Five years ago, a self-help book with a profane title was all the rage: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. Written by Mark Manson, the book encourages people to live in the moment and eschew emotional investment in how others perceived them.
It was a compelling message. But looking at it, I had a slight complaint. I wasn’t sure if it conveyed enough oomph to help women in particular throw off the near-constant burden of expectations they all seem to be forced to carry, both in their personal and professional lives. “When I decide not to give a f*ck, it won’t be subtle,” I told myself. And indeed it wasn’t.
In 2018, I left my job as a reporter for Bloomberg News, left my now ex-husband and started dating a flamboyantly infamous white-collar felon I had covered as a journalist, “Pharma Bro” Martin Shkreli, while he was in prison. Two years later, I revealed the relationship (we broke up around the time of the article, but are still friends) in a profile for ELLE magazine, and the entire media establishment writhed in horror at all the professional and societal boundaries I had crossed.
Fortunately, by that point, I could not have given fewer f*cks about the negative reactions. I continued following my life and career ambitions, and I’m now publishing a serialized memoir about my experiences, SMIRK, available via Substack.
Gianna Biscontini, a behavior analyst and self-help writer, also went several steps further than Mason, and crafted a more dramatic message especially for women. The result is her new book F*ckless: A Guide to Wild, Unencumbered Freedom (the actual title does not include the asterisk).
Looking back on her own experiences first as a fearless child, then feeling pressure to suppress her assertiveness as an adult, and then finding a way to break through the “glass box” surrounding her, Biscontini offers a roadmap for women wishing to do the same.
“You will soon learn how to embrace the luxury of not giving a f*ck what anyone else thinks,” author Biscontini promises in the book. “You will be free from the constant, exhausting, stressful juggling that functions to keep you liked and acceptable at all times.”
“The time to be your wild, beautiful self is literally now,” she continues. “Because if not now, when?”
Obviously, as someone who has written emphatically on that theme as well, I enthusiastically agree.
I caught up with Biscontini to talk to her more about her experiences, her book, and how women can smash through barriers that hold them back in the workplace. Here is what she had to say.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
The Business of Business: Gianna, can you tell us a little bit about yourself to start off?
Sure. So I'm a board certified behavior analyst. I can speak to a lot of different jobs that I've had. But really, the pattern has been just working with behavior change. About five years ago, I went off on my own, and left the clinical world and started my company called W3RKWELL and essentially put together behavioral and health research in order to be the most effective employee well being analytics company out there.
So tell us also about your book, and how did the idea for it come about?
That's funny. I've written so much for W3RKWELL, and for my coaching practice, I do executive coaching. But this book was really born out of a confluence of different events that happened in 2019. And when the women’s team won the World Cup, in 2019, I felt powerful.
And then through a series of personal and professional events, I woke up one day with a very, very heavy view of how women are treated in the world personally and professionally. And the story just kept coming up from there. So I interviewed people, and looked back on my own life, and wrote a book really for any women and men who want to shirk gender norms and live a more authentic life.
Yeah, that's really interesting. So living a more authentic life? Like how are women not allowed to be authentic in the workplace?
Ask any woman and she'll tell you. We're told to speak up, but then we do speak up, and either we're not heard or we’re called shrill or aggressive. And so when you exhibit a skill, you've got to reinforce it and reward it if you want him to stick around. And what usually happens and what traditionally has happened in the past is, women get used to speaking up and having the courage to ask for a raise or say, “I'm going to be spending more time with my children,” and the environment can punish that behavior. And so it's, it's punishing. Women tend to drift back to their prior behavior.
"Women don't necessarily need to be fixed. We need people to get out of our way and let us shine as we shine as females in business."
So I see the workplace holding women back in a lot of ways. I think things are a lot better than they used to be. I have the great privilege of writing this book right now when it will be well received. And when men are asking me for this book, not only women, and so I just think it's the right place and time for this book.
We do have a sense of female leadership training that is constantly qualified, and the message is, “fix the women.” And it's like, women don't necessarily need to be fixed, we need people to get out of our way and let us shine as we shine as females in business, and to not turn us into some stoic robot, or to turn us into a female version of a man and his behavior. I talk a lot about the confluence of leadership, and it's a set of behaviors that achieve a goal in any given environment at any given time. And so it's not really binary, it's really coming together and deciding what needs to be done.
Leadership isn't about you. It's about everyone else. And when it comes to business, and you're talking to managers and lower level employees, I mean, where do you start with the creativity, oppression and the lack of attention given to the fact that most women are caregivers and have most of the mental weight of chores and childcare responsibilities, in addition to being expected to produce as much as a man? So there's a lot there that we can go into.
You say some things that ring true to me, like we don't need special women leadership programs. We don't need like, you know, little pats on the head telling us we're doing a good job. Just let us do our jobs, right? Are there any anecdotes or surprising things that really popped out at you when you were writing this?
Yes — how many stories I actually had. My idea was to interview women. And then after I started talking about the book, men were really interested and said, “I'd love to be involved, I'd love to see the book when it comes out. I want to learn more about women to be a better husband, better boss, whatever.”
And so I had all these interviews, and I used my own stories as a placeholder until I could really do justice telling other people's stories and experiences, and they're in there. But I had so many of my own experiences, and I am a woman who has been told her entire life, “you are powerful, and you are independent.” I traveled the world by myself and did crazy things like backpack through Asia. And I still had so many of these stories.
"The message that women are told is 'be liked' over anything else. So that's what we do."
And I thought, oh, my gosh, what about the rest of the women out there who aren’t East Coast Italian crazy people like me? What about the women who don't feel like they have permission to do these things? Because I had so much weight that I needed to drop in regards to these beliefs. So yeah, I think the surprising part was just how much I had also been through.
Right. I have also seen some research about women being less likely to take risks in the workplace, and that contributing to fewer promotions, lower salaries and so on. Do you dig into that at all?
Absolutely. I pull from a lot of Adam Grant’s research, I think he is just a really woke organizational psychologist. I worked with a doctoral student of his to get a lot of that research. So yeah, there's a lot of research in there that talks about, you know why women don't throw their hat in the ring as often.
But I do bring the behavioral component to that to explain it. Men will sit down with me and say, “Well, my female employees, I just keep telling them to speak up. And they're not speaking up.” Well, first of all, saying, “just speak up, just tell me what you think”, is hard. It puts us on our heels, right? Because it's very intense. You're also asking a woman, even if you are genuine and kind and creating psychological safety, for that woman to share her ideas at the executive table. That man is probably — and by probably I mean, definitely — not aware of the years and decades of experiences that woman carries of being told the exact same thing.
Men are frustrated, because it's like, “I told them that you could come talk to me,” or “I told them to speak up,” but for women it’s essentially holding a hot stove and saying, “come touch the hot stove.” And women are like, “I want to but I don't know.” Self preservation takes over, you're like, “Nah, I’m cool.” It’s the same thing when you go home to your spouse, or your friends or your family. And it's still frustrating.
But out of all the work I've done across all the different industries across coaching celebrities, and people who don't work, and everything in between, two things are true: We want to be able to know the most authentic version of ourselves and show up in the world that way. And we want to be received as that most authentic person that we are.
We really just want to show up in the world as who we know we are and just feel okay and acceptable doing so. And the message that women are told is “be liked” over anything else. So that's what we do.
And it seems like there's always these extra expectations foisted on women that men aren't necessarily getting in the workplace.
Yeah, I just did an interview and they asked a direct question about that, which I had never been asked: “What do women carry in the workplace specifically?” And it's from the fact that women are still typically seen for their visual value, right? A man walks into a room and unless he's wearing sweatpants or something strange, you don’t make a comment. You don't notice. A woman walks in the room and it's like she is up for judgment visually right away.
And so, there’s this notion that women are sexual visual beings first; wives, mothers nurturers, sacrificers, givers second; and whatever else if they have time for a third. And if you don't follow that, then you're playing with fire essentially. In the book, I go into these specific things. But I think when you read it, and you see all those things, back-to-back, “here's what women have to deal with.” And we don't do that to men. But we're expected to still climb ladders and produce and have children and do all these other things.
The majority of people I talk to in general are fearful of rejection. And we tell men, “be anything,” and have this Conquistador attitude and be brave and be confident, even if you have unjustified and unearned confidence. It doesn't matter, just go put on a show and have charisma or executive presence. But when women do it, it's like, “Oh, I don’t know if I like that.” So we tell men “be anything” and we tell women “be liked.” And we put them in this very small glass box.
It does seem like there's kind of an inherent built in credibility that comes to men for just being taller and having a deeper voice. And, you know, it doesn't really matter as much what their experience is. People seem to trust them more with responsibility. How do we deal with that?
What's really interesting, I interviewed a trans individual, and he was born female, and became a doctor, and transitioned to being male. It was one of my favorite interviews. We talked for two hours. There were tears. We really connected. It was great. I said, “what changed when you transitioned to being a male?” And the first words out of his mouth where “I absolutely had more privilege as a man. People deferred to me, regardless of whether I knew what I was talking about or not, even when I tried to say, ‘well, so and so actually has more expertise in that area.’”
"I absolutely had more privilege as a man. People deferred to me, regardless of whether I knew what I was talking about or not," a trans man told Biscontini.
It was like, “Yeah, but you, the man in the room.” And so he actually had both of those experiences to juxtapose and so we talked a lot about that. But I also think that, you know, when we look at business and leadership, we qualify as “Black CEO,” “female CEO,” “my lady boss,” which I'm so done with. When we qualify, it just further highlights how we have to qualify because the assumption is heterosexual, white male and a suit. And even the heterosexual white males who wear suits that I work with, they don't even identify with with that persona anymore. And so we're all really shattering these boxes together.
If a company does want to try to fix problematic culture — you've talked about how some of the ways that companies approach that don't really work — but what does work?
I think understanding what culture is and how and where it comes from, and how it's developed is the first thing. I used to stand on a stage and talk about this, the science of culture and how culture comes about. And I'd always say “define culture.” Everybody defined it differently, but you can't change or measure what you can't define. And so if everybody says, “well, culture is just the way things go around here.” But what does that mean?
So to make culture systematic is really important. For example, I just emailed the president of my publishing company, and I said, “Here's what I absolutely loved about your culture.” I am a hard worker and I drive a hard bargain and I am warm, kind, but also really difficult to work with because this is my baby and I care about details. They kept up with me every step of the way with a smile. That speaks to your culture, and that tells me that that's reinforced here.
"You've really got to get down to a human level to understand what makes us behave and learn in the first place."
And so it's really getting to understand from a scientific perspective, how humans actually behave, right through positive and negative reinforcement and positive and negative punishment. We’re building culture with us right? You've really got to get down to a human level to understand what makes us behave and learn in the first place.
Are there any other companies that you know of where they do have good culture?
I will say one of my all time favorite clients and companies that I worked with is [American soccer player] Landon Donovan and his team down in San Diego. He brought me down to do some values work and some organizational work. And on day one, I told him, we were going to do a peaks and valleys exercises — somebody sharing a peak of their life and someone sharing a valley, just to kind of start off with, and he called me beforehand and said, “Hey, can I go first, I'd really like to share my valley.”
He's super open about not only his successes, which he doesn't need to talk about, but his valleys and the things that he gets wrong. And so that ended up being four hours of everybody just talking about their, their struggles, and building rapport building trust, and those relationships. And so, you think about culture, and you don't necessarily picture people in a room crying and hugging each other. But that day, we learned compassion, Landon’s number one value, was absolutely shown, demonstrated, embraced, and reinforced.
Other people started exhibiting vulnerability and compassion. You have a relationship. Now you have demonstrated trust, because I know your valley and you know my valley. And I'm not talking about like, I had a bad day I'm talking about I was molested as a child type of valleys. Usually we don't think about this kind of stuff in a professional environment, because we're getting vulnerability and empathy and all that wrong by siloing it off into like, soft skills, whatever those are. And so yeah, I would say that his company has an amazing culture because of his leadership.
Is there anything else you want to say about this book?
I will say that I am so warmed in the heart by the feedback that I've been getting so far. I knew it was going to land with females. I knew it was going to start to create this global permission for all of us to say, “You know what, I'm living from the inside out. I do not need your help. I do not need to be fixed. I do not need to be dependent.”
And I'm also really surprised that, at least as far as what I'm seeing with comments, and shares that it's about 30% to 40% men being involved in this book. And I’m like, “You know, people see me as this feminist gremlin, and assume that it’s binary.” Well, we all need to talk and to share and to experience each other in order to move forward. It’s really the only way that it’s going to happen. And so, I would say, go buy the book, and do some learning and some deep work.