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When she was named Microsoft’s new head of Windows, Julie Larson-Green was praised for her ability to collaborate. Associated Press (Ted S. Warren)
When she was named Microsoft’s new head of Windows, Julie Larson-Green was praised for her ability to collaborate. Associated Press (Ted S. Warren)

Women@work

Do women have an edge in the workplace? Add to ...

In recent weeks, several men at the top of their professional game have been unceremoniously ousted from their perch, only to be replaced by up-and-coming female executives who were praised for their ability to work with others. Do women now have an advantage in the workplace?

When Microsoft Corp. announced that Julie Larson-Green would lead all Windows software and hardware engineering, CEO Steve Ballmer praised her ability to collaborate. This appeared in stark contrast, with her predecessor, Windows division president Steven Sinofsky, who was known not to play well with others.

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When Lockheed Martin announced that Marillyn Hewson will take the reins as the defence company’s first female CEO (after the very public resignation of Christopher Kubasik for his relationship with a subordinate), The Washington Post characterized her as “warm and personable.”

This week, Deutsche Bank advertised that it is on the lookout for more female, and thus team-oriented, bankers.

True or not, it’s a common belief that women trump men in softer, social skills. Although I struggle to recall when a top male executive was praised in the news media for his likeability, this perception that women possess these apparently natural social skills increasingly seems to work to their advantage. This cliché played out deliciously in a satirical blog post on Jezebel.com, which asked “Is America ready for a white, male Secretary of State?” The piece suggested that only a woman could possess the intuition, emotional intelligence and diplomacy necessary for such a demanding job.

Ronald Burke, professor emeritus of organization studies at the York University’s Schulich School of Business in Toronto, said that there is a body of research to back up this generalization and that some companies might be inclined to hire women based on their perceived leadership style.

There is a body of research indicating that women are more likely to possess leadership traits that are more “transformational” – such as being more collaborative and better team players – and those are skills that leading edge companies are quickly looking to adopt, Dr. Burke said.

“Men are more likely to use a ‘command and control’ approach but it turns out that isn’t as productive,” he added.

If a gender-specific approach to leadership does exist, then we need to look more closely at how we are socializing our children. Warren Farrell, author of The Myth of Male Power, argues that boys are suffering from a “failure to launch” in almost all industrialized countries, lagging behind girls in reading, writing and postsecondary school attendance.

However, there still remains the idea that men need to be the breadwinner. The continuing stereotype of the powerful, domineering male CEO – one who dedicates his life to endless work and loses touch with his family and his life in the process – is problematic and unsustainable, Mr. Farrell said.

“Men unconsciously have learned to define power as ‘feeling obligated to earn money someone else spends while we die sooner,’” he said. “On the other hand, if we define power as ‘control over one’s life’ – which I believe needs to be our evolutionary shift in the definition of power – then that’s the type of power women are more likely to have.”

Although the struggle of boys in education has been well documented, as have the gains girls have made, that is not reflected in the makeup at the highest echelons of the work force, where women hold less than 4 per cent of the CEO roles on the Fortune 500 list.

Perhaps the news media’s scrutiny of a few high-profile, female success stories, such as Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, skew the perception that women have arrived. Recent books such Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men and Liza Mundy’s The Richer Sex help fan the flames and suggest the existence of a new matriarchy. We need to quash the misconception that men are the new minority in the work force, because it risks triggering a backlash to the modest advancements women have made.

“The truth is that it isn’t easier for women to secure jobs or promotions. It’s not true whatsoever. If it were, we would have more women in CEO positions,” argued Michael Bach, national director of diversity, equity and inclusion at consulting firm KPMG in Toronto.

Mr. Bach said he has seen some resistance to the modest advancements of women in the work force from men and women alike. But the idea of there being a feminine advantage doesn’t mesh with reality, he said.

“I’ve never, ever seen an employer replace a man with a woman solely because of their gender. That would be an absurd employment practice, and it’s highly insulting to the skills the woman brings to the job,” said Mr. Bach, adding that it would be “business suicide for any organization to prioritize gender, or any other personal characteristic, over skill.”

He attributes the complaints about men being the new minority from those who don’t understand the value of diversity. They come from the same chorus of critics who argue that everyone should be treated the same.

“Why would you treat everyone the same,” he said, “when not everyone is the same?”

Leah Eichler is founder of Femme-o-Nomics, a networking and content portal for professional women and r/ally, a mobile collaboration app.

E-mail: leah.eichler@femme-o-nomics.com

Follow on Twitter: @LeahEichler

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