Gender Balancing : Step 4 – Becoming Gender Bilingual

This is the final part of an overview on conducting successful gender balancing in a company.  Step 1 is to ensure that the CEO is on board; Step 2 is to ensure that everyone in the organisation understands the Business Rationale behind gender balancing and Step 3 requires looking at every aspect of the culture of the business to ensure that all practices and behaviours support gender equality.  This will take companies a long way towards successful gender balancing, but a large part of the puzzle will still be missing.  This piece is what I call ‘gender bilingualism’.  In other words, the way that companies can ensure that all managers, both male and female, are able to’ speak the language’ and understand the behaviours of both genders, rather than just those of men.

To use another business case study as an example, most international company leaders are aware of the buying power of the BRICS countries and are learning the language of business in these lands.  Actually, women are a far bigger market than all these countries combined.  Thus, in the 21st Century, leadership needs to learn the language and culture of women, and all managers should be tasked with the necessity of becoming fully gender bilingual.

What is the current situation with regard to gender bilingualism?

Many managers are not convinced that there are significant differences between men and women at work.  They believe in the power of meritocracy, and are convinced that if they treat women exactly the same as men, they’ll flourish.  By treating the genders equally, they feel that women will naturally rise to the top as soon as their qualifications, their desire to take on more responsibility and their experience in the field justifies the promotion.

And this is the problem.

As discussed in Step 3, the culture of almost all organisations has been laid down by men and is consequently an alpha male construct.  So, by treating employees equally, what is usually meant is that women will be treated just like men. Thus the only way for women to succeed is to take on male characteristics.  Most male managers don’t even realise that this is what they’re doing – but they are putting unintended obstacles in the path of women that are damaging management effectiveness and severely compromising half of the qualified Talent pool.

What is needed, as has already been described in previous articles, is not further changing women to play by men’s rules.   Instead, we need to be teaching both men and women that there are significant career related differences between the genders that should be taken in account.  Managers also need to remember that these very differences are what will help businesses move forward and thrive in the 21st Century.

So what are the major differences between the genders? There are many physiological, psychological and neurological differences; however, for the purposes of this article, I will focus only on those differences that are significant in a business setting.

  • Career Cycles

By virtue of their biology, women and men are going to have different career cycles.  The linear pattern followed by most men is not going to apply to those women who choose to have children.  The majority of men are getting going and accelerating their careers in their 20’s and 30’s, and have reached their peak in the their 40’s and 50’s.  This is the pattern of the 20th Century breadwinner – and it hasn’t changed since.  But the social patterns of this Century have clearly changed. Not only are women now highly educated, ambitious and wanting to share in business life, there is also the ever-growing phenomenon of the single-parent family.  No more is the male the sole provider for the family.

boardroom 36More significantly, in their 30’s, a vast number of the women of the workforce are dealing with the complexity of managing parenthood along with their working responsibilities.  And no matter how much change has taken place socially, it is still overwhelmingly true that women who work and have children have a ‘double load’, carrying far too many of the responsibilities of running the home and the children as well as holding down a job.  This must change, of course, as both sets of parents assume the pleasures and perils of raising a family, but for now we need to deal with the current reality.

Unfortunately, for women in their 30’s, their most taxing time of juggling priorities coincides precisely with the time when companies start to identify their high potential Talent.  Many women who need flexibility, time off, or even a hiatus from work for a few years, are not seen as serious contenders for future management.  And this premise has to change.  The approach probably wasn’t introduced to discriminate against women as it was created before there were as many women in the workplace as there are now.  Yet this paradigm has done more to eliminate generations of women from the leadership pipeline than any other accepted mode of conducting business.

The only way around this, if companies are to become truly ‘gender bilingual’, is for them to recognize and adapt their career management cycles to women’s different career patterns, particularly their situation in their 30’s.  If these different cycles are not taken into account, women will keep falling into a black hole and their talents and potential will be sidelined and squandered under the label of being ‘mothers’.   When employees are beyond the age of 40 , the leaders have usually been picked – at exactly the time when women are often re-energising.  But, to quote one article: “the career train passes only once, and if you miss it, you can’t get back on – ever.”

As a matter of interest, ambitious young men are  increasingly married to ambitious young women, and both halves of the couple are starting to find focusing a career management time-frame on their 30’s as being problematic.  Parents need to be parents, and companies who are managing their Talent effectively and who are building for the future, must accept that both women and men will probably need to be given some flexibility during this time in order to cope with their significant family responsibilities.  In no way should this mean that they are disqualified from consideration for future leadership.

If the differences in career cycles are not taken into consideration, we’ll continue with the growing pattern of women choosing a career over family.  Between 41% and 43% of professional women in the US are now childless, and this probably has contributed to the dropping rate of birth in Europe too.  If this trend continues, to whom do these companies think they will be selling their products and services in the decades to come?

  • Networking:

Once again,  management is looking for those key individuals, usually in their 30’s, who they can groom for future leadership through developmental jobs and, often, through international mobility.  They are looking for people who can initiate projects and ideas, lead team and build coalitions.  These rules are unwritten and the ability to attract the eye of those who can influence a career path is usually achieved through networking and informal mentoring relationships.  Essential career management information is often transmitted from like to like by managers who feel close to or who are comfortable with a certain profile of person – most often resembling themselves.  This is how the homogenous management teams and Boards of Directors have been put together in the past, and the pattern doesn’t show much change over the first decade of the 21st Century.

So, a key criterion for individuals in their 30’s is to be identified as one of these high potential individuals – to become more visible toHandshake senior management, and to get on their radar as ‘someone to watch’ (especially by the Nomination Committee who are constantly assessing future Talent).  And this is where women are consistently failed by the system – managers aren’t ‘gender bilingual’ enough to recognize that an employee who doesn’t behave just like them might be equally or more qualified for future leadership.

It is clear from endless research that women just don’t feel comfortable with self-promotion.  While they’re excellent at forming relationships, these are not the type of ‘transactional’ relationships that are so typical of those formed by networking men.  And we all know that even those companies that pride themselves on being meritocracies are still largely promoting those from the subjective standpoint of ‘who you know’.  This links to the next difference between the genders – the way they communicate.

  • Communication styles:

There is a clear difference in the way women and men communicate.  From the earliest age, boys seek to shine.  In their groups they are competitive and look to see who is smartest, fastest, biggest – and that person becomes the leader.  Ranking is important to boys and men.  Girls are far more inclusive and tend to look for similarities and ‘sameness’ rather than comparisons.  In the working word, this affects the self-promotion which is still one of the major way that employees get noticed.  Women generally tend to remain convinced that promotion is based on job performance.  Unfortunately, the average manager (who is probably male) is expecting the next mover and shaker to be self-promoting and to be aggressively pushing for power.  These different communication styles have had a huge effect on the progress that the genders make in corporate life. This aspect also links into another area, which is enacted daily in companies – political games.

  • Power and political competence

Many women, at least at the beginning of their careers, are oblivious to the political realities underlying their organisations.  Men are much more attuned to this (mostly because the system has been set-up by men).  By the time the women start to realise that they’re being left behind, they have to scramble to make up for lost time and start frantically to fill in the holes in their network.  But, once again, that career train may have left the station.  

In becoming gender bilingual, companies should perhaps consider whether they really want to encourage women to become more political.  Perhaps they have grown weary of the men jockeying for position, and can start to see that this doesn’t make them the natural successors.  Still, many managers admit that they consider it a risk to promote a woman who is not avidly pushing for a higher position.  This should change as managers become more gender bilingual.


Here are some further tips for managers who are striving to become ‘gender bilingual’:

  • Become more self-aware  – all of us make assumptions and all of us have unconscious bias.  Becoming gender bilingual meansunity 2 knowing who you are and why you are that way – this is the key to learning to relate to and manage people who are not like you.
  • Learning the differences between the genders –we’ve established so far that managers are often challenged in identifying female Talent because they may sound and look different from what they are looking for subconsciously.
  • Don’t make assumptions for women – rather ask directly.  There have been many cases where women have been overlooked for a transfer / promotion because the manager didn’t think they’d be interested.  Find out and be sure.
  • Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer / encourage instead – it’s very hard for managers to learn that they sometimes have to ‘pull’ a woman into a position, but this is often what is required.  Men are usually ready to move ahead even if they’re not fully prepared.  The President of Microsoft, Emilio Umeoka, noted that women seem to feel they need to be 102% ready for a promotion before they will be prepared to go beyond their comfort zone, and that they may need some urging.  However, just because they’re not pushing for more power doesn’t mean they’re not ready for the move.
  • Put boundaries in place – eliminate all sexism from the vocabulary of both the formal and informal communication of the company.   Even tacitly turning a blind eye is unacceptable.  Only visible rejection will get the message across.
  • Sell diversity – gender balance is not the easiest topic to sell.  However, the data on the commercial value of women as leaders and women as consumers has become utterly compelling, so it will be much easier to convince others of the necessity of gender balancing.

Business has changed so much from how it was conducted last Century.  Where once it was all about competition, now we are working towards collaboration; where we celebrated dominance, we’re now looking for co-existence; performance is not as much individual as it’s about teamwork, and exclusion is giving way to inclusion.  In all these areas, women are the key.  Companies that understand the meaning in these areas in terms of gender are also more likely to be better at adapting all of their Talent processes for the modern worker.  And adapting to the changes of this Century is essential to every business.

Of course, it would be easier to continue with ‘business as usual’ – but this simply isn’t representative of the world in which we now live.  Companies have no choice but to embark on gender balancing – and they need to understand that this is not an HR issue, nor a diversity issue and certainly not a women’s issue.  It is solely a business issue.  The future profitability of any organization may depend upon it.


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