It is in the spirit of International Women's Day, Saturday, March 8, 2014, that I write this article. For many readers this may not come as a surprise, but men and women think differently. I don't have to go beyond my own marriage for an example. It's not often that I ask my husband to change a light bulb. I'd do it myself if I had a workman's ladder that could fit in my apartment (not to mention my husband is 6'4" without heels). His typical answer, said with sincerity and without mockery: "Do you want me to do it now?" After 23 years of marriage I've developed a sense of humor: "No, I want you to do it next year, but I'm asking now so you can put it on your to do list."
Neurologists and psychologists have been grappling with the differences between how men and women think and behave for centuries. In researching for this article I've read countless articles about how men's and women's brains are wired differently. A recent study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania states, "In one brain region, women have more connections between left and right hemispheres, and men within hemispheres, while in another brain region, it is the other way around." The researchers go on to say, "This may explain, for example, why on average men are better at learning and performing single tasks, such as cycling or navigating [obviously not changing light bulbs], while women tend to be better at multitasking and problem-solving in group situations."
In taking a closer look at today's work dynamics, I asked women at the C-suite level what they thought were the differences between the sexes in the workplace.
Lili Mahlab, EVP of Frontline Marketing, thinks that "often men in leadership positions tend to exude a lot of confidence." Mahlab added, "It's their confident attitude, especially when speaking in front of an audience that wins clients' and colleagues' respect." Conversely, Mahlab talked about a female sales person on her team, who is somewhat hesitant when presenting. Mahlab coaches this salesperson to be more self-confident in order for her to elevate her sales wins. "People trust self-assured people," stated Mahlab.
My way or the highway
According to researchers, men are better at dealing with the facts and tend to be more set in their ways. That means men may be quicker on the perception-action path, while women are better at integrating the analytic side of the brain with the intuitive and social side. Women excel at tasks that involve both logical and intuitive thinking. Mahlab said, "Women are often better listeners and tend to pick up more body language and voice inflection cues, which allow them to 'course correct' during a meeting."
As an executive recruiter and consultant, I have found that people, both men and women, often stereotype. Mahlab chucked and told me, "It's hilarious when I go into a meeting with a male colleague and the people we are meeting think he's my boss -- that is until I open my mouth." But what really galls this successful female executive is that often people tend to direct the conversation to the men in the room rather than the women.
Many of my clients, both men and women, often tell me that women have a better ability to collaborate in business. Relating a story from her past, Soche Picard, EVP, group account director at Geometry Global spoke about working at a large holding company. The company had a long standing relationship with a Fortune 100 company who sponsored the Olympics ever year. One particular year, the company had the opportunity to bring together a number of its agencies under one platform for its client. Picard was tasked to "rally the troops by bringing the agencies together." The concern for Picard was dealing with big egos in many of the agencies. "I know that I had to check my own ego at the door for the greater good. I had to understand the psychology of all the different players and how they could work together as a team."
Talking vs. listening
Many women that I've worked with over the years have worked in predominantly male organizations. Mentally, women have the ability to get down to completing the tasks without their egos getting in the way. "What I've observed," stated Picard, "is that women tend to listen first before reacting. Men lean towards the inverse. And, in my experience in this business, being an effective listener is a key attribute to being a strong leader -- internally and externally."
Chris Bart, a McMaster University business professor, and his research partner, Greg McQueen, administered a test to help board members assess their decision-making skills, as part of a training program. Here are some of their findings:
- Female board directors boost corporate performance.
- Some of the effects were measurable: Boards with more women are linked to a 53 percent higher return on equity, and their companies go bankrupt less frequently.
- The presence of even one female director can reduce the risk of going belly up by 20 percent.
- Women ask more questions, rather than nodding through decisions.
- Women rely more often on what the researchers call "complex moral reasoning" by weighing a broader range of factors and implications.
- Women fare better at making "consistently fair decisions when competing interests are at stake."
- Men tend to base their decisions on rules and traditions.
- Women's instincts make them better problem-solvers.
Increasingly, innate and beneficial gender differences are being used to build business. Yes, men and women are different. It is diversity of thought and behavior that savvy leaders seek when building their businesses. It's about tapping the best candidate pools and ensuring retention of star employees. Smart leaders understand that men and women bring different skills to the table.
For more than 100 years, International Women's Day has celebrated the social, political, and economic achievements of women while focusing world attention on areas requiring further action. This year, the theme of International Women's Day is "Inspiring Change," and the organization is calling for greater awareness of women's equality, more women in senior leadership roles, equal recognition of women in the arts, growth of female-owned businesses, increased financial independence of women, more women in science, technology, engineering, and math, and a fairer recognition of women in sports.
It may still be a man's world, but women are making slow but steady progress finding their place at the table in corporate executive suites across the nation.
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"Man and woman head silhouette with gender symbols" image via Shutterstock.