(Career)

Why Every Woman Needs To Embrace Her Inner Machiavelli

“You’re not fighting. You’re twisting toward the sun.”

By Lauren Mechling
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machiavelli for women

Much has been written of late about the great "she-cession," but NPR economics and business reporter Stacey Vanek Smith has been circling this subject for years, well before the pandemic. The great gender pay gap was a story that had no place in the modern world, and yet the stories kept cropping up. The culmination of her research, Machiavelli For Women, a self-help title that hit enough nerves along my body to light up a Christmas tree, could not have come out at a better time. And by better, I mean worse. The last two years have clearly laid bare the sexism entrenched in the working world and compounded the problem, with women’s careers suffering disproportionately. I don’t know any woman — married, single, with children, with a fur-baby, you name it — who wouldn’t wholeheartedly agree.

Though Niccolo Machiavelli, the 16th-century Italian political philosopher best known for craven and amoral maneuvering, might not be the first savior to spring to mind, Vanek Smith sees things otherwise. In her refreshingly entertaining and pragmatic reassessment, she makes the case that he was — and continues to be — the perfect mentor and ally to working women the world over. “Machiavelli was an incredibly clear-eyed, original thinker who might just be history’s first true champion of real talk,” Vanek Smith writes. One of the most useful conceits of his notorious manifesto The Prince was making the distinction between the “inheriting princes” whose power is handed to them (think: Jared Kushner, or the entitled white man who breezed through your last Zoom meeting) and the “conquering princes” who have to overcome myriad obstacles in order to secure their position (and might be familiar with biases and double standards, being talked over and undervalued).

Born to a family of modest means, Machiavelli worked hard to rise through the ranks of the Florentine Republic, only to be knocked out of a job following the Medici family’s takeover of Florence. When he wrote The Prince, he was impoverished and unemployed, living in the countryside at his also exiled parents’ rundown tavern and brothel. It was then, at age 43, that he devoted himself to the study of the games people play. Throughout her book, Vanek Smith pairs Machiavelli’s shrewd quotes about the nature of power with various features of the modern workplace, showing how 16th-century realpolitik can apply to 21st-century problems.

To go by my text threads, the economy is the greatest mystery going, and making a living is the new gossip. My friends and I trade tales and tips on navigating managers, fluctuating fees, and late-stage COVID burnout (why have it all when you can do double the household work as men?). Meanwhile, a scarcity mentality has set in, and so many women have absorbed the message that they should feel lucky that anyone wants them around at all.

But what are we supposed to do with all this self-doubt? One of the most refreshing facets of Vanek Smith’s book is its author does not profess to be a guru. There is no manifesting munificence, no mumbo jumbo about #empowerment and girl bossery. Vanek Smith’s concern isn’t helping women squinch their eyes shut and envision their way to some glittery realm of riches. Strewn with economic principles, meticulously researched data, and case studies on negotiation tactics, Machiavelli for Women is a treatise in self-help’s clothing, part primer on economic theory and part practical playbook.

“I definitely approached this book like a journalist because I am not an executive and I am not the founder of a company,” Vanek Smith said when we met for coffee near her Brooklyn apartment. “And so I feel like sometimes with those books, they are not as helpful to me. I wanted to give people solutions to this stuff, but they had to be backed by data. I was like, whatever the data shows, I will convey it.”

Some of the tips she hands out are hard to take. Motherhood, for one, is best not advertised — a portion of the book informed by all the data on biases, unconscious and otherwise, that she has uncovered. “It’s a means to an end,” she said of her advice to keep kid talk to a minimum. In my case, it’s too late to do over my years as a chatty and proud new mother. But there were plenty of other indignities that had me nodding my head in recognition.

I was especially interested in the sections on negotiation, which in Vanek Smith’s view don’t have to be difficult conversations that arouse dread and self-loathing. At the outset of every assignment I line up, I always sense an unspoken expectation that I not harsh the vibe by bringing up filthy lucre. Reading Vanek Smith’s book, I almost came to see negotiating as a game to take up, like tennis! So much so that I was inspired to set up a call with one of my editors and make the case for a raise, right before I met with Vanek Smith for our interview.

The call did not go well; the editor brought up “equity” and told me that all the reporters he works with make the same fee. Borrowing from the book I’d just read, I told him why I didn’t think that a bump in payment was out of order, laying out my years of experience and dedication to my craft. He seemed annoyed, and said he’d sleep on it.

The statistics that stud Vanek Smith’s work are staggering: 80% of CEOs are men (more than 90% of Fortune 500 companies). Women start 40% of businesses and receive 2% of venture capital. Not sold? Women over the age of 65 are far more likely to be on food stamps and live below the poverty line than men of the same age.

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It’s all too wretched, and all too relatable. But drawing from the advice of her case studies and an A-list bench of negotiation coaches, as well as the timeless wisdom of Machiavelli, Vanek Smith offers a blueprint for sweet-talking your way out of being overburdened and undervalued. For starters, she urges readers to get real and pay attention to the imbalances and injustices, even if they’ve become numb to them. The effect is maddening, but also clarifying. Because once you fully comprehend how pervasive these realities are, it’s harder to take them personally. Setting out to right systemic wrongs is, in some ways, easier than psyching yourself up to spar with a single boss or stingy assigning editor.

As we neared the end of our coffee, I told Vanek Smith about the editor who sounded put out and said he’d get back to me. She immediately put herself in my shoes, and suggested lines for our next conversation. “I really love that you’re committed to equity — I think that's so important. But also, you know, I would like my pay to reflect my experience and the quality of the work I bring, which because of my years of experience and my dedication to this work is on a higher level.”

I could feel the smile breaking out on my face as I watched her brandish words like “value this relationship” and “I see a cool future for us” and “It’s really important to feel like you value me, too.” I was sold — on my own behalf. “See?” she said when she was done. “You’re not fighting. You’re twisting toward the sun.”

For her part, Vanek Smith says she is not a natural negotiator. “I don't like asking for things. It's always been painful for me. And when I've done it, I've been bad at it. I hate it.” But this might be why she is the perfect person to be imparting advice on such tricky matters. She knows the squeamishness all too well.

And so, the evening after our meetup, I was scheduled for my follow-up call with the editor whom I’d dared to ask for a raise. I girded myself for an unpleasant conversation, and pepped myself up with the reminder that even if he resented me for asking, I was moving things forward for all the women out there. The more people ask, the sooner asking won’t be seen as greedy. When the phone rang, I steeled myself for disappointment. But my editor surprised me with these four words: “I have good news.”