The Business Consequences of Being Gender Blind, Deaf and Dumb

The business world remains tense about sex roles and conventions, even as rules and etiquette keep evolving. Confusion continues to reign. Men still can't decide whether to step aside to let women move through doorways first or not: "Will she be offended? Will I send the wrong signal?" Women still proffer opinions as long-winded questions lest they seem overly bold: "Would it be a good idea to first take a look at what the upfront and ongoing costs might be before really considering much less implementing this plan, which, you know, might turn out to have some unintended consequences?"

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Men and women actually are different, all the time, everywhere they go
We all remain uneasy about sending and receiving messages that acknowledge gender in conference rooms and executive suites, at sales pitches and investor presentations, during networking lattes and catch-up lunches. That tension is evident everywhere business is conducted. Why? Because we're busy burying obvious signposts and, as we all know, denial takes its toll. In fact, men and women actually are significantly different, all the time, everywhere they go.

Differences between men and women stem from nature as much as nurture, such as:
  • They don't make decisions the same way.
  • They don't behave the same way.
  • They don't manage staff or businesses the same way.
  • They don't view money the same way.
  • They don't see working relationships the same way.
  • They don't utilize power the same way
  • They don't define success the same way
  • They don't communicate the same way
  • They don't recognize self-interest the same way.
  • They don't pursue career goals the same way
  • They don't sell or prospect the same way
  • They don't take risks in the same way

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"Bridging the gender gap" often means turning women into men
The ongoing effort to iron male and female differences into a flat landscape of sameness makes a mockery of the recent past and women's hard-fought battles to gain equal rights and prosperity. Women don't want to be treated like men, but respected as women. "Bridging the gender gap," as pundits like to put it, ought to be built on accepting and respecting sex diversities rather than denying they exist.

Over the past half-century, business has responded to the legal, cultural, political and marketplace imperatives of women's rising rights by making what seems the safest bet: becoming gender blind, deaf and dumb. Yet interestingly, over that same period, entertainment and media have become increasingly sexualized. Does one have to do with the other? Absolutely. When business, politics and society mandate gender-blind norms, rebellion is never far behind. What better venues for the eruption of buried truths than movies and music?

Of late, though, this status quo is fraying. A growing chorus of voices is urging women to "be themselves" and "lean in" at the workplace. The flip side is that men are far less willing to accommodate women's distinctly different performance than they once were: If she can't "tough it out"--that is, behave like we men do--then she should get off the playing field and let the pros get on with it.

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This whole gender equity thing is desperately stalled
All these efforts bent on re-engineering women for success are not working, as dozens of features and studies attest. Despite the chatter and cheerleading, this whole gender equity thing is desperately stalled.

Although women in the millions have earned advanced degrees, experience and credentials, they nonetheless remain largely untapped for top-tier policy or positions. Or, faced with the dispiriting options, women are opting out of corporate echelons to join boutique businesses or to run their own ventures. The Harvard Business School launched a two-year experiment for its Class of 2013 to promote "gender equity"-- the approved euphemism as far as I can tell for "Let's make weak women stronger." Yet at most of the ten student sessions devoted to discussing those issues, according to New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor: "...The men contributed little. Some of them, and even a few women, had grown to openly resent the deans' emphasis on gender, using phrases like 'ad nauseam' and 'shoved down our throats,' protesting that this was not what they had paid to learn."

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Rummaging in the gender toolbox
Despite women's woeful lack of parity in every silo and industry you can name, "gender equity" has become a catchphrase and a goal that puts people off. Systemic political, economic and workplace change will not move forward when the powers that be keep insisting that women are the problem and need special attention to learn how to "lead" or "scale businesses" or "gain confidence." Instead, we must investigate and model change that respects diversity, nurturing all the flavors and colors across the gender continuum.

That must be the goal of the 21st century: respect for sex differences and strengths and open-minded education about how men can leverage women's best practices and what women can discover from male modes of work and play. If civil rights and the compelling business case for minority markets and invention defined the 20th century, then this century must address the ways in which men and women can change the future by learning from each other. Take the journey with me.