29 Aug 2019 03:19pm

Book reviews: improving management

Management guru Ann Francke argues in her new book for gender diversity to go further than just the boardroom

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Caption: Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, published Lean In

Create A GenderBalanced Workplace

Ann Francke, Penguin Business Experts Series

In 2013, Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, published Lean In – a book which provided advice for women in business based on her own experience. Critics complained its real message was “change the woman, not the system”.

Meanwhile, more women got seats on boards – but employees in Silicon Valley staged a rebellion against their companies’ diversity policies. In Create a Gender-Balanced Workplace, Ann Francke, the chief executive of the Chartered Management Institute, tries to make sense of all these trends.

Like Sandberg, she has the peppy style you might expect from an industry insider. She regrets the trend of “opt-out syndrome”, where frustrated women quit their jobs to start their own businesses instead. Her manual is sprinkled with self-help mantras like “fake it till you make it” and “do, don’t stew”.

But beneath this can-do attitude (not surprising from a single mother who would get up at 4.30am, fly to Europe for business meetings and fly back in time to put her child to bed), Francke has a serious warning about complacency.

Companies that comply with the widely-publicised campaign to put women on boards have done nothing about other senior leadership roles. A female tech pioneer who, in the 1960s, almost exclusively hired women, laments that in the 21st century, senior roles were increasingly held by men. “It looks pretty [much] like any other corporate,” she points out. Women are underrepresented in some of the most rapidly growing sectors – high-tech and engineering.

Frustrated women who do want to stir things up at work will find plenty that is useful in this book, which is stuffed with examples, statistics and business-friendly arguments (the most gender diverse firms are 21% more likely to outperform less diverse competitors). Whether it will cut through what Francke dubs business leaders’ “gender fatigue” is another matter.

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know

Malcolm Gladwell, Allen Lane

“Why write a book about a traffic stop gone awry?” Malcolm Gladwell asks at the beginning of Talking to Strangers. In 2015, a white Texas cop pulled over an African-American woman called Sandra Bland for a minor offence.

Tensions escalated, Bland was jailed, and three days later she killed herself. Rather than zeroing in on institutional racism, Gladwell circles the encounter by looking at how strangers interact. The prosecution of Amanda Knox for her flatmate’s murder was based not on evidence but the idea that she “didn’t grieve properly”.

The success of Friends may be down to the actors perfectly capturing human ideas of what emotions look like - even if that’s not how we actually act in real life at all. What we do when drunk isn’t universal but reflects cultural expectations. Our default assumption is that people tell the truth.

If Gladwell is serious about focusing on a traffic stop, this book falls short (he does explore the history of stop and search, but spends just as long talking about Sylvia Plath’s preferred suicide method). Still, few readers will begrudge the detours. Talking to Strangers may not transform policing, but it is certainly a fascinating hike through human psychology.

Julia Rampen is a writer and editor specialising in culture, politics and finance