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By Rosalind Sedacca

In the '60s and '70s thousands of women fought a hard battle in the workplace.  The purpose was to prove what seemed like a fundamental point: that, beyond the physical, there are no intrinsic differences between women and men.  The intention was certainly valid -- opening doors to occupations and executive positions that were gender restricted or out of reach in the past due to the infamous glass ceiling.  However, as the doors to equality began to open, an interesting reality also became apparent.  Men and women are really not the same - in their thinking, acting, communicating or in many other behaviors.  The truth is, we can never be the same, nor should we strive to be.  Consequently, it is imperative that we recognize and understand just what those innate differences are - and then learn how to use them to our best advantage.

Understanding Primary Gender Differences

Researchers who have studied human beings from infancy through adulthood have found some universal differences between the sexes.  By understanding how these innate differences show up in our lives we can arm ourselves with the awareness and skills that enable us to accelerate through the business hierarchy with minimum stress and maximum success. 

To simplify any conversation about gender dynamics, we need to make broad generalizations about males and females.  While individual personalities and other factors all play a part in determining our behaviors, gender differences are significant enough for us to acknowledge, study and discuss. 

The primary difference between the genders is that men, in general, are resolvers and women are relaters.  Being resolvers, men focus on doing, taking action, finding solutions, getting things done and solving problems.  As a result they are very externally focused.

As relaters, women focus on pleasing, communicating, making connections, understanding feelings, exploring emotions and being understood.  As a result they are more introspective and internally focused.

Acclaimed author Deborah Tannen sums these differences up quite succinctly by pointing out that "women talk to establish rapport ... while men talk to report."

According to Tannen, this means women use language in ways that develop relationships; men use language to tell people what they know.  Our basic intentions and perspectives are different, and those differences play themselves out in a myriad of ways throughout our culture.

This is complicated even further by the dichotomy of our internal versus external focus.  "Mars/Venus" author John Gray says this difference is apparent very early on in children.  When young boys have to deal with life problems, they tend to act out.  They get more aggressive, even violent, and are likely to blame others for their dilemmas.

Gray notes that when young girls are faced with similar difficulties, they tend to act in.  They get more introverted and usually blame themselves.

This is why, according to Gray, 80% of the people in our prisons are men and 80% of the people in therapy are women.

Transcending Historical Challenges

  So what happens when the externally focused resolver interacts with the internally focused relater in the workplace?  Misunderstanding, mistrust and enormous confusion in our perceptions of how to behave, communicate and get things done.

This is not surprising when you consider that females have been invading the male- dominated work environment for only a few short decades.  Prior to the sixties and seventies women were relegated to a very narrow range of job possibilities: primarily as teachers, nurses, secretaries and sales clerks.  Beyond these parameters the pickings were slim, the possibilities quite limited.  As women accelerated their climb into the managerial and executive hierarchy, the differences in their approach to business - especially in terms of communication and relationship-building - became areas of contention at worst, and confusion at best.

In the male-focused business world both men and women agree on one thing: men have greater perceived credibility.  They're more comfortable standing in their power as authorities.  Women are fighting age-old perceptions to gain their credibility. While men are judged by the position of power they hold, women in our culture are often still judged by the presence they bring into a room.  In many cases they have to earn their influence through means other than perceived authority.  That translates into working harder to prove themselves through overcoming more obstacles, achieving higher goals and demonstrating skills that measurably boost the bottom line.

A fundamental principle of psychology notes that people are more readily influenced by those they see as similar to themselves.  Men have always taken this for granted when dealing with other men in business.  Dissimilarity has become a major challenge for many career women who have trouble assimilating into the business world or corporate culture because they don't always know how to "play by the rules."

Here are some concrete suggestions for women who want to bridge the business gender gap through playing by your own rules -- and making cross-gender communications work for you.

  • Speak with authority.  Avoid raising your voice in a questioning tone at the end of sentences.  When your voice goes up, your credibility goes down.

  •   Don't wait your turn in meetings.  Men assertively speak out with strong voices.  If you have a comment, state it without waiting to be called upon.

  • Be aware of listening style differences.  Women listen attentively with direct eye contact, nodding and vocalizing which men often misconstrue to mean agreement.  Be clear when expressing the difference between "I hear you" versus "I agree with you."

  • Monitor your smiling.  Women smile more readily in business contexts to be friendly.  Men smile with women to flirt.  Be careful your behaviors are not misinterpreted.

  • Honor your skills as a Relater.  When communication difficulties arise, use the REAP Formula for clarification: R = Repeat and review what you hear him say; E = Empathize with his feelings; A = Acknowledge the validity of his message, even if you don't agree; then P = Persist with patience until you can communicate -- and eliminate defensiveness -- with clarity and respect.

Rosalind Sedacca is a Business Communication Strategist who speaks, trains and consults on women's business issues and gender communication dynamics.  She can be reached at 561 588-5581, fax 561 588-6905 or [email protected]                               

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