Advice for career women on how to plug professional holes

In The Unspoken Code, US author Marja Norris has some straightforward pointers on how best to fulfil your potential at work

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The business world was built by and for men and they are not minded to fix a system that serves them well, says author Marja Norris bluntly in a book offering advice to women climbing the slippery corporate ladder.

In The Unspoken Code, she says businesswomen are a minority needing to work hard to prove themselves (up to 60 hours a week for your first few years) and present the right attitude be taken seriously at work.

Ms Norris was a divorced single mother at 19, who trained to become a stockbroker at night and worked in finance for 30 years before becoming a coach for women on projecting their best professional selves.

"The business world was built by and for men, and men continue to dominate and dictate workplace culture," Ms Norris writes.

"We are still competing in a workforce where key rules and practices remain in the hands of our male counterparts - obscure, unclear and unwritten.

Women who don't know these unwritten rules are often doomed to a "short and undistinguished career", she says.

Ms Norris portrays a career woman's life as a leaky glass with six holes in it, representing career, health, spouse, children, friends and hobbies - fill it with water and you can never cover all the holes.

The author says she was definitely "leaking" in the areas of fitness, being on a board of directors for charities, seeing her  friends and spending quality time with her husband, areas she sacrificed while writing this book last year, tending to her handicapped mother, her career, caretaking for her husband with cancer and managing travel, entertainment and the household. A working  man's glass only has four holes, she says - career, property management, child "involvement" and fitness - because "the child, pet and elder family care typically falls on the woman".


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Luckily, the younger generation of men, she tells The National, are "more apt to pitch in", especially if they have grown up with a working mother as her son Larry did.

Until  recently the non-profit company Larry Norris runs, ERIE, had an all-female board, his mother says, and he has learned "compassion with gender differences" that have led him to support women at work.

The book is divided into a "three-part strategy" to exude confidence, be an office power player with the right communication tools and professional attire.

Get help as soon as you can afford it (a nanny, babysitter, housekeeper), Ms Norris encourages, live close to work and the things that you need, and use any systems you can to make life easier - having dry-cleaning or groceries delivered, buying pre-cooked delivery meals and auto-paying bills.

In a section on learning to communicate well, she says you should not allow "alpha" men to interrupt, telling them "I'm not finished" or "Just a minute, please". She even provides a series of scripts to commit to memory - "practiced one-liners" to help you think on your feet, such as "Your point has merit; can you explain more?" and "Thank you for your input. Let me take some time to process it and I'll get back to you."

These scripts provided the most useful advice for me in a book more about female aspiration than business. Ms Norris tells The National she takes her own advice to "defuse antagonistic 'must-win' competitiveness". "Get comfortable being uncomfortable" working with alpha personalities, she  tells us: the higher you go, the more you will encounter them.  

The  Unspoken  Code:  A  Businesswoman's  No-Nonsense  Guide  to  Making  It  In  the  Corporate  World  by  Marja  Norris  is  published  by  Greenleaf  Book  Group  Press  and available  from