Blog Post: 5 Keys to Winning the Battle of the Sexes

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Men and women are different. This hardly counts as a revelation, but new research in neuroscience hints at the scope and complexity of these differences, and helps to explain some of the social differences, too.

Men, we’ve learned, are apt to practice an agentic style of leadership, marked by assertiveness; and in the extreme, a “take no prisoners” attitude. Research shows that Male leaders are more likely to make clear the roles and responsibilities of subordinates, and to weed out those who don’t measure up. Women, on the other hand, tend toward a communal style, more focused on consensus, and marked by a sensitive, (relatively) humane approach. Female leaders, for example, favor collaboration and liberal sharing of information. Because of these qualities, they often foster an environment rife with opportunities for improvement.

These ideas about gender behavior are related to real, measureable elements—the physiology of the brain. Still, they are generalities. When taken as gospel, they can foster prejudices and self-fulfilling prophesies. People easily internalize gender norms, and may come to expect or require assertiveness in male leader, and nurturing behavior in female leaders. When these expectations are upended or otherwise contradicted—in the form of an assertive female leader, for example—negative reactions, strained relations, and real impediments to success may result.

There is a basic way to counter the pitfalls of gender stereotyping: Adapt and adopt. If, from the outset, we recognize that taking charge and taking care are both positive attributes, and that each one is required for effective leadership, then it’s possible we can consistently (if not completely) avoid the negative consequences of male versus female.

Here are some key ideas for effectively using insights on different gender styles of work and leadership:

  1. Forget “One Size Fits All” Think of the agentic and communal styles less as masculine- or feminine-only, but simply as distinct toolkits, each with its own set of behaviors. (Given different organizational cultures, “one size fits all” is never the right prescription—both styles have their place and time.)

  2. Our Behaviors are Learned Realize that leadership skills are just that: skills. Assertiveness, verbal dexterity, and problem-solving are not, in fact, exclusively encoded in our genes, but are behaviors that can be learned. How we use our attributes varies, but there’s no reason to believe that men are born leaders and women are primarily nurturers.

  3. Multiple Paths to Success = More Ways to Succeed Actively develop and use the entire repertoire of skills available. There are advantages to both the agentic and communal styles. Cultivating your organization’s ability to make use of every tool in the kit allows you to adapt to any particular situation—taking charge when that’s what the situation demands and inviting participation when that will lead to the best result.

  4. Diversity is Strength Turn contrasting styles into complementing styles by actively implementing mixed gender teams. Putting men and women together has been proven to work. (The teams must be balanced, though, with each side adequately empowered; using “tokens” is a big mistake and actually decreases effectiveness.)

  5. Embracing Difference Allows Cooperation to Thrive Don’t pretend there are no differences in how men and women work. Recognize these differences, and even acknowledge that we all have biases. Understanding the sources and mechanisms of our most fundamental cognitive/cultural orientations is a key to influencing individuals and, importantly, those key structures—teams, units, divisions, etc.—that they constitute/define.

The “battle of the sexes” is both myth and reality, fraught with a host of real and imagined components. It is as old and storied as humanity itself, and as contemporary and mundane as some of the millions of daily exchanges that take place in offices around the world.

Much of this so-called battle, though, revolves around expectations, and by extension, prejudices. But many of these expectations, even the most seemingly entrenched of them, are fading. Corporate cultures are becoming more welcoming to a diversity of leadership styles—and not out of deference to “political correctness” or vague ideas of “equality,” but because they work.

Do some people—including important, influential people in both the public and private sectors—still cling to these prejudices? No question. But one need only look at recent history to understand that a sea change is in effect. Not that long ago women in business were exclusively secretaries and typists and assistants, and were thought unsuited to run even an office, much less an entire company. Yet now women run offices, businesses, even countries.

This is good news all around, not least because it shows that stereotypes are limited and reductionist; and it more than hints at the battle of the sexes’ outcome, with competence prevailing, and everyone winning.