell, a bitch on wheels," says one secretary about her female boss. Having fixed their sights on learning how to work with men because they have wielded the power, women face the difficult task of learning to work with other women in male-style hierarchies. These can fail, says Ms Hite, because women tend to treat one another as either "bitch" or "best friend". They need to seek solidarity while being careful about not being seen as man-phobic.

In places, however, Ms Hite could learn from her own technique: Software to delete: Americanised psychobabble makes for a good business book. Software to install: in-depth interviews and analysis make a lot more sense.

Sex and Business (Financial Times Prentice Hall, pounds 19.99);