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Machiavelli’s lessons for women in the workforce

Stacey Vanek Smith Sep 7, 2021
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Italian statesman, writer and political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli, circa 1510. In a new book, NPR’s Stacey Vanek Smith applies the lessons of Machiavelli’s “The Prince” to women in 21st century workplaces. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Shelf Life

Machiavelli’s lessons for women in the workforce

Stacey Vanek Smith Sep 7, 2021
Heard on:
Italian statesman, writer and political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli, circa 1510. In a new book, NPR’s Stacey Vanek Smith applies the lessons of Machiavelli’s “The Prince” to women in 21st century workplaces. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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Despite the barriers women have broken in recent decades, equality in the workforce has not arrived. The U.S. gender pay gap has held steady at about 20% since 2000, female CEOs remain rare and the coronavirus pandemic set back years‘ worth of progress for women around the world. 

In a new book written for women seeking to buck those statistics, NPR’s Stacey Vanek Smith, host of “The Indicator” and correspondent for “Planet Money,” taps an unusual source for advice: 16th century philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli. 

“The thing that makes Machiavelli both timeless and honestly a little chilling in certain moments, is that he kind of tries to remove emotion and morality from his advice,” she told “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal. “It’s very practical. It’s sort of like, ‘Look at the situation and make decisions about how to best get what you want’ … I think he would be interested at how little certain things have changed and how applicable a lot of his lessons are.”

Click the audio player above to hear their conversation. The following is an excerpt from Vanek-Smith’s new book, “Machiavelli for Women: Defend Your Worth, Grow Your Ambition and Win the Workplace.”

I first read The Prince in college. I was taking a political philosophy class and we were reading all the greatest hits: Plato, Hobbes, Marx, Machiavelli.

I hated The Prince.

How to seize power. How to hold on to power. Should you build a fortress? Should you slaughter the locals when you conquer a new territory? (Apparently, it largely depends on whether you enjoy the same foods.) It was all so brutish and bloody and cynical and depressing. I preferred Cicero and Rousseau. They wrote such beautiful, soaring treatises on society and man’s place in it. Man — it was always man — was noble, godlike, and so full of beauty, grace, and goodness that if you just set him free to explore his own nature — let him do him — the world would blossom into a glittering, shining place of learning, leisure, art, and brotherhood.

Machiavelli, on the other hand, describes humans as “thankless, fickle, false … [and] greedy … a sorry breed …” (Chapter XVII, DTE). He condones, at different moments in The Prince, lying, bragging, the killing of children, and pretending to be friends with someone and then stabbing them in the back. At one point in the book he does a truly chilling cost-benefit analysis of whether to exterminate the local population once you’ve taken control of a new land. To his credit, he comes out against it … but just barely. The Prince was the opposite of inspiring or uplifting. It was cynical, depressing, and did absolutely nothing for my eighteen-year-old soul.

Fast-forward twenty-five years: I’ve worked in journalism organizations all over the country — starting at the Idaho Statesman as a copy editor, moving on to Idaho Weddings and Boise magazine, then to journalism school in New York. From there I went to the public radio show Marketplace, then (a decade later) to NPR’s Planet Money podcast. A few years ago, I helped NPR launch Planet Money’s daily The Indicator podcast, and serve as the host of the show. I’ve worked through the housing crisis, the Great Recession and recovery, the podcast bubble, and the coronavirus pandemic and recession. I’ve seen countless reshufflings, promotions, layoffs, demotions, firings, furloughs, Me Too scandals, backstabbings, and politicking. Watching it all play out, I have never once found myself thinking about Cicero or Rousseau, but I have found myself thinking about Machiavelli. A lot. I think that cynical, brutish Italian was onto something.

Granted, women taking advice from Machiavelli might seem strange. Like, do we really need another old white guy mansplaining power to us? “Hey, ladies, here is how you can finally be the coldhearted, murderous tyrant you always dreamed you could be!” I mean … no. But I would argue murderous tyranny is not what Machiavelli is about at all. Machiavelli was an incredibly clear-eyed, original thinker who might just be history’s first true champion of real talk. For that reason, there could be no better guide for women in the workplace. If there’s something that is in short supply amid all the outrage and girl power rhetoric, it is data, research, and real solutions. Machiavelli was a big believer in those things, and he might have been the greatest of all time at figuring out what obstacles stood in the way of people getting into leadership positions and how they could overcome those obstacles.

Of course, I can’t help wondering how Machiavelli would feel about finding himself allied with a bunch of pissed-off, ambitious career women half a world away and hundreds of years in the future.

Honestly, he’d probably be psyched. He was, at his core, a practical man, and on a practical level, empowering women expands our economy and makes us all wealthier and better off. Women being shut out of the elite circles of the workforce hurts everyone. Our economy can get wealthier, stronger, more innovative, and more sustainable, and women are key. Also, Machiavelli loved attention, and he especially loved attention from women. So, Machiavelli, from a woman in a country you barely knew existed, working a job that would make no sense to you, five hundred years in the future: This one’s for you.

Adapted from “MACHIAVELLI FOR WOMEN: Defend Your Worth, Grow Your Ambition, and Win the Workplace by Stacey Vanek Smith. Copyright © 2021 by Stacey Vanek Smith. Published by Gallery Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.

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