Winning the company battle of the sexes
John Gray? The Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus guy? Barbara Annis admits she had doubts. Who wouldn't?
Annis leads Barbara Annis & Associates which teaches "gender intelligence" to Fortune 500 companies. The notion is that workplaces that draw on the strengths and talents of both men and women will perform better than male-dominated companies. That sounds self-evident, but how do you get there? How do you create a woman-friendly management culture?
Or as Annis puts it, by phone from her country home near Toronto, Canada, "Why wouldn't you value the contributions that women bring and men bring and make it a win-win?"
Billionaire philanthropist Warren Buffett has been saying the same thing. If America got rich on 50 per cent of its talent, he wrote recently in Fortune magazine, how rich could it get on 100 per cent? He noted how things had changed, with young women now less likely to be riddled with "gender-related self-doubt". He gave his daughters as an example, comparing them to the pioneering Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham, who struggled with the small voice inside that said, "Men know more about running a business than you ever will".
Annis knows Buffett and is impressed by his position on "gender intelligence". It is entirely coincidental that she has co-authored a book on the subject, Work With Me: How Gender Intelligence Can Help You Succeed at Work and in Life, which appears in the same month as Buffett's comments in Fortune.
She wrote it with self-help guru John Gray. How did this come about?
Annis says she was introduced by a mutual friend. Gray has been working at the personal relationships side and Annis at the business side and "it made sense to our mutual friend" that they collaborate - but Annis was not so sure. So she met Gray and saw how his thinking had "evolved" and the meeting "really went very well".
First published in 1992, Gray's Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus sold more than 50-million copies and had a massive pop cultural influence. Who talked of "man caves" before Gray arrived?
But it wasn't taken entirely seriously. "In the corporate world and the academic world, there was a little pushback on Mars and Venus," Annis says. "There were concerns about slotting women into one category and men in another, which really, when you talk to John, is not where he's coming from."
It was seen as gender essentialism, but "not all men are this way and all women that way". "I guess the academic institutions felt it was not backed with enough research."
Annis is quick to add that her own work has scientific backing. "I have personally worked with scientists for 17 years now, in brain-based research and hormonal research on gender."
Recently, at Columbia University in New York, a young neuroscientist told Annis that anyone who doesn't understand that gender differences emerge in all the work they do "are like flies stuck in amber". She loves that metaphor.
Annis is a globetrotter with anecdotes to match. She was just in Copenhagen, working with the Danish minister of gender equality, Manu Sareen. Denmark has been scrupulous about gender equality, yet it lacks "gender intelligence", Annis says. "Equality often equates with sameness."
Put it this way: Denmark has had 40 years of gender equality and, still, women make up just 13 per cent of
top-level management. Instead, you find women in what she calls "the pink silo or the pink ghetto", areas like human relations and marketing. Despite legislation, the culture of Danish corporations has remained steadfastly male.
This is true of corporations generally. As Annis and Gray argue in the book, "the structure and functioning of the corporation was initially fashioned after the military model of command and control. The result is a highly competitive work environment that rewards speed in decision making, individual performance and goal attainment."
This model is conducive to how men naturally think and behave, they write. It also makes it hard for men to see that work could be structured differently.
If men fit this command-and-control model of rules and routines, women generally do not, they found. Instead, women have to endure and adapt, and "this is one of the primary reasons that more than half of the women we meet in our workshops and seminars are considering leaving their companies".
Contrast that with the typical university experience that preceded work, which was the last time that women "worked in an atmosphere of genuine team spirit, collaboration and sharing". In the work world, men prioritise, focus and tend to work alone. But women think of more things at once and build consensus by asking questions. However, in the work environment, asking questions can slow things down.
Annis gives an example of an unnamed technology company. Women were leaving at a rate of three to one, usually within three to five years. The women had graduated alongside their male peers and were just as excited about the industry, but "it didn't feel so good anymore, then they began to question whether they had chosen the right profession".
Now, what if work could retain the inclusive culture most of us experience at universities?
"You could not only attract and retain people, you could have people actually bring their best to work," Annis says. "The university environment is a learning institution. Even though we may call some companies learning institutions, I don't think they are. They are still command-and-control, about hierarchical roles and status. The women who have made it to the table at the top level will feel quite empowered. They may adopt more of a male style of leadership. That doesn't bode well for younger women when they look up."
In Annis' view, society still doesn't do a good enough job of preparing women for work. Men look for the rules - who to obey, who to report to. That comes naturally. "The rules are more invisible for women."
It is an unscientific sample of two, but interviewing Annis and Gray separately helps to illustrate their thesis about general male-female difference. Despite her achievements, Annis is modest, gives short answers and turns an interview into a conversation. Gray talks for longer and is more boastful.
"I've been teaching emotional intelligence for 35 years," Gray says by phone from California. "I'm excellent at it. I'm like an Olympic athlete. However, most guys aren't."
Like Annis, Gray has been contracted by companies "to improve communication in the workplace, improve gender-smart sales, gender-smart customer service and gender-smart leadership".
Despite the common perception that Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus was a book that women read to make men change, Gray says that "part of my specialty is helping to understand our differences without either side being blamed or pigeonholed or criticised".
He claims, sweepingly, that the greater the attempt at gender equality in the workplace - pay equity, for instance -
"the greater the dissatisfaction of women in the workplace".
He adds that "any kind of institutional or imposed gender equality tends to create greater dissatisfaction in women". His examples are the Nordic countries that Annis also mentions, where progressive moves towards equality in the workplace are "a pseudo-equality that says, hey, ignore the differences".
Gray also disputes the entire basis of the pay-equity argument, which is that women are paid less than men for the same work. His view is that men work longer hours than women so the pay over time is similar. In the United States, he says, single women without children earn more than single men without children, but once women become mothers, they work shorter hours.
"It shows how the system is actually skewed against men," Gray says. "Those men are missing out on family life."
Take this interview, for example. He was having quality time with his grandchildren when the phone rang, calling him away from family life for work.
In their chapter "Do Women Ask Too Many Questions?", Annis and Gray argue that a better blend of men and women in investment banks on Wall Street might have "prevented many of the mistakes that led up to the financial crisis".
"Women are the counterbalance to men's extreme risky behaviour," Gray says. "That was extreme male behaviour, to take a risk and not look at the consequences. Men have the ability to totally focus and forget everything else. That's a tremendous ability."
Your progressive or feminist instincts might resile from some of these views. What would Gray say to the suggestion that he is in the business of repeating generalisations?
"So much bad has been done in the world due to limiting, negative stereotypes," he says, citing "women are too emotional and men are too insensitive" as one of them. However, "there are realities. The emotional centre in a woman's brain is twice as big as a man's. When a woman is under moderate stress she has eight times more activity in her brain. This is a generalisation that all women fit into and all men, except for a few exceptions, do not. My generalisations are positive, supportive truths, which are true most of the time.
"We never say it's 100 per cent. And I'm not saying it's 100 per cent." However, the research in Work With Me is "the basic language of Mars and Venus as told by the 250,000 people we have worked with. What women mean when they say things, what men mean when they say things."
For Gray, biology is destiny and culture has little to do with it. Behaviour is dictated and managed by hormone levels.
In his experience, "somewhere between 5 and 10 per cent of women just do not relate at all to any of the examples I give about women. They think they're women in men's bodies.
"The average male at 50 has half the testosterone levels he had as a young man. That causes him to become more feminised. He tends to have higher estrogen levels than his wife. That's usually when a guy retires - he's not fit to work at that point."
Not him, though.
"You look at a guy like me. I'm 62 and my testosterone levels are 25 per cent higher than when I was in my 30s. That's because I'm very conscious of maintaining the right balance of masculine activities and feminine activities, so to speak."
Put aside the Mars and Venus business, and there are some valuable ideas in Work With Me, although as with most self-help and business advice books, it expands a handful of points and observations to book length. The gist of it is very easy to grasp. Annis can explain it in one anecdote from her travels.
She was talking to a company that wanted to measure innovation. They had a team of men, a team of women and a gender-blended group. They set them tasks. Guess which group was the most innovative?
The gender-blended one, of course. Diversity of thinking, when it is listened to and valued, can produce better results.
Alpha-male thinking tended to be risk-taking and focused on the short term, Annis says. That has already started to change and "there is a real focus on a new kind of leadership".
Will we one day look at the present with the disbelief that we now reserve for the sexist dramas on Mad Men? Women in the workplace for 30 years or more remember that earlier culture with horror, Annis says.
It still surfaces from time to time. Annis was working with a bank in Britain. A woman had asked about advancement and her male boss said: "Look, don't worry your little head about that. Just put your head down and do your job."
At this point, Annis quietly took the man aside and asked him how he thought that comment would have gone over, from the woman's point of view. Try thinking cross-gender, as it were.
Annis also remembers when the American Express call centre decided to "experiment with empathy" rather than having men robotically read from a script. What happened?
"Their ratings went through the roof for women. When women have that positive experience, they join brands, they don't just buy brands."
Her view is that the world is becoming more feminised, or at least balanced. Younger men have a value system closer to that of women than that of their fathers, with quality of life more important than quantity of money.
"We've made tremendous progress and that's something we really need to understand," she says. "But what's next? How can we stand on the shoulders of where we are?"
Again, move beyond the business focus and Annis' optimistic view is of a world that appreciates difference, even if it changes the nature of work - and our definitions of personal success.
Work with Me: How Gender Intelligence Can Help You Succeed at Work and in Life by John Gray and Barbara Annis, Hachette NZ, $39.99.