Men and Women are Equal, but Different


The world of work is changing rapidly. In the UK 50% of graduates are women, and they enter into organizations in the same number as men. Fifty percent of GP’s, lawyers and accountants are female. This leads to issues that aren’t new, but are suddenly exacerbated in scale.

One of the most urgent issues is the high attrition rate of women. Some organisations find that 50% of their high potentials are female, and they realise with a shock that 40% of those will leave the organisation in the next five years. Something needs to happen and so far diversity initiatives have not been very successful.

No wonder, as current diversity initiatives seem focused on treating everyone in the organization as an equal and ‘fixing the women’ so as to teach them how to progress in a system designed for men. Instead the focus needs to be on fixing organisations, culture and their managers and create organisations where both men and women feel valued and engaged and see opportunities to progress.

Recent research in neuroscience and psychology has shown that there are clear differences between men and women. They are motivated and inspired differently and often have different ways of working. Expecting women to feel engaged and be successful in organisations traditionally designed for men is not working. It’s like expecting a fish to climb a tree.

Line managers need to become Gender Smart

Instead managers need to adapt their style to what women need and create a place that works for both women and men. Managers need to learn about brain wiring and psychological differences, so they can adapt their style to what women need. Rather than asking women to climb a tree, they should create a lake. That is Gender Smart Leadership.

Some of the key behaviours managers need to flex when working with mixed gender teams:

  • Encourage and nurture the women in their team for instance by checking in with them regularly. Challenge and provoke the men in their team for instance with competitions and awards.
  • Give feedback on process as well as end-results for the women in their team. Give feedback on end-results for the men. Mention how it was appreciated she stayed late, was fully committed to the job or always available with the right answer when you needed her. Mention to both her and him how the end-result reflects well on his or her capabilities and reward both for end-results.
  • Encourage individual behaviour for the women in their team, asking them to take something forward independently. Challenge the men in their team to display more team behaviour and work with others.
  • Recognise the value of difference. Look for ways women get to results, and encourage her to identify and speak up about her way of working. Perhaps she has a more consultative style of leading, which creates buy-in. Perhaps she is good at taking the tension out of situations and prevent them from overheating. Or, perhaps she has a talent for seeing the bigger picture and her questions lead to well-founded decisions.

Of course every team member is an individual, and a good manager adapts their style to what this particular individual needs. Some women may respond very well to a challenge, some men may respond well to an encouraging style. Good managers can be flexible and experiment with a different approach for each individual. To accomplish that, managers need to be aware of what men and women need, see the value of each style of working and act accordingly.

This lens of difference could be the key to keeping female talent on board.

Inge Woudstra

About the Author

Inge Woudstra MSc is the author ofBe Gender Smart – The Key to Career Success for Women’.

She is an experienced tutor, researcher and consultant at W2O Consulting & Training.