Robin Givhan is a staff writer for The Washington Post.
The new book that Ivanka Trump has written, “Women Who Work: Rewriting the Rules for Success,” is trite and tedious. So focused on exhorting readers to define success on their own terms, it manages to be both humorless and comically removed from the realities of life for the broad swath of women who work 9 to 5 or who struggle along with minimum-wage jobs.
A narrow focus on women who live upper-middle-class lives is not uncommon in the genre of work-life manuals, in part because those books mostly begin with the premise that women can improve their status in the office by being savvier in how they wield their power. It’s more complicated and challenging to offer counsel to those who are ostensibly powerless. And presumably, there’s less profit.
Still, it’s worth pressing on through the cliches and aphorisms because Trump is not just another legacy executive offering up warmed-over advice to burnish her brand while failing to engage in the difficult personal work of acknowledging the ways her inherited wealth and social connections have fueled her success.
She is the first daughter and an adviser to her father, President Trump.
According to the cover notes, “Women Who Work” was written before the results of the 2016 election were known and while Ivanka Trump was still officially an executive in the Trump Organization and head of her own fashion brand. Now, she is settled in Washington and has taken on the cause of female empowerment in the workforce.
And so, a book that would under other circumstances probably be just another slim volume in the self-help section becomes something more. Perhaps it can serve as a loose guide to what might inform her thinking on her pet projects: investment in female entrepreneurs, maternity leave, the gender gap in technology and so on. At a minimum, perhaps it can offer additional clues to her personality and temperament.
The tone of “Women Who Work” is as calm and soothing as the public Ivanka Trump. A harried Ivanka? A disheveled Ivanka? Not in these pages. Can a book be poised? If so, this book is an exemplar of poise. It is also more than 200 pages of nonspecific reassurance that everything will be great.
Trump offers no fresh insights for women in the early stages of their careers. How do you make a case for a higher starting wage? Do your research and be confident, she writes. How do you succeed in professional environments that seem to value face time in the office over quality of work? Communicate your accomplishments to your boss, she advises.
And what about a more-seasoned professional looking to rally her stagnant troops or considering instituting a flextime policy? There’s no guidance other than just, you know, do it.
The book’s language is weighed down by business buzzwords, all of which have the effect of draining a sense of humanity from the pages. At times, the book reads like a transcript from “The Apprentice.” At others, it has the tone of a business school case study. Every activity, from attending a child’s recital to scheduling a meeting with contractors, is a “task.” There are “deliverables” instead of accomplishments. “Architect” is a verb. Every encounter is leveraged.
And there is this assessment, offered near the book’s halfway mark: “The opportunity cost of not being with my kids elucidates my priorities in great relief, causing me to be tremendously focused.” I presume that means being a mother has made Trump a better manager. But does her appointment to play with her son Joseph and his cars for 20 minutes every day count as quality time or just a “task”? Is finding quality time with one’s child just a matter of getting a color-coded calendar?
“Women Who Work” reads a bit like a collection of excerpts from books by most every contemporary author who has had something to say about balancing work, ambition, family, children and one’s sense of self. Trump is a collector of information. She references the work of Anne-Marie Slaughter, Sheryl Sandberg, David Brooks and virtually every TED talker even remotely concerned with self-actualization.
But Trump also quotes designer Tory Burch, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Winston Churchill, Toni Morrison and the Dalai Lama. One can surely find inspiration in all sorts of unlikely places, but Trump’s ability to find glass-ceiling-busting empowerment in Morrison’s novel “Beloved,” about a runaway slave who kills her child rather than seeing her enslaved, is quite a feat.
Trump proclaims again and again that she aims to help women — and men — become their best working selves. Men, by the way, exist in this book as parenthetical interjections. She encourages women (and men!) to set their own personal priorities. She encourages women (and men!) to define success for themselves. But this book is really about Ivanka Trump — not the person but the brand. And that brand is rooted in shiny, glamorous success, not the messy, exhausting human cost of business.
When Trump offers advice on surviving a layoff, she counsels women to negotiate severance, speak to an attorney and make sure any noncompete clause that might have been in their contract is voided. That’s fine advice for, say, a fashion industry executive, but not especially relevant for someone who just had her factory job jerked out from under her.
Most of us find it hard to see beyond our own reality. Everyone engages in platitudes. But Trump has the president’s ear. And she has promised to speak to him about improving women’s work lives. In her book, she underscores the value of a wide network of advisers. Mentors are valuable. Reliable and affordable child care is essential. Employers should not treat child-rearing as an inconvenience. All good and true, but there are few — well, actually there are no — details on how to turn those beliefs into reality.
Trump wants women to follow their passion. “You need to start by figuring out what you generally like and dislike, but genuine interests aren’t always discovered through soul-searching; they emerge through repeated interactions with the outside world.” But what of those young women who live in poverty and who never get a chance to see beyond their hollowed-out neighborhoods? What about those folks in rural areas for whom an Internet connection is not a given but a spotty, constantly buffering ordeal?
Trump seems far more focused on helping to tweak the working lives of women who already have it pretty good. For a presidential adviser who wants to lead the charge on women and work, her book suggests a profoundly narrow focus and a lack of understanding about the lives of women who do not work in offices, who do not have professional degrees and who have jobs rather than careers.
Trump sounds like a demanding but pleasant boss. There are free snacks at her office. Her employees have been treated to lessons in meditation. They can telecommute.
Her family life sounds delightful, too. Her daughter, Arabella, sometimes comes to the office, where she has a little desk. Trump enjoys the uninterrupted family time that observing the Sabbath ensures. And her husband, Jared Kushner, has a calming effect on her.
This book is earnest. But that doesn’t make it particularly thoughtful or impactful. The same might ultimately be said of its author.
By Ivanka Trump
Portfolio. 243 pp. $26