What Men Don’t ‘Get’ About Women’s Development

I work with male leaders who are managing or mentoring high potential female talent within their organizations. In my experience, the vast majority or male leaders are neither pro nor anti woman’s development … they are largely indifferent to the issue of gender and are just happy to have found talent. That being said, most of my male clients have two (often unspoken) questions about women’s development that we work through.

Question 1: There are lots of women in different professions and levels of the hierarchy and they are legally protected from sexual harassment. Sure it will take time to close the pay gap and move more women into senior roles, but aren’t the issues women face largely a thing of the past?

Well, on the surface, I suppose the answer may be ‘yes’ from the male perspective. Men look around and simply don’t see the glaring gender problems of the past. For instance:

  • Men see that women have boundless career options open to them far beyond the past professional options of nurse and teacher.
  • Few men have witnessed any form of sexual harassment in the past decade or so. Everyone knows that a slap on the rear or a request for sex in return for career help is not acceptable.
  • Pregnant women are hired and promoted. Maternity leave is common and most offices have private rooms for nursing mothers to pump.
  • Men have spent much of their career surrounded by females as peers, subordinates, and bosses.

However, talk to almost any female leader and they will each share a shockingly similar list of frustrations and challenges that they face professionally. Modern gender issues are largely associated with the role that perception plays in our professional relationships … much more subtle and less visible than past gender issues.

We all have mental models and when something varies from that it can create discomfort.  Women in power often counter the mental models held by both males and females – greatly impacting how women leaders are perceived.

Some of the the challenges that these perceptions create include:

Likeability Tightrope: Women who exhibit more traditionally feminine traits tend to be judged high on warmth and are often well liked but not necessarily taken seriously. On the other hand, women who exhibit more masculine traits tend to be judged as competent but low on emotional intelligence (ie: aggressive or edgy). This forces women to try to walk the likability tightrope – being both well liked and highly credible. This is particularly difficult for women in a power position as the spotlight is always harshest for leaders with members of the organization watching their every move. I have met just a handful of women leaders that are able to successfully walk this likability tightrope on a consistent basis.

Confidence: Women tend to be much harsher with their self-critique and are often seen as lacking confidence because they don’t necessarily toot their own horn, go for the big promotion, etc. That leads to women often being dismissed because they are seen as not wanting ‘it’ or not having the guts to go after ‘it’ – when that is not necessarily the case.

Passion: Leaders are often passionate, and women leaders are no different. However, passion displayed by a woman is often misinterpreted as being overly emotional and inappropriate.

Mentorship: Research has identified that top leaders have multiple strong mentors and advocates over the course of their career. However, women tend to have significantly fewer mentors. Some of this is because leaders select protégés based on performance, potential…and often how closely they see themselves reflected. Common interests and styles provide a natural connection point for a relationship and it is simply harder to “see yourself” in someone of the opposite gender. Add to that the fact that high-ranking men tend to avoid being alone in an informal setting with a woman who is at a lower level because they do not want the situation to be misinterpreted.

Question 2: Why should the process for developing women and men be different?

In truth, talent is talent – regardless of gender – and the same tools are used in the development of male and female leaders. Development is recognizing the unique assets that talented individuals (men and woman) bring to the table and using the appropriate tools to grow those skills and abilities. The difference really comes in helping male leaders understand how they, as a leader, can apply those tools given the unique challenges women face.

It’s not diversity training – it’s talent development viewed through the lens of gender.

Sarah Bodner, PhD is a trusted advisor and confidant to executives leading in changing environments. She is an influential systems thinker who operationalizes the critical link between employees, corporate image, and business strategy.