Books and Arts

Nature 462, 165-166 (12 November 2009) | doi:10.1038/462165b; Published online 11 November 2009

Tips from the top of the career ladder

Asha Gopinathan1

BOOK REVIEWEDBeyond the Boys' Club: Strategies for Achieving Career Success as a Woman Working in a Male-dominated Field

by Suzanne Doyle-Morris

Wit and Wisdom Press: 2009. 298 pp. £13.99, $22.99

Tips from the top of the career ladder


Career success: physicist Athene Donald.

As an executive coach who works with companies to recruit, retain and develop their female talent, Suzanne Doyle-Morris has long had an interest in issues concerning women in male-dominated professions, including academia and science. In her book, she offers advice to anyone who wishes to "understand the boys' club and move beyond it".

Doyle-Morris interviewed 21 senior women from a range of backgrounds to discover what made them survive and thrive in their workplaces. Her interviewees, spanning a wide age group, included a senior diplomat, a retired archaeologist who led digs in Iraq, and academics such as Athene Donald, professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge and 2009 recipient of a L'Oréal/UNESCO Women in Science award.

The difficulties women face in rising through their professions, Doyle-Morris argues, stem largely from old career structures. Too often it is assumed that an employee, usually male, has a partner, usually female, who will attend to domestic responsibilities, leaving the employee free to focus on work. As more women enter the workforce, they realize that this model does not suit them and they are made to feel inadequate if they do not play by the rules of this game.

Moreover, career advancement is not based entirely on merit. "People who get ahead are those who make others aware of their wins, and those who spend time developing relationships and their own personal profile," Doyle-Morris explains. As 80% of consumer decisions are said to be made by women, it makes good business sense for companies to put more women in senior positions. But even so, the rise to the top can be slow, especially in the science and engineering professions. In the United Kingdom, Doyle-Morris says, about 70% of women holding degrees in science, engineering or technology do not currently work in these fields.

In addition to focusing on how individual women can develop strategies for success, Beyond the Boys' Club highlights effective government legislation. In Norway in 2002, for example, the government proposed legislation requiring 40% female representation on companies' executive boards, and by the deadline of 2008 the target had been reached.

Quotas and affirmative-action policies are often frowned upon by sceptics, who argue that this will lead to a loss of quality. But Doyle-Morris points out that men have always benefited from favours within male networks. "Most men know that building relationships for mutual benefit is the only way to build a career," she notes, so women should not be afraid to do the same.

The book explains how best to develop these relationships. It offers tips on how to raise your profile, build your image, network within and outside the organization, take appropriate risks, negotiate office politics and choose a mentor or coach.

Although Doyle-Morris addresses most of these strategies to women working in companies, two professors add advice from academia. They discuss mentoring in universities and the use of flexible working time in their laboratories. They suggest specializing in a field other than your PhD topic during the postdoc years, and finding cross-disciplinary collaborations. However, they don't address more particular problems, such as how to complete your doctorate if you suffer sexual harassment from a supervisor, or how to maximize visibility for your work in order to gain an influential position such as dean or president of a university.

Doyle-Morris has great experience and a passion for her subject. I hope she will write a sequel offering strategies for women in academic science — and that the sequel will offer insights from women belonging to different class backgrounds, races, nationalities, sexual orientations and physical abilities.

  1. Asha Gopinathan is a researcher in neuroscience based in Trivandrum, India.

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