Male And Female

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Men and women really do live in different worlds,” says Eliza G. C. Collins, a senior editor at the Harvard Business Review , in a recently published book entitled “Dearest Amanda … ”: An Executive’s Advice to Her Daughter . To my dismay and despite my considerable skepticism, Ms. Collins’s book led me to suspect that those worlds differ more painfully than I had ever imagined.

Her publisher originally advertised Collins’s book under the title Letters from a Self-Made Businesswoman —a title that seemed deliberately to echo the title that George Horace Lorimer, the editor of The Saturday Evening Post , chose more than eighty years ago when he published one of the most popular business-advice books that any American has ever written — Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son . Moreover, though her publisher claimed that Collins’s book would be written in the “unique form of a motherdaughter exchange of letters,” in fact the book is a one-way correspondence—exactly the form that Lorimer used.

But sex makes all the difference. Once we get past the similarities of title and form, we find that the letters of Lorimer’s self-made businessman differ immensely from the letters of Collins’s self-made businesswoman, and the differences have little to do with the distance between 1902 and 1985.

In letter after letter, the message of Collins’s businesswoman to her daughter is that she must fight to conquer feelings of inferiority and worthlessness:

I simply don’t accept that certain “screwups” … happen because there’s “something wrong” with you and whatever you touch will molder or tarnish.

What is this nonsense about you having been partly to blame?

The only way out of this muddle is to fight the root problem: feeling unspecial.

What will matter is … whether you can feel worthy of success and can accept it as your own.

The key … is a clear sense of your own self-worth.

Whereas Collins’s businesswoman never stops trying to encourage her daughter to feel better about herself, Lorimer’s businessman never stops trying to discourage his son from puffing with unearned pride: “I would feel a good deal happier over your showing if you would make a downright failure or a clean-cut success once in a while, instead of always just skimming through this way. It looks to me as if you were trying only half as hard as you could, and in trying it’s the second half that brings results…. Of course, you are bright enough to be a half-way man, and to hold a half-way place at a half-way salary by doing half the work you are capable of, but you’ve got to add dynamite and ginger and jounce to your equipment if you want to get the other half that’s coming to you.”

Collins’s businesswoman never lashes at her daughter in this way. She criticizes, but nearly all of her criticism is aimed at her daughter’s low self-esteem. On one of the rare occasions when she makes a criticism that relates to performance, she begins with an apology (“Bear with me”) and after a tentative sentence or two, interrupts herself with a flurry of self-accusation: “Oh, God, this is a ticklish business and I feel way out on a limb here. …” Another time, a moment of mild criticism leads to a paragraph of contrite self-analysis: “When I chided you for being soft on your coworker, was I beating you up a bit? It feels that way.”

Lorimer’s businessman is rarely content merely to chide, and when he explodes, he never frets that his outburst might bruise or break his son’s frail ego. It is impossible to imagine him advising his son to “be gentle with yourself…” as Collins’s businesswoman advises her daughter, and impossible to imagine him worrying that his son has been working so hard that “you’ve given yourself zero time to enjoy yourself.” No time for enjoyment is exactly what Lorimer’s merchant (a pork baron modeled on Lorimer’s early employer Philip D. Armour) recommends: “You’ve got to get up every morning with determination if you’re going to go to bed with satisfaction. You’ve got to eat hog, think hog, dream hog—in short, go the whole hog if you’re going to win out in the pork-packing business.”

Lorimer’s businessman has to be tough on his son because the boy is soft on himself, whereas Collins’s businesswoman has to be soft on her daughter because the daughter is tough on herself. Out of opposite premises—a son inclined to indulge himself, a daughter inclined to belittle herself—we get very different books.

The literary critic Leslie Fiedler once wrote about the thrill that we feel when a writer “seems a traitor to those whom he loves”—a thrill that comes “when Dante turns on Florence, Molière on the moderate man, de Sade on reason, Shaw on the socialists, Tolstoy on the reformers, Joyce on Ireland, Faulkner on the South, Graham Greene on the Catholics, Pasternak on the Russians and Abraham Cahan or Nathanael West on the Jews.” For me, the best moments in “ Dearest Amanda ” are the moments when Collins’s executive gets tough on women:

Something stinks in the Garden of Eden when we pretend to like people simply because they are women. Some women are not likable …

Don’t we stray awfully close to underwriting the female stereotype when we forgive each other for behavior that in a man we would revile?