Working women seem to face an ever-growing list of attributes they lack and strategies they should adopt if they want to bridge the gender gap in their workplace. But how did fixing that gap become the responsibility of women? And has the exhaustive focus on what women should be doing differently, ignored the fact that perhaps their very differences are also their greatest strengths?
As the CEO and founder of her own business consultancy, Barbara Annis has spent nearly three decades exploring these issues, becoming a pioneer and leader in the field of gender intelligence, and helping businesses around the globe understand that evolving their cultures to best serve men and women, is not just about good values and sound P.R., but is a business imperative that boosts the bottom line.
Annis, who is also Chair Emeritus of the Women’s Leadership Board at Harvard Kennedy School, realized early on in her career that she had her own gender blind spot.
“I was working with this big pharmaceutical company and this female scientist kept asking me, 'Why are you focusing on us? Why are we here? Why are we being trained?'" says Annis. "I realized I didn’t have an intelligent answer. I had my own blind spot: I was putting the onus on women to fix the ‘women problem.'”
“That is what’s been happening in society to this day. We do these women’s initiatives, we do leadership training for women, and we don’t look at it systemically, we don’t look at it within culture; leaders set the tone for culture and for the most part the leaders are men.”
Annis evolved her approach, bringing men into the conversation, and focusing on men and women learning in collaboration. Her new book, “Gender Intelligence,” co-authored with Keith Merron, deploys data derived from years of work and research, and lays out the crucial brain science that helps men and women not only recognize and make sense of their differences, but better understand their value.
Here, Annis reveals the white lie working women tell, explains why women assuming male leadership behaviors has a real cost, and discusses how even young, progressive CEOs can still have gender blind spots.
You raise an unintended consequence of the “we are equal” rallying cry of women, which is that for a long time it shut down discussion of, and research into, differences between genders.
It’s interesting because we want, of course, to create equality, but if you equate equality with sameness, you’re blocking your learning on differences, and that’s the challenge. I was talking to a technology company, and the CEO had just been given the results of a focus group with their top-performing women -- super, super smart women engineers -- and the women were saying, “I don’t feel comfortable in this culture. I don’t feel I belong here.” He said to me, “Can’t they just stop the drama?” And I said, “This is exactly the classic male model mindset: you are putting the onus on them to fix themselves so they can fit into your paradigm.” I didn’t say it in a blame way; I provided him with a ton of research and logic, and he completely got it. He got that it really isn’t about “great minds think alike,” it’s about “great minds think unalike,” and so how can you appreciate the unalikeness?
It really isn’t about “great minds think alike,” it’s about “great minds think unalike,” and so how can you appreciate the unalikeness?
You cite a great deal of data which shows how the brains of men and women are different. Of all those differences, what did you find most fascinating or illustrative of why men and women bring such different skills to the table?
The way men and women innovate and problem solve tends to have different approaches because of the hard-wiring. Women are more connected in the right and left hemisphere of the brain, so when they’re looking at an issue they look at it contextually: web-like thinking. Men look at it unifocally. So, for men it’s convergent thinking, and for women it’s divergent thinking: that’s the tendency based on the hard-wiring of the brain. If you don’t understand that, you’re misinterpreting it when women diverge in their thinking and say, “Wait a minute, how does this effect over here and over here.” What I’m getting at here, is we actually need both ways of thinking.
Can you talk about “first woman syndrome,” and how it has reinforced existing models?
Harvard coined this “First Woman Syndrome” in their research where they found women emulating a male model. Here are the factors on this. First, when women look up for role models, they tend to look at other women, and if the women at the top don’t represent their own authentic values or behaviors, but instead have taken on much more male behaviors, it lacks inspiration as a role model. Second, this is actually costly for women: women who have taken on male behavior get penalized. Aggressive men, it’s, “Oh, what a guy!” Aggressive female, it’s, “Oh, she eats nails for breakfast.”
Aggressive men, it’s, “Oh, what a guy!” Aggressive female, it’s, “Oh, she eats nails for breakfast.”
The New York Times is a perfect example of this with Jill Abramson and what she went through. I have coached women who have fallen into that. It’s very hard to undo. They see the pay-off, but after being in it for 20, 30 years they begin to see the cost, and they say, “Wow. Did I really do that? Really?” I had one woman, a top managing partner at a huge law firm, who said to me, “My family wouldn’t recognize me at work.” And I said, “That is such a sad statement, that you can’t bring your authentic self to work,” and she said, “Not a chance. I would get my vote cancelled.” So there’s a huge personal cost.
Your work turned up a frequent white lie women tell when they leave a company, which is citing family reasons for leaving when in fact they’re simply unhappy. Can you talk about the broader implications of that?
Well, first of all, it creates a myth and companies start solving the wrong thing. So, of course women don’t want to burn their bridges, and work-life balance is a challenge, but it’s not what’s causing women to vote with their feet. There’s something very different going on.
There’s no correlation between the advancement of women and creating more work-life flexibility, none. None. There’s a correlation to engagement but not to advancement.
The white lie actually creates barriers for women. And as you saw in the book, there’s no correlation between the advancement of women and creating more work-life flexibility, none. None. There’s a correlation to engagement but not to advancement. But going back to perpetuating that lie, often I will say to women who have decided to leave, “Tell the truth. Leave a legacy.” And 90% of the time, maybe 95% of the time, they decline. And it isn’t until later when they’re secured in another position, that there are women who will say, “You know what? Upon reflection, I actually didn’t feel valued. I didn’t feel like I could be myself. I didn’t respect the leader’s behavior, and I didn’t feel like I could call it for being non-inclusive.” That was the key factor in what would cause them to leave.
There’s a lot of discussion about why women are not making it into the C-suite. You found very senior women often rate their satisfaction lower than middle management women. Can you talk about why that is and the isolation at the top?
It’s really interesting what happens when women feel that they can’t be honest and really rigorous in feedback. When you look at the C-suite, there’s a lot of tolerating that goes on, you know “fake it ‘til you make it,” versus them really feeling inspired and feeling valued. This is often a really big “aha!” moment for presidents and CEOs: when you show them results in terms of hierarchy, and say, “Look at your managing directors, these are your top talent women, and they’re the ones who are the most unhappy.”
This really is simple and so fixable. You don’t have to boil the ocean here, but you do have to have the right kind of “aha!” moments.
This is often so not what they’re working on, because they think, “These women have made it, we’re good!” So they’re looking at lower levels and just filling the pipeline to get more women in, instead of really understanding that culturally there’s something you need to transform, so that women not only feel heard but actually feel valued and empowered. And this really is simple and so fixable. You don’t have to boil the ocean here, but you do have to have the right kind of “aha!” moments.
There are many company leaders in the book who consider themselves pro-gender equality yet lead in a gender unaware way; interestingly, you saw this in younger CEOs as well as older CEOs.
Great catch. That was a big surprise for me. I have sons who are CEOs, and I see how they co-parent and how they do a lot of things differently from their father. So, in terms of socialization, I see a huge generational shift, but what’s interesting is that the male brain, regardless of what age you are, still functions in a certain way. And younger CEOs have that same approach.
The double-whammy of this is that because they’re socialized differently and they’re far more involved with their family and their children and all of that wonderful stuff, they think they’re gender intelligent in the boardroom or when they’re making decisions. We had one young CEO who was a top guy -- brilliant, very, very accomplished -- and he joined a big corporation which was gender intelligent and all of a sudden, boom, he stuck out like a sore thumb. And he was young, very smart, very well-intended, but he had blind spots in terms of gender differences, and how to be more inclusive and how to empower diversity of thinking and really innovate together with women. He went through a workshop and he’s now completely transformed: he’s now the star and has 50/50 representation of women. But he didn’t know what he didn’t know.
One key point the book raises is that if a company hands over gender diversity to human resources, it signals that it’s not about strategic value but about compliance. Can you talk about how that has impacted the efficacy of these policies.
When we walk into client systems, usually whatever’s going on, is in HR, and it’s viewed as, “Well, it’s their job, and it’s compliance, and we’re just kind of covering our risk factor.” The challenge with that is, if you have a compliance mindset, the culture can become so sterile and politically correct that nobody wants to talk about it, and the other challenge, which is really huge, is that men are not giving direct feedback to women.
It’s not about blame, it’s about gaining new understanding.
I remember asking questions of these really top executives in Europe, and they said, “We can actually talk about this? I can actually talk about the fact that my comfort zone isn’t as big with women as men?” So men find it incredibly freeing, and women find it incredibly validating. Of course, it has to be facilitated in a very powerful way, because it’s not about blame, it’s about gaining new understanding.
During your work, you witness many “aha!” moments as men and women learn about gender difference and become gender intelligent. What is the most powerful “aha!” moment you have seen?
When I have a CEO come over in the middle of a session and say, “This is not only a watershed moment for me, but had I known this 27 years ago, I would have done things very differently. Not only in my professional life but in my personal life; I would have been a gender intelligent parent. I was not. I was trying to -- with the best of intentions -- coach my daughter to suck it up, don’t take things personally, don’t internalize it.” I had one gentlemen, who I would say is in his late 50s, early 60s, say, “This is what the world should be like. We should be able to talk like this, and ask the questions. Without blame. Without resistance.” That’s a win-win understanding on how we collaborate and partner together. So, those are my special moments.
This interview has been edited.
For more information and inspiration visit MariaShriver.com