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Leadership Code Meets Gender Science, Part III of 4 Parts

How do brain science insights play out in the workplace?

The brain science described so far seems pretty clear: there are differences between the male brain and the female brain. The female brain generally has a larger communication center, larger emotional memory center, and has greater ability to read subtle cues in people’s faces and voices. The male brain generally is more compartmentalized, more focused. So what? Do these differences in fact translate into workplace dynamics that matter? To answer my most pressing question, do they in fact get in the way of women’s advancement as high level leaders?

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According to Gurian and Annis, brain science and empirical research together support some of what many of us would dismiss as stereotypes. Their work also strongly suggests that these stereotypes can be dismantled with better understanding on everyone’s part – and that if they are not undone, they will continue to inhibit women’s advancement and company results. When men and women are unenlightened about the potential gender dynamics at play, the researchers say, both genders can experience the following in the workplace:

• Men get credit for being direct and “to the point” while women lose face when they “slow things down” by trying to integrate more elements of a complex situation into the discussion.

• Women who seek others’ opinions are viewed as “poor leaders” or “lacking in confidence.”

• Men more often compete through hierarchical battles, turf wars, verbal aggression, viewing colleagues as competitors, weeding others out – while women try to build colleagueship and disarm conflict. The result: total disconnect.

• Men judge themselves on accomplishment and performance while women judge themselves as much or more on their success in preserving relationships.

• Women are more emotional about work and relationships, sometimes carrying grudges and perceiving more emotional conflict than men do – and remembering it longer.

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Like most of us, I find myself pretty conflicted about this list. I know too many exceptions to agree whole-heartedly. And yet… there is also truth there. As I wrestled with this paradox, I was reminded of why we find Mad Men so fascinating: its spot-on depiction of male and female roles at work and at home before the liberation politics of the 1960s in the US even took root. Men are in charge, and they are as circumscribed in their acceptable behaviors and outcomes as are the women — and everyone is frustrated. It is the raw “before” photograph. Today, in 2008, the “after” photo is still developing, and unevenly so at best. In some places, like E&Y and IBM, these gender tensions have been greatly reduced through deliberate and systematic efforts over the long term to raise awareness and create mutual understanding. As a result, retention and advancement of women leaders has soared. In others, no such efforts have taken place, and it is tough to be a woman leader.

Color me female, but I was very curious to hear what others had to say about the bulleted list. I surveyed a few friends. Their comments anticipate well the conversation that I had with Michael Gurian last week in which we translated his work into our Leadership Code model. That conversation will appear in the fourth and final part of this series on leadership and the gender brain. Here’s what they said:

“As I read the bullets initially, I kept saying, ‘Well, I’m not sure that is true anymore…’ [W]omen are increasingly as direct as men, and that this is acceptable. Also, teamwork is increasingly important and while I do see women being naturally better at it, I see more and more men trying to build this capability (and succeeding). And I see women increasing judging themselves by their accomplishments and performance (in part because it is more socially acceptable to do so now?) … I’m seeing this most clearly with the folks in their 30s to early 40s, and I am wondering if there is a generational implication here. Hillary’s generation fought battles in the workplace and made sacrifices that made it easier for our generation… My emerging hypothesis is that our generation has [further] paved the way… we have made it more acceptable to “be female” in the workplace, and … to see value in the different approaches between men and women.”

“…as I was thinking about this, it occurred to me that the new leadership competency model should have a better mix of Mars/Venus. I see parallels to what’s happened on the home front—where men are room parents, cooks, and do laundry more—and are beginning to exercise that part of themselves for a fuller life, so too men should be meeting women halfway in the boardroom—becoming more inclusive, democratic, and creative—for a better bottom line.”

“If this [list] is true, then women leaders also have to speak the language of their male counterparts, bosses and employees. They need to be less verbose, use data more, and be more decisive. I think that’s a good thing. On an experiential level, this is (I now realize) what I tried to do (subconsciously too) was model men’s style while retaining the best of my own natural style. At my old firm, I remember my business unit had both the highest % of strategic business (and billing rate average) and also the highest employee satisfaction of all business units in the company!”

“OK, this is a quick “rant” because this is an issue that I see mishandled a lot. I must say that this does feel like stereotyping and I worry that it is not helpful. It reminds me a bit of the Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus craze. That whole thing drove me a bit nuts because it felt simplistic and seemed to reinforce the extremes of behavior rather than to emphasize that both men and women can engage in the full spectrum of behaviors.

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What’s your reaction?

I  would love to hear your comments.  Please e-mail me at: ksweetman@rbl.net, and check out our Leadership Code book website for more on the five key elements of leadership: www.leadershipcodebook.com.

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