The differences between men and women have been the subject of thorny debates for centuries. Still today, stories too frequently arise in the media that vastly exaggerate these differences. Yet, much of modern research fails to support many of the gender-based stereotypes with which we are familiar. Numerous studies have shown that the differences between men’s and women’s brains are far less profound than previously thought. If these differences are so slight, then do they really matter? And how do they impact women in the workplace?
In an interview with Marsha Clark, the author of Embracing Your Power: A Woman’s Path to Authentic Leadership and Meaningful Relationships, she expands on her beliefs that the differences must be recognized and managed so women can thrive as leaders.
Is leadership made or nurtured?
According to Marsha, research shows that 96-97% of men and women’s brains are alike; however, in studies that monitor how babies develop in the first 24 hours of life, there is a clear distinction between the genders. For instance, boys notice sounds, lights and “big” movement (people moving around the room), while girls are 400 times more likely to notice the faces of care givers. As children grow, the gender differences are sometimes manifested in the way they play, which is how children learn and develop predictions, aka, biases. For instance, boys generally tend to love noisy, fast toys while girls play games that are more relationship oriented.
How does this translate to the working environment?
Marsha believes that work is the adult form of play (contribution, learning, further bias development), and to some extent, we bring that playground and those differences into the working environment.
According to Marsha’s research, an organization’s traditional hierarchical operating model (stemming from industrialization) generally represents a more masculine perspective, whereas women gravitate toward a flatter organizational structure, such as an holacracy, that suggests “we’re all in this together” or “we’re all equal.”
Leadership styles also follow this pattern, with men typically using the “command and control” mode of operations versus a more collaborative environment, favored, generally, by women, according to the author.
How do you recommend women address and deal with these differences?
First, being aware of the traditionally accepted differences between men and women’s leadership styles is key. Just as you would expect to hear a different language in a foreign country, the office environment may require tuning in to the different “language” of the other gender.
Secondly, knowing when to engage the various leadership styles is important. It may be appropriate to utilize the “command and control” approach if decisions must be made quickly, but a collaborative approach could be useful when a team is learning something new or you need buy-in to make a change.
How should we challenge ourselves to be better leaders?
Marsha used the often-quoted phrase, “Good leaders know they have a toolkit. Great leaders know what tool to use when.”
Similarly, women in a position of power should recognize the importance of having a mixture of voices to have the broadest degree of appeal and impact. There are times when we need someone to drive the play and times when we need someone to focus on collaboration.
In the past, women have felt pressure to fit into a hierarchical workplace. Lois Coatney of ISG related a story about reading the sports page, just so she would have something to talk about with the men in her workplace, even though she had no interest in sports. The group agreed that with the need for leadership to migrate to a more collaborative environment, women now have the opportunity, if not the obligation to be authentic.
Recognizing the inherent differences between women and men makes for smarter leaders. Everyone should define success on their own terms, and Marsha encouraged women to rethink the typical organizational hierarchy to ensure all voices are heard.
This may include introducing a new authenticity to the workplace to bring your best self forward.