6 Books for Working Women Leaders

Throughout my career, I have found solace and support in books and articles by women leaders navigating the workforce. Their guidance helped me feel less alone presenting to a conference room full of men, pumping in a locked unisex bathroom, and leaving work early for my son’s school function.  

Two breakthrough pieces come to mind: Anne Marie Slaughter’s article, Why Women Can’t Have it All, initiated the dialogue on whether women can be successful at work and home. Then, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In book challenged us to determine what it meant to be a working woman in today’s world.  

In addition to these two pieces, I selected six books that have been especially meaningful on my career journey. From navigating office politics, to leading yourself and others, to letting go of the image of the “perfect” working woman, these books provide both practical tips and inspiration.  

1.     What Works for Women at Work

I cried my way across the ocean on a transcontinental work flight while reading What Works for Women at Work. I felt it spoke directly to me—what it’s like to be told to smile more, how women are required to be assertive but not aggressive, why advocating for yourself as a woman can have the opposite effect. I shared this story with the author, Joan C. Williams, when I met her recently on her book tour. (She got up from behind the table to hug me.) This book offers concrete, research-based, multi-generational advice for women in the workplace.  

2.     Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges

One of the most famous TED Talks ever on the “power pose” and confidence led Amy Cuddy to write this book on the same topic. Cuddy’s book shares insights on how presence can help people approach challenges with confidence. She explains that confidence and presence is more about how we feel about ourselves than how others perceive us. Though not specifically aimed at women, this book provides important lessons for women about being able to feel comfortable with their thoughts, feelings and value. (Note: I know Cuddy’s research has been a contested topic more recently; I included it because her work played an important role in my professional growth.) 

3.     Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection

Debora Spar wrote this book around the time of the Sandberg and Slaughter commentaries on women, and it falls in the middle—offering the perspective that women should make choices about what it really means to “have it all” without feeling they have to do it all. She suggests perfection gets in the way of women being able to feel successful at work and home. Whether you are the only woman in the room or one of many, Spar’s book helps you focus on what works for you, not anyone else. 

4.     Disrupt Yourself

I first came across Whitney Johnson in her Harvard Business Review article about working moms and dual career couples, and was excited to read her book. She explains disruptive strengths (“what you do well that others can’t”), and she walks you through how to use these strengths and other strategies to move up the disruption learning curve. Though I always knew what I wanted to be in my career, Johnson helped me think about who I wanted to become. The book teaches that you lose more by standing still and empowered me to grow.  

5.     Drop the Ball: Achieving More By Doing Less

Tiffany Dufu speaks to overachiever working women everywhere who are juggling all the things and encourages us to figuratively drop the ball on some of them. Dufu shares her own story and gives voice to the significant “mental load” that women carry (you know, the never ending to do list in your head) and how she overcame it by clearly communicating with her partner and delegating responsibilities. Key takeaway: Every time we say no to something, it frees us up to say yes to something else that matters.  

6.     How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back from Your Next Raise, Promotion or Job

Sally Helgesen describes 12 self-limiting habits that affect women, and how to overcome them. Often it is the very skills that got us to where we are now that will need to evolve to get us to where we want to go. For example, women are known to be top performers, yet they tend to wait for others to recognize their accomplishments. (Hint: you will have to share unabashedly your own successes.) It is likely you will find yourself in (at least) one of these habits described in the book. Especially for the woman in her first leadership role, or aspiring to be, this book will develop your self-awareness, while helping you to chart your path forward.

I hear you right now saying, “I would love to read these books…between work, soccer practice, making dinner, and everything else.” As a working mom, I understand the many demands on our time. I read these books while traveling or over vacations or holidays, when things felt more manageable. So, this could be the perfect time of year for you to sit down and enjoy one of them.

What I appreciate so much about all of these books is that they tell the real, messy, beautiful stories of being a working woman and mother. I found myself laughing and crying, feeling validated about my own struggles, and learning how I can face these challenges with grace and strength. For working women, isn’t that the greatest gift of all?

It is also a wonderful gift to share with a friend or colleague. Bonus if this leads to a reading buddy with whom to discuss the topics. It is a fun way to learn together and catch up at the same time.

With this in mind, add one (or more!) to your holiday gift or wish list, and send me a note with which one it will be—or any other favorites you have.