Part way through a presentation I was making to a CEO of a mid-sized company, I noticed him look down and away. He stopped asking questions and turned quiet. "I've lost him," I thought and went home feeling dejected that I had bored someone I tried hard to impress. When he followed up a week later to continue our dialogue, it took me by surprise.
I am convinced that people rarely understand each other fully and that misinterpreted cues often occur between men and women. It's no wonder misunderstandings frequently occur.
So when gender intelligence expert Barbara Annis recently published Work With Me: The 8 Blind Spots Between Men and Women in Business with co-author, John Gray, of the famous Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus series, I eagerly read through it, searching for clues.
The insights were, literally, eye opening. Apparently, men turn away during a conversation to concentrate, while women focus on each other's eyes (Lesson 8). When I list the many challenges I face in a day to my husband, I'm alleviating my stress, not complaining (Lesson 3). The startling realization from the book is that despite our progress, men and women still do not know how to act around each other.
Can we blame the lack of advancement of women in the workplace on a colossal case of misunderstanding? Perhaps.
"I do believe that men and women have very different styles of communication," said Jennifer Reynolds, president of Women in Capital Markets, a Toronto-based organization that helps women advance in the capital markets industry.
"I have been in many meetings where a woman comes up with an idea and the idea is barely acknowledged until moments later a man throws the very same idea out and it is picked up by the group," Ms. Reynolds said. In these occasions, she added, men will often take ownership of the idea by restating and perhaps adding some element to it, demonstrating a more competitive dynamic. This results in the loudest voice "winning" the discussion.
"It can leave some of the most innovative ideas on the boardroom floor because they weren't presented in a traditional male communication style," she lamented.
Part of the appeal of emphasizing the value of gender intelligence in the workplace is that it avoids the blame game. It's a refreshing change in the conversation about women's advancement when no one suggests that men are trying to hold women back or that women are choosing to opt out. Rather, the culprit comes down to both socialization and biology.
Work With Me argues that men and women are hard-wired differently, so they communicate and process interpersonal information differently. It's because of biology that male and female perspectives and communications are often at odds. The authors argue this is a good thing.
This approach is "incredibly freeing for men and it is incredibly validating for women," Ms. Annis said in an interview. "It's liberating because it ends the blame game, the male-dominated paradigm goes away and it focuses on you and me working together for the best solution."
Ms. Annis and Mr. Gray advocate emphasizing how the differences between men and women complement each other, and I couldn't agree more. But I can't help but fret that some will view divergent leadership characteristics in more sinister ways, arguing, for example, that certain gender-related traits are better suited to leadership roles.
While the authors cite considerable research throughout their book to emphasize their point, not all social scientists are in agreement.
The authors of a study published February in the journal of Personality and Social Psychology titled "Men and Women are from Earth," reanalyzed data found from 13 studies and concluded that it is impossible to divide traits along gender lines. Women misunderstand women all the time in a professional setting, as men do men. If you add divergent cultural and economic backgrounds to the mix, communication can become incredibly complex.
Are men and women different? Certainly. Should we celebrate these differences as we learn to work together? Absolutely. Are men always from Mars and women always from Venus? My instinct says no. But the conversation about how and why we miscommunicate, and how to work around those disconnects, can be enormously useful, so long as we don't get too caught up in the minutiae of brain biology and ensure that it is not used as a weapon to disqualify the inclusion of a particular stripe.