“Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office”, or do they?


Grace Bannister reviews Lois P Frankel’s 'Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office', a book designed to give women career advice with a dangerously victim-blaming rhetoric.

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By Grace Bannister

I recently read Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office by Lois P. Frankel and found myself genuinely shocked by some of the advice that I read, and perhaps even more so by how recently it was written. The book was first published in 2004, the year I was born, and on one level it serves as a reminder of attitudes to women in business in the early noughties. Furthermore, it demonstrates how far we’ve come as a society in terms of norms and attitudes; like watching an episode of Friends and realising how out of step so many cultural and societal reference points now feel.

This book aims to be a guide for women in progressing their careers, however the advice I read was often more to do with telling women that they are responsible for limiting their own careers. It generally neglected to mention the patriarchal and misogynistic society that existed then and which we still live in today, in addition to wider structural factors which clearly play a part in how far most women are feasibly able to progress in their careers.

Beyond reviewing this book, I hope that this article will encourage a wider discourse about the appropriate career advice and guidance that we give to women, in addition to the language we use around young girls.

I firstly do feel an obligation to note some of the more useful and practical advice given to women in this book: always advocate for yourself, don’t refuse perks, and don’t be afraid to take up space. However, even this had undertones of victim blaming and misogyny.

Frankel recognises women’s reluctance to take on “masculine” qualities for a fear of appearing macho or bossy, fears which often do come to fruition and thus are not entirely irrational. I was particularly interested in this observation, as I think there are clear examples throughout history and in the modern day of powerful women both in the political and corporate worlds who have embodied more traditionally “masculine” qualities in order to succeed and be taken seriously, or are given nicknames to note the qualities which distinguish them from the wider female population.

Every one of us will have examples: Queen Elizabeth I and the “Iron Lady”, Margaret Thatcher, immediately came to mind for me. We would hardly use this kind of rhetoric in descriptions about male politicians, as their masculinity, assertiveness, and therefore success, are seen as natural. While Frankel does make some attempt to recognise the ways in which qualities she ascribes as female can be advantageous in the workplace, this was frustratingly brief and felt cosmetic, superficial and out-of-place within the wider context of the advice in her book.

I also felt the scapegoating of femininity in terms of physical appearance within this book, transcends that of the workplace, although this is what is focussed on in the book. Frankel explains that “by emphasising your femininity, you diminish your credibility”. I find this advice particularly problematic as femininity is not something we should be villainising, or blaming women’s lack of career success on. On makeup, Frankel advises that “wearing too little can diminish your credibility as well as wearing too much”; such advice leaves women generally confused and striving for perfection on a very subjective judgement in order to achieve career progression. Perhaps we should instead focus on why physical appearance should play any role whatsoever in determining promotions and occupational progression for women. Surely we should be striving to move away from such notions, especially in settings where the suggestion is largely irrelevant and nonsensical.

There is also a continuous infantilising and patronising rhetoric in this book, calling for women to, in effect, grow-up and step away from behaviours and characteristics of girlhood. The most obvious example here is the title of this book, which addresses professional, adult women merely seeking career advice as “girls”. This is clearly demeaning, and also foreshadows the line of advice which the author will take.

The main message in this book is for women to “quit bein’ a girl”. Is this really the message we should be endorsing for young girls and women? In one particular case study about a woman under the pseudonym Susan, Frankel explains that “Susan acted like a girl and, accordingly, was treated like one”. This, I feel, really encapsulates what is wrong with this entire book: the blaming and scapegoating of women, in addition to the refusal to examine wider societal issues.

I’m hopeful many of you will feel some sense of the frustration I felt while reading this book. As a society we are all too eager to blame women for the difficulties they face, however it is prudent to acknowledge the societal change that needs to be done in order for women to have an equal footing. I vehemently believe, therefore, that more effort should be made for characteristics to become gender neutral; assertiveness not just synonymous with men, but also vice versa for many typically feminine qualities.

With this in mind, perhaps the time has come for Frankel to write a follow up? My suggestion: ‘Strong Women are Demanding Their Seat at the Table’.