Do women need to become men to be successful managers?
Do men need to become women to be sensitive managers?
Not at all — there’s a better way forward for both genders.

Sometimes I have trouble admitting when I am wrong.

So much trouble, in fact, that I had a hard time writing that last sentence.

Just try finding stock photography where neither the man nor the woman is obviously in charge.

This is a personal problem, but it affects me at work as well. If you don’t admit when you are wrong, you can’t diagnose how you ended up making mistakes in the first place. You can’t mend fences. You can’t learn from your errors and improve future outcomes.

Talking with my friends, however, I realize that I’m not alone in this. Admitting when things go wrong, or accepting blame, is something hard for most of my male friends. It’s just not what we’re trained to do, whereas it comes much more easily to women.

(Mitt Romney is having a bit of trouble with this right now. Apparently “no apologies” isn’t just a book title, but a way of life for some men.)

Given how male-dominated the business world is, it made me realize that maybe this deficit is a bigger problem in business itself — not only for men, but for everybody else.

In fact, if anything, business is a world that is still dominated by almost stereotypical masculinity. Those who get to the top, it seems, are often aggressive, domineering, uncaring, unapologetic, and self-promoting. Women and even less dominant men are relegated to second place, especially in male-dominated industries. And as long as fewer than 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, I’d say this continues to be a problem.

So what’s the proper response to this? To become top managers, do we all have to adapt and just become hyper-macho? To succeed, do women have to leave femininity behind, as well as their skills of sensitivity, compassion, and compromise? Or should we instead try to make business itself somehow less masculine, while sacrificing ambition or competitiveness?

I think there’s a better way forward, which I call “gender conscious management.” With gender conscious management, you become a better manager by gaining awareness of your own biases and learning to practice the skills of the other gender without fear.

Simply put, by being gender conscious, there is no need for men to be less masculine or women to be less feminine to succeed. Women can simply complement their existing skills with a new set of tools, such as self-assertion and empowerment, that will support their path to success. And men, too, can profit from learning new emotive talents, without compromising their masculinity or ability to succeed.

Gender as subculture, not biological inevitability

Society raises us differently depending on our gender. In effect, being part of a gender is being part of a subculture that tells us what to focus on, and what to ignore. It tells us how we should treat others and work with them. It tells us what are acceptable and unacceptable ways to react to problems.

When men have trouble accepting blame or compromising, I think we’re seeing a gender problem. Likewise, when women have trouble asking for a raise or being direct with people, I think that we’re also seeing a gender problem.

Now, I don’t think it’s possible to forget the gender subculture you were raised with, any more than you can cease being American or Brazilian or whatever. But I think you can be a better manager if you are aware of the biases and blindspots you have as a member of a particular gender.

In fact, I believe we need a new management style: a “gender conscious” style of leadership that acknowledges and overcomes our gender perspectives and biases, freeing us to use the best of both masculine and feminine skill sets.

Management research shows that gender balance in business leadership is a good thing: Businesses that integrate women in leadership are more creative, more socially responsible, more inclusive, and more transparent. I think likewise, gender conscious managers can have the best of both worlds, becoming more flexible, creative, and effective in their work.

This idea of combining masculine and feminine management styles is not a contradiction: recent psychological research has found that these norms can be combined in a single person, and often are. I feel that when we look at the habits of the best leaders — the leaders you most want to work with and work for — they combine these skills too.

Masculine and feminine management styles

Before I continue, I should define these slippery terms of masculinity and femininity with regard to management.

Let me be clear that these definitions are stereotypes — not every man or woman is skillful or comfortable with these qualities and abilities. But American culture does teach us that males are supposed to act one way, females another, and these styles do often seem to carry over into the business world.

We can summarize these stereotypes as:

Masculine Stereotypes Feminine Stereotypes
Assertive
Analytical
Forceful
Independent
Instrumental
Terse
Domineering
Leading
Results-Oriented
Aggressive
Zero Sum
Selfish
Tough-Minded
Affectionate
Compassionate
Gentle
Understanding
Compromising
Expressive
Thoughtful
Nurturing
Collaborating
Intuitive
Empathetic
Win-Win
Communitarian

Now, we are generally taught that these sets of characteristics are polar opposites — a yin and yang of gender. To adopt the masculine style, you must avoid or even reject practicing the feminine one, and vice versa. And whatever you do, you should avoid being in the middle.

This bipolar conception is common due to both nature and nurture. According to psychologists, we do pick up certain conceptions and behaviors based on our biological gender and our later sexual development. More important than biology, however, is our socialization as members of a particular gender.  We are educated with a “truck versus doll” dichotomy from a very early age, and that gender role training is heavily socialized throughout our childhood by our parents, our relatives, our teachers, our peers, and the media. These gender identities continue to get stronger well into our 30s and 40s, renewed and reinforced by our workplaces, as well as for some of us by our roles as new parents.

The only problem with the bipolar conception of gender is that it’s wrong.

Masculine or feminine? Why choose?

While commonly held, the bipolar conception of gender is incorrect. Psychologists no longer see these gender-stereotyped characteristics as opposites. Rather, they are simply different skill sets, and you can be good at both skills sets at the same time. For example, we all know people who are both assertive and nurturing; who are both analytical and understanding.

The psychologists call those people who master and integrate both sets of skills “androgynous.” But I’m a marketer, and my market research showed people didn’t like that term, so I’m using “gender conscious” instead. (I like the emphasis on self-awareness, don’t you?)

Where do we already see examples of this gender consciousness? Well, it turns out that as people get older, they often undergo a mid-life “androgyny shift.” They keep the characteristics of their current gender while integrating qualities typically associated with the opposite sex. Sometimes we see this in actions as simple as older men learning to cook, or older women taking on more leadership roles in organizations.

This shift is actually quite beneficial psychologically: people with a “gender conscious” style — those able to react in both masculine and feminine ways — are more flexible and adaptable, quickly adjusting to the needs of any situation. They have higher self-esteem and are perceived as more competent and better adjusted. So the androgynous, gender conscious style makes you feel better and makes others think well of you too.

The gender conscious management style

If combining gender skill sets makes people more flexible and confident, we can easily see how this combination can make people better managers too.

To lead people, you need masculine-typed characteristics like independence and thick skin. You also need feminine-typed traits like nurturance and interpersonal skills. In other words, you need to be gender conscious.

The gender conscious management style is the ideal for BOTH men and women in business, because it allows you to respond more flexibly to any problem. The gender conscious manager can observe a situation with fewer blind spots, see all the facts, emotions, and personal dynamics of a given situation, and then choose from a wide repertoire of responses based on both intuition and reason.

Gender conscious management is NOT about becoming less masculine or feminine. It’s about overcoming the limitations, blind spots, and counterproductive behaviors that you were taught as a member of your gender in order to become more successful and effective. And it is also about seeing something deeper: the understanding of your own biases and the biases of others.

Why men need to change, too

But wait. If business is already a man’s world, why do men need to change too? Why should men adopt a more gender conscious management style?

My belief is that male-dominated organizational cultures often have special problems due to too much concentrated masculinity unleavened by other management styles. Think of all the common scenarios I’ve seen in completely male management teams:

  • Anger cycles. Members of the management team are angry and suspicious of other members — even vocally so.
  • Internal mafias. Management has separated into tight, exclusive factions fighting or quietly undermining each other, or there is a central male “posse” that monopolizes all decision-making while ignoring the input of everybody else.
  • Stress treadmills. Everyone in the company is working as long and hard as possible. Nobody takes breaks, even when productivity and morale is low.
  • Impulsive risk-taking. A company makes a big fateful decision after one meeting where all the men were in agreement. Later they regret the decision, having not thought through the implications.
  • Retaliation, not negotiation. Faced with a “no,” executives immediately strike back and ask questions later. I saw one executive try to blow $25,000 in a weekend just to put an end to a contractual obligation. Ultimately, he was able to talk his way out of it, but he still blew $10,000 for no good reason without seriously trying to negotiate first.
  • Organizational sociopathy. The number of male-dominated businesses doing socially irresponsible things is too numerous to count, but organizations with women tend to be more socially responsible.

I feel the best solution to all of these problems is improved gender balance, not just in terms of quantity of people, but also in terms of real authority and individual management styles.

I emphasize “real authority” because just having women on management teams is not enough to make sure that men will give attention to women’s diversity of experiences, viewpoints, and skills. Women are often deprived of the standing to weigh in on significant issues — that is, they have a place in the room, but no voice or authority to propose ideas or make decisions there.

But this isn’t enough. I think men need to practice more balanced management styles and be aware of their own biases to allow this to happen. Likewise, I think women can also learn how to take advantage of the masculine skill sets without losing something essential about their own nature.

In Part 2 of this article, I’ll discuss ways to acquire and practice these new skill sets without losing a piece of yourself.

Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment below.

Thanks to Lisa Carpenter of Carpenter Coaching and Dr. Mytilee Vemuri, MD/MBA for extensive comments and feedback on this post.

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