How Machiavelli can help women move forward
Stacey Vanek Smith
Photo credit: Sylvie Rosokoff
Why are things not getting better for women? Stacey Vanek Smith couldn’t help but ask this question as she scanned the grim statistics: 80% of CEOs are still men, boards of directors are over 80% male, two-thirds of federal judges are men and 98% of venture capital goes to men. Some of those numbers haven’t improved for a decade.
“We’re just stuck in this hamster wheel,” said Smith, business reporter and co-host of Planet Money indicator on NPR.
Many of the theories about inequality Smith encountered, including that women fear leadership positions or gravitate less to lucrative fields, seemed to have seeds of truth, but they did not suggest any way forward. When she wanted a raise or promotion in her own career, she turned to popular trading books, but the advice was ringing bogus. “It was a lot of boss stuff,” Smith said. “I tried it, but my soul died a bit and it didn’t work.”
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Then in 2018, Smith read “The Prince”, by Niccolò Machiavelli. It was a revelation. The controversial and pragmatic approach of the 16th-century Italian philosopher to gaining and maintaining power was what could finally help women, she believed, to improve on those depressing numbers. “I didn’t like giving a lot of advice,” she told me in an interview this month. “But at least I wanted women to have the tools to come off.”
My Conversation with Smith, whose book Machiavelli for Women: Defend Your Worth, Grow Your Ambition, and Win the Workplace was published on September 7, has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Annie Nova: You write that today Machiavelli is best known as “a ruthless merchant of power, devoid of ethics and compassion”. What do we have wrong with him there?
Stacey Vanek Smith: I think of almost everything. He was completely vulnerable when he wrote “The Prince”. His life had been destroyed. He worked for the Florentine Republic – he was essentially the Secretary of State – but Florence was taken over by the Medici family and he was expelled. They took all of his money, imprisoned and tortured him, and then chased him out of town. He was in his forties and had nothing. He wrote “The Prince” as a plea to the Medici family, and that was his best advice. He’s never been the most powerful person in the room, and that’s what made him such a good negotiator.
AN: I guess not many women read Machiavelli in the 1500s.
SVS: It was certainly mostly men. Many women did not even know how to read at the time. And if there were women in politics, it was very rare. It was a man’s world.
AN: Why do you think his ideas can help solve their problems in the workplace today?
SVS: I tend to be very emotional about this stuff. It seems personal and unfair. What I like about Machiavelli is that he tells me: “OK, but how do you fix it? He totally takes the emotions, morals and ethics out of the situation. So it’s like a chessboard. It was an approach that I thought was useful.
AN: You said that some of the conclusions you came to are troubling, but that you wanted to be as honest as possible. Why did this seem important to you?
SVS: Because it’s much more troubling to me that women often retire with a third of men’s savings, and women are much more likely to live in poverty. And so if you’re smiling or not talking about your new baby, if that helps, at least I want women to know.
Machiavelli for women
Stacey Vanek Smith
AN: What advice was particularly difficult to give?
SVS: When women ask for more in a job negotiation, they are automatically seen as less desirable to work with them. People don’t like it when women fight back. I didn’t like to point it out, but I think it can lend itself to some useful solutions. For example, how do you ask for more without seeming to ask for more? When you walk in be very collaborative and kind and even if you are angry or just found out that someone is making more money than you do not come in with that anger. Should we do it as women? No, but at least you have the knowledge and can decide how to handle it.
AN: Do you have an example from your own career of using one of Machiavelli’s strategies?
SVS: Yes. This opportunity presented itself at work that I didn’t really want, so I walked in without caring, and grabbed it. I kept asking for more things. There was that moment when I asked for something, and my boss said, “Well, we can’t do that,” and I was like, “Okay, no problem. I understand. ‘ Then we sat there in silence. It was so weird. And then all of a sudden my boss said to me, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ We were deadlocked, and I didn’t even know it. It was so easy! And what made it easy was to eliminate the emotions. Every time I negotiated things and got over it. Didn’t care to get them, it was going very well.
AN: But how do you get rid of the emotion when we are negotiating for something that we really want and care about?
SVS: Before you get into negotiating, make a small list of reasons why it doesn’t matter if you don’t get what you ask for, and then a few reasons why it’s really good if you don’t get. not what you ‘re asking. Maybe it’s “I’ll finally know I have to quit this business” or “I could still pay my rent and cover all of my expenses.” Jobs are emotional for us. It’s our livelihood, the way we pay our bills and support our families. If you can tone down some of that emotion, it helps.
AN: You write that Machiavelli was perhaps the greatest of all time “to determine what obstacles were preventing people from reaching leadership positions”. How can women find out what stands in their way to work?
SVS: Machiavelli is huge in getting comments. He says the way to get people to tell you the truth is to let them know you’re open to hearing it. The best example I’ve had of this came from Neha Narkhede, who founded this unicorn tech company, Confluent. Her big thing was that she just asked what she wanted, even if it seemed out of reach. She would often be told no, and then she would ask, “So what would you need to see from me to make this happen?” Some of it will be skills, and some of it will probably be, “Well, you seem a little prickly sometimes. Narkhede would make a detailed list. And then she would come back after doing all these things, and say, “So what about this raise or promotion?”
AN: You write that Machiavelli liked the attention of women. Details ?
SVS: He had millions of relationships with his wife. There are accounts that every brothel owner in Florence knew by name. He would have just been a terrible husband. At the same time, he writes with admiration several women leaders.