How Renaissance-era philosopher Machiavelli can help today's women get ahead

Stacey Vanek SmithPhoto: Sylvie Rosokoff

Why aren't things getting better for women? Stacey Vanek Smith couldn't stop asking that question as she looked over the grim statistics: Eighty percent of CEOs are still men, corporate boards are more than 80% male, two-thirds of federal judges are male and 98% of venture capital goes to men. Some of these numbers haven't improved in a decade.

“We're just stuck in this hamster wheel,” said Smith, an economics journalist and co-host of The Indicator from Planet Money on NPR.

Many of the theories for the inequities Smith came across, including that women shy away from leadership positions or gravitate less toward lucrative fields, seemed to have seeds of truth, but they didn't suggest a way forward. When she wanted a raise or promotion in her own career, she'd turn to popular books on negotiating, but the advice rang false. “It was a lot of girl-boss stuff,” Smith said. “I tried it, but my soul died a little and it didn't work.”

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Then in 2018, Smith read “The Prince,” by Niccolò Machiavelli. It was a revelation. The 16th-century Italian philosopher's controversial and pragmatic approach to accruing and maintaining power was what could finally help women, she thought, improve those depressing figures. “I did not love giving a lot of the advice,” she told me during an interview this month. “But I at least wanted women to have the tools to get unstuck.”

My conversation with Smith, whose book Machiavelli for Women: Defend Your Worth, Grow Your Ambition, and Win the Workplace was published on Sept. 7, has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Annie Nova: You write that today Machiavelli is best-known as “a ruthless power monger, devoid of ethics and compassion.” What do we get wrong about him there?

Stacey Vanek Smith: I think almost everything. He was completely vulnerable at the moment that he wrote “The Prince.” His life had been wrecked. He had been working for the Florentine Republic — he was basically the secretary of state — but Florence got taken over by the Medici family and he was kicked out. They took all his money, they jailed and tortured him, and then ran him out of town. He was in his 40s and had nothing. He wrote “The Prince” as a plea to the Medici family, and this was his best advice. He was never the person in the room with the most power, and that's what made him such a good negotiator.

AN: I assume not many women were reading Machiavelli in the 1500s.

SVS: It was definitely mostly men. A lot of women couldn't even read at the time. And while there were some women in politics, it was very rare. It was a man's world.

AN: Why do you think his ideas can help solve their issues in the workplace today?

SVS: I tend to get very emotional about this stuff. It feels personal and unfair. What I love about Machiavelli is he's like, 'OK, but how do you fix it?' He takes emotions, morality and ethics totally out of the situation. So it's like a chessboard. It was an approach I thought would be useful.

AN: You said some of the conclusions you come to are troubling, but that you wanted to be as honest as possible. Why did this feel important?

SVS: Because it's a lot more troubling to me that women often retire with a third of the savings of men, and that women are way more likely to live in poverty. And so if smiling or not talking about your new baby, if that could possibly help, I at least want women to know that.

Machiavelli For Women
Stacey Vanek Smith

AN: What was a piece of advice that felt especially hard to give?

SVS: When women ask for more in a job negotiation, they're automatically considered less desirable to work with. People don't like it when women advocate for themselves. I didn't like pointing that out, but I think it can lend itself to useful solutions. For example, how do you ask for more without it seeming like you're asking for more? When you go in, be very collaborative and kind and even if you're angry or just found out someone is making more money than you, don't go in with that anger. Should we have to do this as women? No. But at least you've got the knowledge and can decide how to handle it.

AN: Do you have an example from your own career of putting one of Machiavelli's strategies to use?

SVS: Yes. This opportunity came up at work that I didn't really want, and so I walked in not caring, and I nailed it. I just kept asking for more things. There was this moment when I asked for something, and my boss was like, 'Well, we can't do that,' and I was just like, 'OK, no problem. I understand.' Then we just sat there in silence. It was so weird. And then, all of a sudden, my boss was like, 'OK, we'll do it.' We were in standoff, and I didn't even know it. It was so easy! And what made it easy was removing emotion. Whenever I negotiated for things and I didn't really care if I got them, it went really well.

AN: But how do we remove emotion when we're negotiating for something we really do want and care about?

SVS: Before you go into the negotiation, make a little list of reasons why it doesn't matter if you don't get the thing you're asking for, and then a few reasons why it's actually good if you don't get what you're asking for. Maybe it's, “I'll finally know I need to move on from this company,” or, “I could still pay my rent and cover all my expenses.” Jobs are emotional for us. They're our livelihoods, how we pay our bills and support our families. If you can lessen some of that emotion, that's helpful.

AN: You write that Machiavelli might have been the greatest of all time “at figuring out what obstacles stood in the way of people getting into leadership positions.” How can women find out what's standing in their way at work?

SVS: Machiavelli is huge on getting feedback. He says the way to get people to tell you the truth is by letting them know that you're open to hearing it. The best example I got on this came from Neha Narkhede, who founded this unicorn tech company, Confluent. Her big trick was that she just asked for what she wanted, even if it seemed way out of reach. She would often be told no, and then she'd ask, “So what would you need to see from me to make that happen?” Some of it is going to be skills, and some of it is probably going to be, “Well, you seem a little prickly sometimes.” Narkhede would make a detailed list. And then she'd come back after she'd done all those things, and say, “So how about that raise or promotion?”

AN: You write that Machiavelli loved attention from women. Any details?

SVS: He had millions of affairs on his wife. There are accounts that all the brothel owners of Florence knew his name. He would have been just a terrible husband. At the same time, he does write in an admiring way of several female leaders.

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