Games Mother Never Taught You – Corporate Gamesmanship for Women

Betty Lehan Harragan, Warner Books, 1977 (Reissued in 1989 by Grand Central Publishing)


This book is intended for women are entering or already work in a typical corporate world, especially in larger organizations in the for profit sector and hospitals where hierarchy and culture may be entrenched in a traditional masculine mindset and design work this same way.

The book serves as a ‘boot camp’:   Chapters are organized around sports and game themes (yes, start with most men’s reference points) with many sub-headings within each chapter to guide you to the part of the book you might make best use of given your situation.  On the whole, a reading from front to back would be most helpful.

The author describes her approach as a ‘how to think about it’ resource rather than a ‘how to do it’ resource.  Her view is consistent with the approach of the Accelerated Learning model that focuses on changing behaviours through changing thinking.

Below, read a particular section of the book, extracted as an example, that relates to women taking charge in positions of command:


Chapter 12: Take Charge – Assuming the Habits of Command, pp. 307-308

Somewhere along the line, women must develop the habits of command if they hope to advance into positions of real responsibility.  Exerting control and authority easily and naturally is a new experience for most women.  Like any other skill, it must be learned and practiced.  Obviously women have special problems in learning how to be authoritative and self-confident because they must first overcome the disabling effects of female upbringing.  Without belabouring the point, which has been well covered by other authors, it is manifest that a woman who has been taught the ‘typically feminine virtues’ of being sweet, helpful, agreeable, sentimental, loyal, obedient, and self-effacing is going to have more than her share of troubles getting recognized as a competent leader in a business group.

The popularity of assertiveness-training workshops for women as well as the proliferation of books on the subject testifies to women’s willingness to rehabilitate their crippled psyches.  Shifting from non-assertive to assertive behaviour is becoming a current fad.  The phrase has been picked up quickly by the business world, and a favourite management platitude these days is, ‘women must learn to be more assertive’.  Once management hands out free advice to help women get ahead, anyone who is familiar with the corporate politics gets very leery – there’s a catch in here someplace.

The catch isn’t hard to find.  Assertiveness is a valuable personal trait for women to develop (like motherhood and apple pie, it can be lauded), but it’s not much of a threat in the business game.  Assertion, after all, means to insist on recognition of oneself, or to maintain your right to legitimate feelings, needs, and ideas by making positive statements.  As now taught to women, assertiveness means to ‘express yourself to get what you want but don’t make anybody mad in the process; be nice about it!’  Especially, warn the assertiveness trainers, don’t slip over the line and become aggressive.  Assertiveness is nice, aggressive is naughty.  If you are aggressive you are disposed to vigorous activity and are inclined to start an attack or encroachment.  Management will buy that trade-off with no qualms – be as assertive as you want, as long as you’re not aggressive and pose no threat to the established players.

For some unknown reason the personality trait ‘aggressive’ has become identified with the word ‘hostile’ in the female vocabulary, whereas ‘aggressive’ in terms of competitive sports and individual games is distinctly non-hostile.    The football or baseball team which plays an aggressive winning game is admired and respected by the opponent team; many fierce competitors on the links and courts and chess tourneys are close personal friends.  Champions like other champions.  They are worthy opponents.  They are aggressive players who are out to win.  Aggressiveness is a positive trait for game players.