Book of the week: Gender prejudice still lurking in the office

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The Independent Online
Sex & Business

By Shere Hite

(Financial Times Prentice Hall, pounds 19.99)

THIS IS the business book version of the film When Harry met Sally: it addresses the fundamental question of whether men and women can be just friends at work. It should more properly be entitled "Gender and Business" but that would probably produce many fewer sales.

The theme of this book is important, however, as it explores one of the seismic pressures caused by tectonic shifts in Western society. Women in the workplace is another example of our lifestyles being ahead of our values. It is now "normal" behaviour for women to go out to work, they work longer before having children and go back to work sooner afterwards. Historical inequalities remain but the number of managerial women is growing as fast as the number of men in part-time jobs. Despite this happening all around us this book does not feel out of date, addressing the problems in the work place of unequal treatment, lack of promotion and sexual harassment.

Yet Shere Hite does not treat us to a diatribe of political correctness and a screaming of `unfair'. This is a well researched and balanced piece that seeks to come at the issues from all angles: women to women relationships, wives out of the workplace and the CEO as father figure are all examined. For those who want to use it as such, this is a manual for improved thinking in the workplace. Throughout the book we are given examples of software (sic) to be deleted and what to replace it with. If only it were that easy. Given that we have had millennia of man as hunter gatherer and woman as family carer, and less than two centuries of the industrial and post- industrial workplace, some of our attitudes are hardwired into the operating system (to continue the analogy) rather than simply a matter of software. That is not to say that they can't be changed but it will take more than a manual of well-intentioned advice.

The basic thesis of Sex and Business is that the family has created a set of archetypes about men and women that are no longer appropriate for the modern workplace.

Take this example of software to be deleted: "Career women are not as moral as wives and mothers, but wives and mothers are boring compared to career women." Women who want to get on are therefore restricted to two basic approaches in the workplace: become a "ball-breaker" (ie more like a man) or play the flirt or the "good sweet daughter". Shere Hite goes to lengths to show this as the result of men's expectations of women as well as women's own interpretation of their choices. The no-wins are all too familiar: women who dress not to get noticed don't get noticed and those who dress to get noticed are not taken seriously. Many of these problems are also experienced in women's relationships with other women.

The argument begins with an almost Freudian explanation of how men and women see each other as a result of the dynamics of traditional family life. We transfer the family roles into the workplace and, lo and behold, they are found wanting for running a modern business. The software reprogramming that is proposed really only captures and states the dilemmas, it does not get to the roots of the problem. However, Shere Hite has been to the roots of the problems in her other work and in the research for this book.

It is frustrating that we are treated to a business book here and not a more rounded work. The form of the business book is to take a simple theme and introduce variations around it. This means that it is often repetitive (as this book is), which allows the business reader to concentrate on the first chapter and skim through the rest.

Here, we are given some tantalising glimpses of a much broader analysis that are abandoned in the creation of a business book. For example, we could see more development of the idea of the democratisation of the family. Shere Hite observes that we are constantly hearing about the family as a troubled institution. She does not accept the knee-jerk reaction that this means we should preserve family values; it is time for the family to catch up with society. This is fascinating stuff but goes unexplored when I think it would be a much more fruitful avenue for understanding and correcting the imbalances of the workplace. We are offered a new "collegiality" as a model of working and friendship between men and women; I cannot help believing that these new models will not develop in the workplace alone but will grow alongside the evolution of family relationships. Attitudes will follow behaviour and not the converse.

My two niggles with the book are firstly the almost exclusive concentration on the office environment. There is a small but all too brief mention of small businesses run by women and almost no mention of the new service economy. I would argue that these two environments offer a playing field for women which is much more level than the stereotype (almost sit-com) territory of the office. I was also irritated by the assumption that future women executives would have MBAs and that they would be the ones to penetrate the glass ceiling. It is clear from much of the rest of the book that a formal education qualification is not the problem.

Paul Edwards

The reviewer is the Chief Executive of The Henley Centre, a consumer consultancy