Niccolo Machiavelli isn’t generally the first name to leap to mind in a discussion of feminist icons, but according to a new book, he probably should be. “Machiavelli For Women: Defend Your Worth, Grow Your Ambition and Win the Workplace” (Gallery Books) by Stacey Vanek Smith, co-host of NPR’s “The Indicator from Planet Money,” argues that the 16th century political theorist has plenty to teach modern women.
In his iconic work “The Prince,” a political treatise on power, Machiavelli wrote that there are two kinds of princes: the kind who inherit their kingdom, and those who seize a kingdom through conquest. “For a prince who inherits his kingdom,” Machiavelli writes, things are generally pretty cushy: “The people are used to him . . . and for him to lose his position, he really has to screw up,” writes Smith. “You can think of college-educated white men as the inheriting princes of the workplace, and Machiavelli did not write ‘The Prince’ for them. It is for the conquering prince that Machiavelli wrote his most famous work. As women in the workplace, we are the conquering princes.”
And while the name “Machiavelli” tends to be synonymous with underhanded dealings and cold-eyed ambition, this isn’t really a fair interpretation, Smith argues. Machiavelli was interested in what is, not what should be, and called it as he saw it.
“It’s probably not going to come as a great surprise that Machiavelli was a big advocate for compromising to get what you want: ‘The manner in which we live, and that in which we ought to live, are things so wide asunder,’ he wrote. ‘It is essential, therefore, for a Prince who desires to maintain his position, to have learned how to be other than good . . . ‘ ’” writes Smith, in a chapter that discusses how women are often given workplace advice tailored for men — and then penalized when they follow it. (See: Asking for raises in an “overly aggressive” manner.)
“Here’s my advice: Ask for more! But ask like a woman. Successfully asking for more money and not getting punished for it requires a very particular approach . . . Women don’t tend to get what they want in a combative or competitive atmosphere. (Men, on the other hand, often will.) By opening with gratitude, you are setting a collaborative tone for this meeting. Find something you are genuinely excited about and grateful for in your job or a prospective job. Express that first and then pivot to what you want. I’m telling you, it’s extremely annoying to even write this, but we are talking about Machiavelli, who wasn’t interested in what felt good or even what was morally right. He was interested in what worked.”