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Boys Rules, Girls Lose - Women at Work

My two daughters are now in college and have put their toes in the working-world with summer jobs. As they've grown older, they've heard their parent's advice about women in the workforce.

This post is not advice nor is it a recommendation of what you should do. It's simply my interpretation of what I observed watching my daughters grow up. Our circumstances were unique, times have changed, and your conclusions and opinions will most certainly differ.

Gender Differences
Growing up in the 60s and 70s when women were struggling against inequality in jobs, pay, etc., my wife and I came into parenthood with an unconscious bias that gender differences were mostly cultural. So how we raised our kids was an unintended science experiment.

When our two girls were toddlers, my wife started dressing them in overalls, and consciously bought them trucks and "boy toys" to play with along with dolls. We were both surprised and bemused to see them ignore the trucks and cars and prefer to play house. A bit later, our biggest eye-opener was when our younger daughter started asking for the "pretty pink dresses" instead of the overalls. (Given they didn't watch TV, we ruled that out as a major role in their choices.) We started to believe that perhaps there was some hard-wiring about gender.

Boys With Sticks
As our kids reached grade school, the next lesson was watching them at play. I remember hiking with my girls and two 8-year old boys. When we stopped for lunch, the boys found sticks and immediately began a sword fight. When they tired of that, the boys chased each other and wrestled until they were exhausted. The girls, finding their pile of sticks, began building something together and telling each other stories. The suggestion of "why don't you guys try each others games?" was met with utter 8-year old disdain. I realized I was looking at something—competition versus collaboration—that also seemed hard-wired. (Competition versus collaboration is my shorthand for a much longer set of gender-linked behaviors.)

Boys Rules, Girls Lose
When I entered the business world, I quickly found that office politics was just an older version of boys with sticks. The testosterone level was higher, and the game was more like musical-chairs with winners and losers until there was a single person on top. As a guy I didn't need a rulebook to understand the game; there was a hierarchy, it was competitive, I win you lose.

Men WorkingIt took me a while but I realized that implicitly that advancement in corporations was unconsciously constructed around how men interact with each other. And unless they consciously work at it, most companies are not set up for collaboration.

As I grew older I realized that women in the workplace around me were having a harder time than the guys. They'd all come from college equally ambitious, but only after a few years, something different was happening to their careers.

Over time, I observed women who succeeded in the business world (as defined by their interest in moving up the hierarchy) headed in one of four career directions:

  1. They chose departments within corporations where collaboration was an asset like Public Relations, HR, customer service, etc.
  2. They set up their own companies to provide services and ran their own companies collaboratively.
  3. They opted out of the workplace and raised a family, returning later.
  4. They figured out the "boys rules" and followed them (having to work harder and smarter to prove that they were.)

Understand There Are Rules—And They're Not Yours
When my girls started to play soccer, I used to remind them, "Make sure the people on the field aren't carrying sticks because if they're playing field hockey while you're playing soccer, you're going to get hurt." As they got older, they understood I wasn't only talking about sports but that I was trying to teach them how to figure out the rules of any game they were about to play. And that included the workplace.

My advice to our daughters about women in the workplace has been pretty simple:

  • The language of business is about winners and losers. Bosses who read Sun Tzu's The Art of War as a guide to business strategy or Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun are unlikely to create a culture of collaboration.
  • There are implicit rules of competition and collaboration in companies. It's not that anyone is hiding a secret rulebook; it's just that no one has articulated the rules.
  • In most companies men set these rules. Again, nothing secret here, but men don't realize that they behave and think differently. They don't have to explain the rules to other men so it never occurs to them to explain the rules to women.
  • As women, they will be expected to perform to boys rules as defined in their workplace: This means they need to spend the time understanding what the rules are in their company and industry. If they don't, they will find others less competent but more adept at playing the game getting promoted instead of them.
  • Women can be equally competitive if they desire. It's not a question of competency. Or a skill only boys have. If they want to succeed by competing they can. They just have to learn the rules and practice them.
  • Find mentors then become one. In every organization or industry there's someone who's figured out the rules. Seek them out and know what they know. By the time you do, it's your turn to mentor someone else.
  • Collaboration can make you a stronger competitor. The irony is that organizations which collaborate are more effective competitors. When they reach a position of authority, use their instincts to build a fearsome organization/company.
  • If they prefer to collaborate and don't want to play by boy's rules, they need to understand what their career choices are. There are plenty of other ways to be a productive member of society other than a position on a corporate org chart.
  • Understanding the rules and career options doesn't mean the rules are right or they have to accept them as the only career choices. They can make change happen if they so desire. But they need to understand the personal costs of doing so.
  • Some find the idea of gender differences uncomfortable. Having fought to have men and women be treated equally, discovering that there may be gender specific hard-wiring for behavior sets up cognitive dissonance. Some simply won't accept that there are workplace gender differences.
  • I may be wrong. Perhaps I misunderstood what I've seen or that time has changed the workplace significantly. Take this advice as a working hypothesis and see if it matches your experience.

Time will tell whether we gave our daughters good advice.

Reprinted from

Steve Blank is a prolific educator, thought leader and writer on Customer Development for Startups, the retired serial entrepreneur teaches, refines, writes and blogs on "Customer Development," a rigorous methodology he developed to bring the "scientific method" to the typically chaotic, seemingly disorganized startup process. Now teaching Entrepreneurship at three major Universities, Blank is the author of Four Steps to the Epiphany. Follow him on Twitter @sgblank.