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. In the business world, the male/female dynamic is also present, as demonstrated by a recent article in the Harvard Business Review that found 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.
Perhaps this lack of awareness can be accounted for by the drive 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.
For men, conversations are:
- Negotiations focused on achieving and maintaining the upper hand
- Hierarchical, with the goal being to achieve independence
In particular, men find it difficult—and even impossible—to admit to being wrong, and their drive for independence results in them not wanting to be told what to do.
For women, conversations are:
- Negotiations for closeness, where they seek and give confirmation and support
- Seen as 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.
What can be done to overcome these communication differences in work situations like meetings of boards or teams? Acknowledging they exist is a great start, and then it’s important to take a look at your own behavior to see if you’re inadvertently sending a message that frustrates, angers, or tends to exclude conversational partners.
It’s not easy to change behavior patterns that seem to be a function of gender, but it certainly can be done. The goal should always be to balance the needs that conflict—involvement for women and independence for men—so both feel valued during the communications process.