Differences Make A Difference

Excerpts from a conversation with

Judy B. Rosener

by Joe Flower


This article originally appeared in The Healthcare Forum Journal, September-October 1992, Vol 35, #5.
International Copyright 1992 Joe Flower All Rights Reserved.
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Men and women are different. Until just the past decade or so, that was the accepted wisdom, and it was interpreted to mean that men should run things.

Then it became the accepted wisdom that men and women were the same, so if women really tried, they could learn to run things just the way men do.

Then Judy B. Rosener declared in a 1990 Harvard Business Review that men and women are different after all - and successful women run things their own way, not the way men do. The article brought a storm of letters, both pro and con. The negative letters were all from academics. The supportive letters were all from corporate people, both men and women, who said the reason this article was so important to them was because it validated for them what they knew to be true.

Rosener, a professor at the University of California at Irvine, described a "women's way of leading" - interactive, cooperative, inclusive, and personal - that was profoundly different from the traditional male way of leading, which she called "command and control."

The academics attacked the methodology of the study on which her conclusions were based (though the article did not deal with the methodology) because her findings were contrary to other findings. She found for instance, that most of the successful women she studied were married, and that they made the same amount as men in comparable positions in the same companies - and both conclusions were far different from the conclusions of other studies. "The reason that was the case," says Dr. Rosener, "was that they were in organizations where they were valued. Therefore they could have families and they were paid the same."

Rosener is co-author of Workforce America: Managing Employee Diversity as a Vital Resource (1991). Her HBR article, "Ways Women Lead" appeared in November/December 1990. We talked to her about men and women, gender and culture in the workplace, and the many ways of leading human beings.




Women's way of knowing

There is, as a recent book title has it, a "woman's way of knowing." There are ways that women lead. The differences are based on women's experience, the individual and shared experiences that women have.

Certainly there are differences among men and differences among among women. And some will say that there are more similarities than differences between men and women. But I don't think it is the number of similarities, or the number of differences, it's the significance of the differences that matters.

In my study, I found a set of differences that have a greater statistical significance between men and women. The question is: are these important differences? Do they tell us something? These are, of course, broad generalizations, to which there are many counter-examples, but I believe they say something valuable about the ways that men and women interact in organizations.

Women and men process information differently. Women have information stored in a gestalt, or a hologram. You know the word "scatterbrained?" It is pejorative, it is associated with women, and it implies that women have information all over the place. Okay - bring that information together, and we call it intuition. We collect little bits of information all the time. We store the information in a way that is non-linear, so that when we think, we put together our experiences, our facts, and our visions and images. They are not sequential, they're not what others would call "logical." That is what intuition is. To me, that's a woman's way of knowing.

The kinds of organizations that we will see in the future - and this includes healthcare - will be rapidly changing organizations with an ad-hoc flavor, aligned with one group at one time for one kind of function, working alone for another function, linking up in all kinds of different work relationships. People are going to be sharing jobs. There will be a lot of having bare-bones organizations doing a lot of contracting out. It's an image of constant change. Well, it turns out that women are very comfortable with change.

How women handle change

Women handle change differently from men. Just take their experience as wives and mothers, particularly women who don't have a lot of help. We just have to be ready for emergencies. The wife is the one they call when the baby is sick. The women is the one they call when the mother gets Alzheimer's. It hasn't changed much. We're used to jugging balls - lining up what we are going to do for dinner, who is going to pick up the clothes at the cleaners, making all the social arrangements. The social expectations of women are that they are going to take care of a certain set of problems.

It's ironic that the qualities that have been called feminine, and therefore not leader-like, are the very qualities that are needed in these newer kinds of organizations, in which there is a lot of ambiguity and a lot of cultural differences.

Most of the studies of gender differences in leadership or management have looked at men and women at the top of large companies. The measures they used are things like, "Are you committed? Are you highly motivated? Are you charismatic?" They asked for what we would call traits.

There are very few women at the top of large companies. Of those they found, the studies said they looked the same as the men at the top of large companies. Well, of course they look the same, because in order to get there those women had to adopt those behaviors. What happened to the women who didn't want to do that, who didn't want to be male-like in their leadership style?

What I did was a little different. Instead of studying the organizations, I studied women. I got a sample of women who were very successful. I looked at what kinds of organizations they were in. Then I asked the question, "How do you lead?" And I asked the same question of men in the same kinds of organizations as these successful women.

What I found was that these women who were very successful were not male-like. They had very different attributes and ways of leading than the men who were matched to them. But they also were not in the Fortune 500 companies. It turned out they were in companies that were fast-changing, entrepeneurial, international, and service-oriented. And it just turns out that those types of companies are the companies of the future.

I didn't find that women had developed different styles of management. Those women did what came naturally to them, which is what I call the "interactive" style. Either consciously or unconsciously, they found organizations that valued that style - or at least that valued more than one style. They left or never entered organizations that would have disadvantaged them for behaving like women.

How women view the world

Women have a different way of viewing the world. Women identify different issues, based on their experiences. If you looked at newspaper reporters or editors, for instance, you find women would say, "Lets do this kind of a story," and men might say, "But that's not of great interest to our readership" - simply because it is not of interest to men. If such an organization were all male, and then you started bringing in women, you would immediately find differences. For instance, the Gannet chain has probably the most diverse editorial staff of any newspaper group. Kathleen Black of Gannet's USA Today said that if there hadn't been so many women and people of color on their editorial staff it would have been called USA Yesterday.

The differences between men and women cause what I call "sexual static" in an organization, a subconscious discomfort, a feeling that, "I'm not sure what they are going to say, and I can't predict what they are going to do. Therefore I am on edge." I hear people saying that about working with the opposite sex. They say: "I have to walk on egg shells." So, while they admit that this difference is positive, an added value, that doesn't mean that it's enough of an added value that they are willing to pay the cost. On balance they would just rather do without.

Like other kinds of static, if "sexual static" causes you too much discomfort you just turn it off. It's not conscious, you just automatically do it. So the difference that is women's way of knowing has traditionally not been valued in most organizations. We have always had one best model, the model that reflected the attitudes and values and behaviors of those that shaped the institutions - which just by an accident of history happened to be straight Anglo males. Women have been like a foreign body.

Ambiguity is uncomfortable, and to try to turn it off is very understandable. Women know how to behave with men, because in order to get along they have had to adopt those behaviors and values. The dominant group never has to be too concerned about the subgroups. The subgroups are always able to accomodate or adapt to the dominant group, because they have to in order to survive. But the dominant group has no problem until those subgroups reach a critical mass. When that happens the subgroups start asking questions about whether or not the values of the dominant group are the only values that should be rewarded.

How women lead

Based on their shared experience, and because they have been outside the traditonal kinds of power, women tend to lead in a different way. The traditional kind of power springs from my title and my ability to reward you in some kind of way. We have not had access to that, so we have had to develop non-traditional ways of motivating people.

Women tend to exercise personal rather that structural power - my power as a women tends to be based not on who I am and what my position is, but what I bring to the table, what I know and how I can make you feel you're a part of what we are doing. Women's power tends to be based on interpersonal skills, which become terribly important, when you've got a lot of ambiguity and you've got to make quick decisions.

The question is: as more and more women run organizations and have power, will women change the organizations? Or will the experiences they have being in charge eventually change the way they do things? We don't know yet.

Gender differences are just one major example of a range of cultural differences which we are seeing more and more in today's highly globalized workforce. Many of these cultural differences are difficult to deal with us because they have to do with assumptions that occur at a less than conscious level.

For example, the issue of time is very different in different cultures. Time doesn't have the same meaning, say, in Latin countries. We are accustomed to checking in and out on time, which is important in some jobs and not in others. When people show up late, managers in our culture tend to say they're not committed, or they're lazy. But the Latin workers may work very late, too, to get the job done.

There are also issues of space, such as how much distance you keep between each other in a conversation. People from the Middle East almost breathe on each other in conversation - it is part of the culture. Other people really find that offensive. Even colors are culturally defined. In India and some other Eastern countries, the color of death is not black but white.

Communication as culture

The communication issues are incredible, between men and women, between cultures, even between age groups. They are not just about how you talk, or which words you use, they have to do with such issues as whether you are direct or indirect. They have to do with using metaphors that people do not understand. And they have to do with touching and with eye contact.

Some cultures follow a norm that means that they never let you know exactly what they think. This can be a real problem. You don't know how they feel. They say one thing and then five minutes later they say something else. We would say they lied to us, but it was not a lie. At that point, that's what they thought they should say, and at another point in time they felt differently. The concept of "lying" is culturally bound.

These cultural communications problems can occur even within races and genders. I have interviewed white Mormon men who say that they have a very difficult time in companies where going out and drinking and doing a lot of socializing after work is important to business, because they go home to their families. And they don't drink.

I had an experience a few years ago that vividly illustrates such cultural communications problems. I rarely give Fs. I give exams, but with me grades are irrelevant. But a few years ago I gave an exam, and there were five F's. They didn't get anything right. All the names were one syllable - Chinese. I didn't want to embarass them, so I said in class, "Anyone who got below a B-, I would like you to come see me." It was just these people. They came together, five male Taiwanese. I said, "I don't understand: you didn't get it, yet you didn't ask me any questions." First of all, they told me that they always study in groups. So it was a pooling of ignorance. None of them understood, so working in a group didn't help them much. Our students study alone because they're competing against each other, which is part of our culture. In their Asian culture, they work as a group. They're not pitting themselves against each other.

I said, "Why didn't you ask a question?" They told me that to ask a question is insulting to a professor because in their culture what it says is, "If I can't understand it, you didn't explain it well." The minute they told me that, I altered my teaching. I found ways of really watching body language and expressions. When I could see a blank stare I would either explain it two or three ways, or I would stop and say, "I want someone to tell me what I said."

What do you count as rude?

In the riots in L.A., one of the problems was the tension between Blacks and Koreans. One African American interviewed on television was asked, "Why do you feel so nasty toward the Koreans, other than they are the Haves, they've got the stores?" The reporter was surprised when the man said, "We don't like the way they treat us. They're real cold. They're not friendly. They don't look us in the eye. They just act like, ‘Come in, get your stuff, pay us your money, and get out.'" This man's complaint about the Koreans was not that they are making money, or that they don't employ African Americans. It was about what he perceived as rudeness.

Then they interviewed a Korean shopowner who said, "They want us to talk to them and look them in the eye. But in our culture looking someone in the eye is showing a lack of respect. You don't look people in the eye." The Korean went on to point out that in their culture you don't get intimate or friendly with people until you know them for a long time. So, in a store situation, being friendly and warm is contrary to their culture.

If it's a store, you can choose not to go there. In a work situation you don't have that option. You have to be working with the person. In a focus groups with a trained facilitator you might be able to say, ‘I understand your reticence to talk to me, but I want you to know that it makes me feel uncomfortable."

People say, "I can't learn what every culture does. I mean the Vietnamese, the Koreans, the Japanese, the Chinese, the Taiwanese, the Hispanics, the Middle Easterners - what are we supposed to do?" People get very agitated about this.

Organizations that really deal with this find that you don't have to know what all the cultural differences are. Rather, you have to understand your own communication style, and what expectations you have when you encode and decode messages. In other words if you know that a woman is from another culture, or age group, or even part of the country than you are, she may think differently from the way you do. So you have to ask. Organizations have to make it comfortable to ask, to say, "How do you feel about this? Do you want me to call you by your first name? Do you mind my standing this close?" It is important to be sensitive to the fact that if you ask, and you find out how to react to certain individuals and or groups, then you are going to minimize misunderstandings.

When differences are okay

It isn't a matter of just color or gender, it is a matter of acknowledging that all of us bring to work a bundle of dimensions of diversity that shape the way we view the world. And we will work best when differences are acknowledged to be okay. But we have to understand how they impact the work environment.

I have been accused of reinforcing sexual stereotypes. But I don't believe you can be color- or gender-blind unless you are color- or gender-conscious. You first have to be aware of the differences that create a problem. Then you can find ways to minimize the difficulty.

Look at the popularity of Deborah Tanen's book You Just Don't Understand, which has been on the best seller list for two years. It emphasizes the differences between men and women. People read it and say, "Aha! That is me!" To deny that there are differences is to just be naive or to put your head in the sand. People assume that to say there are differences means to say somehow that one is better and one is worse. So reinforcing stereotypes is something that has to be done on the way to getting to where we want to go - to a place where differences won't be such a problem.

The issue has a lot to do with what we call "competency testing" for people who are not the traditional members of the dominant group. It is assumed that men, particulary white men, are competent until they prove their incompetence. Women and people of color are judged incompetent until they prove their competence. This is a trite saying, but it operates all the time. We have this one set of criteria by which we measure performance, and it tends to be associated with white male attributes and behavior.

In organizations where diversity is valued, I don't think there is a "glass ceiling" for women or people of color. The glass ceiling is there in companies with traditions, rules, and performance criteria that force everyone to be the same.

Is a different perspective valued?

These differences have enormous influence in the corporate world. Over and over and over again in my seminars I ask people, "What is the main thing that you like about working with people of the opposite sex?" People most often say that they bring a different perspective. This is almost an admission. Yet if I ask, "Who would you rather work with?" most men would rather work with all men, because they can understand their behavior and predict it.

I did a little pilot study, for example, of a CPA and audit team. The men all admitted that, even in accounting, having women on the audit team brought a new way of looking at things, some new ideas about how to evaluate the data they had. But when I asked, "Would you rather have a mixed audit team or an all male audit team?" they all said, "All male."

Industries that traditionally have more women involved at higher levels, such as education and health care, do not necessarily have fewer problems with sexual static.

We see it in academia. In educational institutions women are often the teachers, but men are still the principles. The women don't get tenure. We don't have women deans. Women professors tend to have different methodologies. They like oral history. They like a lot of qualitative data. They are very comfortable in dealing with beauty, with bringing order out of chaos. Men tend to like things that are quantitative and easy to measure, things that don't have a lot of ambiguity. Men tend to be comfortable with pushing the frontiers of knowledge little by little. Women tend to have no problem with starting way off the wall.

Women actually make very good managers in the health care field because their style is very conducive to what's needed in health care. Women physicians and women administrators operate quite differently from men.

In patient care, cultural differences become a big issue. For instance, there can be terrible misunderstandings if you're from a culture where you are used to telling people what they want to hear, as opposed to questioning them. A nurse from such a culture might not question the doctor, because in her culture questioning is an insult, whereas a nurse from our culture would be more likely to say, "Doctor, you already gave her 5 ccs of that." Understanding these differences can be tremendously important in the patient care situation.

Our time is driving us to diversity

Learning to deal with diversity will not happen overnight. Equity will never come about because people think it is the right thing to do. We just don't operate that way. It's only going to happen because its a bottom line issue.

The economics of our times are driving us to a tolerance for diversity. First, look at the demographics: the best and brightest workers, which we all seek, are coming out of a labor pool that is increasingly made up of women and people of color.

Secondly, the aspirations of women and people of color have been changing dramatically as a result of the civil rights movement and the women's movement.

Third, women have increasingly faced a need to work, which is stronger than just a desire to work. So women and people of color are in the work place to stay; it is not temporary. This is a very important difference. A lot of women today want careers, not just jobs, and they realize that child rearing is just a small part of their life. They live much longer, for one thing.

Companies that are taking this issue seriously are moving from an assimilation model, where everyone is socialized to be similar, to a model that values diversity. In this model you develop a common set of goals, what we call "common ground," but you value many different ways of doing things, and many different ways of being measured. You make the criteria for performance inclusive rather than exclusive. When you do that, people feel comfortable talking about these conflicts and misunderstandings.

In order for this to work, the top managers have to make a real committment that they are going to change the environment. They will only make the change because they are uncomfortable with the way it is, or if they feel the change is going to increase their bottom line. Usually they wait until a crisis comes.

The costs of ignoring diversity

If you don't pay attention to diversity you are going to find more conflict, more misunderstanding, more tension, more lack of loyalty. If you create a climate where people feel valued, regardless of whether they are "different" from the traditional worker, then you will decrease tension, conflict, and misunderstanding. And all of those affect the bottom line.

The companies that deal with cultural diversity are going to have a tight-knit work force. They'll retain people. Investment in training with respect to turnover is very high. It's reputed to be $50,000 for a middle-management professional. So if you have high turnover, you've got a big cost. Every person that you want to retain that you retain is to your benefit.

The companies that deal with cultural diversity will be more able to deal with change. If you have people who look at things in a variety of ways you have many more options to consider than if you are all thinking in the same way.

Leading edge companies that are doing these kinds of things report lower absenteeism, lower turnover rates, higher morale, and more innovation. These companies have some unique characteristics.

Where women succeed

Women who lead in the interactive style have succeeded in fast-growing, rapidly changing companies. Women who succeeded in the traditional companies had the more male-like style I call "command and control."

The companies that are fast changing tend not to have such a hierarchical structure. The qualities you need to be effective include the ability to deal with ambiguity, to adapt, to change gears, and not be wedded to one way of doing things.

The people at the top of these companies show a tremendous commitment. They don't view diversity as just a human resources problem. They show a real commitment to changing philosophy and allocating resources to this.

Interventions in these companies become focus groups in which people talk about the issues. Some companies do awareness training, in which employees learn how we are all biased and how we check these things. Some have what they call networks or councils where gays and lesbians, or women, or African-Americans, or Asians get together and talk about their mutual concerns. They discuss the policies in the company that make them feel disadvantaged, and they convey those concerns to the company's managers.

Why do people resist doing something about this issue? If someone who is different from me - different race, gender, age group, different way of managing - can make the same kind of contribution that I can, what does that say about me? These questions challenge deep values we hold about what constitutes quality, contribution and performance. It makes us uncomfortable because we look at everything as a zero sum game - if women and people of color gain, then white men lose. But that is not the case. If women and people of color gain, then you're maximizing the contribution of everyone in the organization, and everybody wins. Then the white male at the top is going to have a better organization. I don't think white men have to feel that they're an endangered species.

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