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Women Need More Workplace War Stories

My copy of Elizabeth Warren’s A Fighting Chance couldn’t arrive soon enough.  Since Warren has repeatedly gone up against the most powerful of old boy networks with both public setbacks and admirable successes, I was hopeful that -- this time -- the challenges for women of dealing with pathological work politics wouldn’t be glossed over. 

The thing is women are long on sharing “feel-good” stories, but short on sharing tales of how they handle conflict, power and politics. 

There are reasons for this.   

First off, research shows women are uncomfortable with talking about their accomplishments -- and men are uncomfortable hearing them do so.   As a result, one of the richest potential channels for transferring knowledge of how to handle workplace politics is obstructed.  

Second, women who can use political help don’t ask for it – or at least not often enough.  A sense of politics as distasteful and/or fear that male colleagues will see them as members of a female mafia cause many women to shy away from seeking the very knowledge that could facilitate both accomplishment and career advancement.

Third, too often young girls are still raised to view politics as unsavory rather than as a core fact of life.  As Warren writes, “Politics so often felt dirty to me.”  Special favors and cozy deals seemed abhorrent.  While she doesn’t enjoy the cut and thrust of politics, there’s no question she’s learned how to prepare for political confrontation.  

Upon being asked by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to join the five-person Congressional Oversight Panel (COP) that would monitor $700 billion in bailout funds, one congressman insisted on knowing how much of the panel’s operating budget would be controlled by his political party.  Warren pointed out to him the larger, bipartisan purpose of COP oversight in protecting families from losing their homes and livelihoods.   “Look,” he told her in a hard tone, “The game is shirts-and-skins.” 

“A vivid image immediately shot into my brain,” Warren writes:  “Boys with sharp elbows playing pickup basketball, everyone hogging the ball, one team in shirts and the other bare-skinned (No girls on either team, of course).”  American citizens were losing everything they had worked for, and this congressman wanted to know how much of the panel’s budget his party would get to control.

The primary political take-away from the stories she shares is that you can’t get anywhere in some circles until you know the game being played.  Those often have unwritten rules, Warren notes.  From this observation she derived what she calls an "essential truth," at least about Washington: "When you have no real power, go public--really public.  The public is where the power is." 

Never during or after any of my talks on politics has a man asked, “Why do we need to know this?”  Women ask and many resist having to bother with politics when they’re trying to get work done.  Men, by contrast, often delight in sharing political war stories with other men.  Sometimes they even share with women.  But men and women experience life, and therefore work, in different ways.  Learning from other women’s stories can be extraordinarily helpful. 

There are many useful political anecdotes in Warren’s book.  She has moved from a political purist to a street fighter without giving in to “dirty” politics.  That’s what many more women need to do instead of refusing to learn the ropes early and well. 

No amount of technical competence compensates for a lack of political expertise at work.  Feel-good stories are great, but they’re insufficient.  War stories teach politics, and we badly need to hear more of them.  Women who share theirs aren’t just bragging, though a little more of that wouldn’t hurt.  And sure, not everything is a battle or even a skirmish.  But show me someone who has escaped politics, and I’ll show you someone who has worked alone.

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