Book Review: Women, Work and the Art of Savoir Faire

I have mixed feelings about Mireille Guiliano, author of Women, Work and the Art of Savoir Faire. Although I think there are truly great parts of her French Women Don't Get Fat two-book series, and I do think she has a very healthy relationship with food, her philosophy on weight loss in the books cuts a little bit too close to a diet. Although she does advise eating everything in moderation, she also tells readers to do a weekend leek soup fast to kick start things and then cut out certain types of foods until the weight starts to drop off.

However, her newest book is not specifically about food or lifestyle, but about women and work. She does put a fair dose of lifestyle advice in there – and I don't object to that. In fact, it's a good summary of things we already know but probably should be reminded about from time to time, like 'get enough sleep' and 'decide what you're going to wear the night before'. These things can actually save a lot of stress when it's time to get ready for work (it's a no brainer – but I still need to be reminded about them quite frequently).

Guiliano's writing style is engaging and her anecdotes in this book are very interesting – in fact, I think the book might have been better if it actually was written in memoir style instead of as a self-help book. My feeling while reading this book was that of confusion – which is it exactly? I felt that the lessons she was painting were good ones, but everything was so specific to her own experiences that I wasn't sure I could really apply them.

I've read a few books about women and work and have been helped the most by very specific advice that can be applied in a variety of situations. Like, 'don't apologize (which women tend to do) unless there's a very good reason for it', and 'treat work like a game, not a meritocracy' (something women – probably from years of conditioning – also tend to not 'get').

That said, I think reading a book about one very accomplished woman's experiences with work, particularly as an ex-pat woman in the male-dominated drinks industry in the US during the 1980s was fascinating (she was a senior executive and spokesperson for Veuve Clicquot). There's always something we can learn from reading about someone else's experiences told from their unique point of view.

There is one other issue. Guiliano chose not to have children. And she doesn't really address how she thinks this may or may not have affected her career path. I raise this issue delicately as I don't want to imply in any way that her success is linked with the absence of children. In a recent column in the Financial Times, Lucy Kellaway (who writes about work life) addresses the same issue. She didn't do any scientific research, but trawled through a list of prominent women CEOs and found that what they generally had in common were husbands who either had more flexible working schedules or worked for themselves and were able to pitch in more than their fair share on childcare and other family-related tasks.

Most women (and men) don't make it to the echelons of their company's highest ranks, so Guiliano's success does raise this kind of question. Would things have been different if she had children?

If you like reading about other people's experiences, want a good few common sense tips, and don't mind feeling slightly inadequate (I mean, she does sometimes seem like a superwoman), I think this book is a good read. But don't expect to get any heavyweight insight into how to climb the corporate ranks at your company – I'm just not sure there's enough advice packed in.

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