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January 5, 2010

News & Opinion: In the Books - Off to the Printers VI

By: 800-CEO-READ @ 11:20 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

And now for another installment of articles from past issues of In the Books. Today we have Sally Haldorson, our resident wordsmith, up to bat. She wrote the article below for last year's annual after many years of seeing books by women authors stream into the office—too often with pink covers and suggestive titles.

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For Women Only? A Look at Trends in Business Books Written by Women BY SALLY HALDORSON Politically, 2008 will be remembered as a year when two women came closer than ever before to securing a position in the White House and when equal pay for equal work remained a weighty campaign talking point. Beyond politics, this past year represented a time of great opportunity for women in business, perhaps greater than at any point in our past. Just look at the Forbes’ 5th annual 100 Most Powerful Women in the World list “that comprises 54 businesswomen and 23 politicians, with the rest being media execs and personalities and nonprofit leaders.” So it’s surprising to me that, at the time of this writing, there are no female authors included on this month’s New York Times Hardcover Business Best Seller list. Last month, there was one, Suze Orman, who is one of the few female business authors with enough cache (and media presence) as a money strategist to be a regular on it. When I look at this year’s best seller lists, I’m bewildered that so little has changed in the world of business books over the past 25 years. When Jack and Todd compiled their list of the 100 best books of all time, they were conscious of the need to include female-authored books, yet their desire for inclusivity could not override the criteria to which they held each book. In their view, every book on their list needed to communicate a quality idea, be accessible to the reader and be applicable to contemporary business. There were a few important books by women authors that could not be included in their list because they didn’t meet the more stylistic criteria, such as Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s Men and Women of the Corporation, but there were arguably very few femaleauthored books available for them to even consider. So why is this vast incongruity between male and female business authors not being breached as gender imbalance has been in so many other areas? Is there truly a paper ceiling that hinders if not blocks a woman from being a successful business writer? And if so, where does the fault lie for this discrepancy? Authors? Audience? Publishers? Society? In my opinion, the reasons extend to all these arenas. Certainly these days there are more business books written by women—just as there are more women working in business—but, of this still small number, most of these books are niche material. Women who write business books often write them specifically to a female audience for various reasons. Certainly some women authors set out to write only to a female audience because they believe that there are limited resources available to women in business and thus they are filling avoid. And others because they truly do want to present a subject matter that applies only to the experience of women in business. But how much of the decision is influenced by a belief that publishers will only buy books that come with a guaranteed readership by a niche audience? Or how many may believe that there is a kind of cultural assumption that a general business book written by a woman will be ignored by male readers (and may very well be). Regardless of the source of the problem, the current handling of most female-authored business books by their publishers exacerbates that same problem. This is a small example of a greater issue that has been a challenge for women and feminists for 30 years or more: What does equality for women look like? With books, we can judge a book by its cover since the cover and title offer a book’s first impression and thus, its greatest marketing tool. Does equality in business books by women look like the shoulderpadded, pseudo-male business suits that women executives wore in the 1980s ala Baby Boom and Working Girl? Or does it look like the short skirts and high heels of Ally McBeal or Sex and the City? No doubt the answer to that question is “neither.” Yet those stereotypes are still featured on the covers and in the titles of business books written by and for women. It is unfortunate that references to skirts and high heels, cover images of nylon-clad legs, and thinly veiled sexual references in titles cloud the fact that women authors who write about women in business mean serious business. Could any of these books be just as effective, and perhaps garner male readers as well (if the goal is a wide readership) if handled with a more gender-neutral approach? Would they sell? Is it essential that there be a subsection of women’s business books that are truly promoted just for women and that this is the proper handling to stimulate excitement in that audience? And perhaps a converse problem exists as well. For example, one area of business books written for women by women that is seeing steady growth is the exploration of ways to balance work and family. As our business world changes and alternative work options become available through technology or job sharing opportunities, many of these books encourage women to seek out work that can accommodate their commitment to their families as well. But again, we come back to the conundrum of audience specificity: shouldn’t a discussion about alternative work options include men as well as women? The business landscape is continually changing, and opportunities for women will continue to open up for those who strive to find and take advantage of them. The same is true in business books. In 2008, there were books written by women for women who are returning from work after taking time off to raise a family, women who are balancing family with work, women who are looking for alternative approaches to work, women who want to start their own business, women who strive for the corner office, and, yes, women who want to be millionaires. And hopefully, in time for our 2009 reflection on the state of the business book industry, there will be a few more names of women authors who defied the odds and whose books appear on the nation’s best sellers lists.

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A Sampling of Books for and by Women in Business from 2008