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.



Be the Adult: The Not so Easy Basics of Maturity in the Workplace

Not too long ago, I found myself sitting next to a gentleman on a plane and we struck a casual conversation. Turns out that he was a C-Suite executive for a mid-sized 3rd generation family owned company. When he found out what I did for a living, he began to share the struggles he was dealing with as his organization attempted to remain relevant and profitable in a shrinking market.

He shared the strategic shift that they were making and we discussed the intricate dance of changing systems. Then we got to the good stuff – the real challenge – the human element of change. He was frustrated by the mid-level management’s inability to execute on their new strategy. He was down right angry with the senior team’s unwillingness to align in leading the change.

He described how they were withholding information, undermining each other, creating road blocks, holding years long grudges, etc. Basically, he was describing my middle school “mean girls” experience but played out by grown men and women with real power over the livelihood of hundreds. He paused for a moment, and with a somewhat embarrassed note in his voice, he apologized and asked if I had ever run across a company quite so dysfunctional.

I had to laugh because what he was describing is so very, very common in companies both large and small. As most of us well know, corporations are plagued by immaturity. As we taxied to our gate, I left him with the council that I frequently give to leaders…


Expect your direct reports to behave like adults

Always and without exception

Below are a few basic guidelines for being an adult. They are super obvious, but so many of us find ourselves accidentally falling into less than adult behaviors in our work environments.

  • Say thank you and please.
  • If you won’t say it TO the person, then you shouldn’t say it ABOUT the person.
  • Practice kindness in every opportunity that presents itself and be generous in your assessment of others.
  • You don’t have to like them, but you have to find a way to respectfully work with them.
  • You need to share information, resources, and insights.
  • When you are frustrated or angry, take a moment to step away from the situation and calm down to avoid doing or saying something you may regret later.
  • It is never okay to yell or throw a temper tantrum, even in the privacy of your own office.
  • When you feel yourself really digging in on an issue, pause to ask yourself why – make sure you are being stubborn for the right reason and not because of your ego or for personal benefit.
  • If you have a problem with someone or something they have done, go talk to them about it in a calm manner and do your best to understand their perspective.
  • Even when someone mistreats you, it is not okay for you to mistreat him or her in return. It is never okay to mistreat anyone … even the royal jerk down the hall.
  • When you get your feelings hurt, take a moment to sooth your wounds and then let it go.
  • You usually think that your way is best and that people should just do things the way you want- but life is not like that. As professional adults, we have to collaborate and meet in the middle.
  • It’s not about you – it’s about your customers and employees – so get over yourself.
  • Plan for the long-term, far beyond the timeframe for which you might benefit.

Be The Adult, this is easier to say than do, especially when surrounded by peers and bosses who themselves are acting like moody teenagers. But isn’t that what leadership is about? Doing the hard things. Setting the example. Making things clearer and better for others.

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.


Developing Women : The Challenging Situation Companies Put Male Leaders In

Many companies are looking to leverage the value that women bring to corporations and boards. They recognize the strategic advantage of developing diverse talent and growing the number of women leaders.

There is no shortage of excellent articles, books, workshops, and development programs for women to help them succeed in corporations. There are also a multitude of solutions offered to corporations around policy and governance to develop and advance women.

However, research, and practical experience, has shown that development is most effective when owned by leadership. Wisely, many companies are tasking their mid and senior leadership with developing and advancing female talent.

And so, many male leaders find themselves with an important responsibility: developing diverse talent and growing the number of female leaders within their organization. However, there are a few very real obstacles that hinder their success.

  • They have not been provided tools or training.
  • They are unsure how to best provide support and advocacy.
  • They don’t necessarily understand the unique challenges women face.
  • They may be hesitant to ask about or discuss gender issues because they don’t want to risk accidentally offending or appearing sexist.

In essence, we are putting our male leaders in an unfair situation where in which they are unlikely to succeed. This can be very frustrating and/or disheartening for the male leader and the women they are leading and developing.

If companies are serious about growing their women leaders, then we must invest in our male leaders and provide them with the tools to succeed.

Identifying this need, and the lack of resources available, Featherstone Group created LadyBoss as an avenue to provide those valuable tools to male organizational leaders.

Sarah Bodner, PhD is a confidential thought partner for high-level executives and an influential systems thinker who operationalizes the critical link between employees, corporate image, and business strategy

She is the creator of Lady Boss, an executive education program for male leaders that provides them with valuable tools to support the development and career advancement of women leaders and high potentials.




Tips for Male Execs Speaking to a Group of Women

I have attended more than my fair share of professional development events as a participant, organizer, and/or facilitator. At these development sessions, it is common to have an executive speak to the participants. Some exec are great speakers who engage their audience and others you just have to suffer through, but truthfully, they all seem to have a genuine desire to impart wisdom and share valuable lessons learned.

Recently I noticed a trend….

When an executive (male or female) speaks to a mixed group of men and women high potentials, they will share a story about a valuable lesson they learned from either 1) A boss or mentor 2) An employee or group of employees 3) A difficult business situation.

Women execs follow the same pattern when speaking with all female audiences.

However, when a male exec is speaking to a group of women, almost without exception, he will place a heavy emphasis on his mom, wife, or daughter(s). Why is that? They rarely, if ever, place such an emphasis on these close family relations when speaking to an audience that includes men.

Rather than assuming the worst, let’s take a rational look at things.

Execs are human and, like most of us, can be uncomfortable and unsure when dealing with a group different from themselves. Male execs are most likely making a good faith effort to relate to their female audience.

Being a huge believer in developing leaders, I offer some additional ways that male leaders can relate to their female audience and provide value added insights.

Invite a Few Male High Potentials:

Consider them quality control. If what you are going to share will not be value added for these men, then it will probably not be very value added for the women you are speaking to.

Besides, as leaders or future leaders, they could benefit from understanding issues that professional women are working through. There is also the side benefit of learning to become comfortable with and interact with a group of professional women.

Read Up on the Issues:

You don’t have to do extensive research or become an expert on women’s issues. However, you should have a general knowledge of the challenges professional women face and a cursory understanding of the advice that they frequently encounter.

Ideally, you have read at least one book on the topic. Some of the more frequently read books on the subject are Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office by Lois P. Frankel, The Confidence Code by Katty Kay & Claire Shipman, Games Mother Never Taught You by Betty Lehan Harragan, or What Works for Women at Work by Joan Williams & Rachel Dempsey.

If you don’t have the time for a book, a simple search on Google will offer up several good articles on the topic. The firing of Jill Abramson from the New York Times spawned a slew of thoughtful articles that may offer some insight.

Explains a Few of the Hidden Rules:

Every company has some hidden rules that most employees just know. There are also hidden rules of behavior that men naturally understand but women are completely in the dark about. Share some of these rules …. women might not like or agree with them, but we need to know about them.

Understand the Catch 22:

Women often find themselves caught between the two stereotypes of professional women. They must walk a very fine tightrope between

  1. Leadership behaviors that are more masculine. You will know these women by the words used to described them when they are not in the room – Arrogant, Aggressive, Edgy, Don’t “Fit In.”
  2. Leadership behaviors that are more feminine. These women are usually very well liked but are often overlooked and are not seen as power players.

These two stereotypes can be a good reference in understanding the unique challenges of women and can inform some of the advice you offer. Please understand, that while there is truth behind these two stereotypes, it is not an either/or issue and there is a wide spectrum of behaviors and perceptions.

Talk about Power:

As an executive you have power. It’s not something that we like to talk about, but we need to. The power dynamics in corporations can be very tricky for women and they need your insights.

Consider sharing advice on how to gain power, how to leverage power, how to not misuse power. Also, how to appropriately respond to others who have power and how to handle power struggles.

Talk about Business Challenges:

Not everything should be about gender. What is going on in the industry? What are the challenges you need help solving? What are the various levers that you can pull to achieve desired outcomes?


Sarah Bodner, PhD is a confidential thought partner for high-level executives and an influential systems thinker who operationalizes the critical link between employees, corporate image, and business strategy

She is the creator of Lady Boss, an executive education program for male leaders that provides them with useful tools to support the development and career advancement of women leaders and high potentials.