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Gender issues: Yes, we're different

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Gender differences in communication are both obvious and subtle. The wildly popular book, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, highlights the differences in how men and women think, with a focus on personal relationships.

While we often find humor in these conflicting perspectives, it can be extremely frustrating and potentially derailing when we experience these diverse attitudes in our professional lives. Therefore, understanding gender distinctions in communication is critical for both men and women to work together effectively and maximize their individual and collective potential for business success.

The work place differences in the male/female dynamic is demonstrated in a recent article in the Harvard Business Review that found that not only are women grossly underrepresented on Fortune 500 boards, but females' experiences are vastly different from their male counterparts' perception of how women experience being on a board. Women often feel excluded and isolated in the boardroom — and men don't pick up on that at all.

Additionally, in my leadership coaching work, many female executives will express that often in corporate meetings they share an idea that is ignored, while a male colleague may express a similar thought and he is lauded, resulting in these women feeling frustrated that their voice is not heard.

What can be done to overcome gender differences at work? Both men and women acknowledging they exist and attempting to understand them is a great start.

Gender's Impacts at work
Perhaps this lack of awareness stems from the differences men and women have with regard to conversations, which can be significant. While there is always a continuum when looking at behavior, there have been some interesting findings in gender communication research.

Women certainly don't lack the ability to bargain, but they often hedge their assertiveness when negotiating by simultaneously seeking social approval. Ironically, women as a rule don't have an issue negotiating for someone else; it's when they need to promote themselves that they often stumble.

Being direct
Women often hold back in situations that warrant stepping up, assuming they'll be picked, noticed or rewarded solely due to their accomplishments. They often have trouble being direct.

Men, on the other hand, tend to ask for what they want — so they get their needs met more often. Women can learn from this and many have; those who excel have learned to communicate in a direct and confident fashion (even if they retain internal doubts).

Conversation goals
For men, conversations are negotiations focused on achieving and maintaining the upper hand, and hierarchical, with a goal of achieving independence. For women, conversations are negotiations for closeness, where they seek and give confirmation and support, and a way to enhance their network of connections.

The goal for women in most conversations is to reach consensus, thus you can see why problems can ensue when men and women stick to their traditional behavior patterns. Those issues are exacerbated when men use “I,” which they often do instead of “we” or “us,” a practice that makes women feel excluded from conversations or plans.

The final nail in the conversation coffin can be differences in communication style; women speak in details, while men talk about the big picture. Add to that the fact that men cite facts and often express them as absolutes, something that can make them appear patronizing.

How to address differences
If you're a woman struggling to have your voice heard in the workplace, it is necessary to embrace strategies to empower yourself.

The first step is to take a look at your own behavior to see if you're inadvertently sending a message that frustrates others or tends to get you excluded as a conversational partner — resulting in having your voice ignored. Women who often find themselves in that situation must determine what about their style makes this happen, and what can they do to turn things around.

What specific steps can women take to communicate more effectively, to both be heard and get what they want? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Make it a goal to be more assertive;
  • Be aware of your needs and prioritize them;
  • Be aware of your language; use powerful words and drop qualifiers like perhaps or maybe;
  • Take note of your tone, inflection and body language — focus on exuding confidence;
  • Directly communicate your needs. If you want something, ask for it.
    Considering the powerful impact women have demonstrated in driving results in the business world, it is critical that both men and women share in the responsibility of narrowing the communication gap in the workplace. This can only be accomplished if both genders are willing to shift the way they think and behave — even if it means getting out of their comfort zone — and anticipate that the outcome will be worth the short-term discomfort.
  • Denise P. Federer, Ph.D. is founder and principal of Federer Performance Management Group. She has 27 years of experience working with key executives, business leaders and Fortune 500 companies as a behavioral psychologist, consultant, coach and trainer. Contact her at: [email protected]


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