Gender Intelligence

The Competitive Advantage of Gender Intelligence

December 13, 2012 Event Summary

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On December 13, 2012, Bentley University’s Center for Women and Business hosted its inaugural Best Practices Forum, The Competitive Advance of Gender Intelligence.  More than 100 executives, academics, and thought leaders gathered to explore the nature and importance of gender intelligence in overcoming the kinds of unconscious, biased behavior (on the part of both women and men) that adversely affects the ability of companies to realize the full potential of their employees and compete successfully in today’s global economy.   A stellar group of presenters and an equally impressive assembly of participants made for a memorable experience and an auspicious beginning for this series of forums.  

According to Betsy Myers, founding director of the Center for Women and Business, “All the current research shows that diversity of color, culture, gender – and most importantly, thought – in an organization gives companies a competitive advantage.”

“What we’re hearing from most companies is, ‘You don’t have to convince us that [diversity] is the right thing to do, we just don’t know how to do it,’” Myers said in her opening remarks. “What we’re hoping to do today is to help you to develop…a new set of tools to move the conversation forward.” 

Gender Intelligence – Appreciating Difference

Barbara AnnisAs defined by keynote speaker and gender intelligence expert Barbara Annis, gender intelligence is the ability to “understand the differences between men and women, not only in how we're hard-wired, but in how we make decisions, problem-solve, and communicate."  Gender intelligence allows us to understand the contributions that both men and women bring to the workplace.  In essence, it’s shorthand for the notion that “great minds think unalike.”

In the course of her keynote address, Annis dispelled many of the myths that are commonly cited when attempting to solve the underrepresentation of women above the entry level in businesses of all kinds.  While education, flexible work arrangements and women in top leadership all may help, they do not get to the heart of why women leave their jobs or why women are not being promoted.  Only by appreciating the different ways in which men and women understand and react to their work environments can men and women work together in more productive and satisfying ways.

Equal does not mean the same, according to Annis, and confusing the two is a major source of misunderstanding and waste of talent.  Using fascinating examples taken from neural research, Annis described some of the basic differences between the male and the female brain.  Particularly interesting were slides comparing scans of a woman’s brain and a man’s brain at rest, descriptions of how women more than men use more parts of their brains at the same time, and how women “contextualize” rather than think “step by step” as do men.  

Careful to note that there is no discernible difference in IQ among men and women – just different ways of perceiving, thinking, acting, and communicating – Annis pointed out that these differences are hard-wired in the developing brain, beginning before birth.

The Business Context for Gender Dynamics

The mid-morning panel discussion, “The Business Context for Gender Dynamics,” was moderated by author and leadership consultant Rebecca Shambaugh and featured Susan Adams, senior director of the Center for Women and Business at Bentley, and Victoria Budson, founding executive director of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

Recent research on Millennials, workers born after 1980, reinforces much of what Annis described in her keynote.  Although some differences between women and men may have lessened (for example, younger women of this generation view themselves as being just as ambitious as their male peers, according to Adams), definitions of leadership and success differ markedly between the genders.  Millennial women tend to view success in terms of building a great team, collaborating with others, and cultivating new relationships, while men associate success with an impressive title and power.

Further, as Budson pointed out, men and women still are perceived differently in the workplace for identical behavior.  For example, “when a man pushes for a higher salary, he’s viewed no differently by hiring managers, but when a woman negotiates for a higher salary, she’s viewed as pushy and the hiring manager – whether a man or a woman – won’t want to work with her.”  This is the kind of stereotyping that gender intelligence is designed to eliminate.   For the same reason – different perspectives of identical behavior – sponsorship is a critically important tool for women.  As Budson pointed out, “women are uncomfortable bragging or being self-promotional, so they need others to champion them, especially when they’re not in the room.”

Budson made a related observation in discussing differences between the hiring and promotion processes and how those difference affect women.  Typically, hiring managers look at groups of candidates and compare them with one another.   Women fare relatively well in this process.  When it comes to promotions, however, candidates are judged on an individual basis and more normative factors come into play.  It is in this context that diversity often fails and managers rely on their own comfort levels and stereotypical assumptions about men and women. 

Gender Intelligence in Action 

During her featured conversation with Barbara Annis, Jennifer Christie, Chief Diversity Officer at American Express, described one approach to tackling gender intelligence.  In 2008, American Express undertook a comprehensive examination of gender diversity throughout the company.  In addition to looking at the metrics of hiring, attrition and promotion, the company organized focus groups and consulted outside experts, among other things.   The key findings that emerged from this process were the need for training in gender intelligence, sponsorship, and a senior women’s community of support.   With respect to gender intelligence, for example, many women expressed concern with what they perceived to be the need to behave more like men in order to be heard and progress in their careers.

After CEO Kenneth Chenault was briefed on the findings, and he understood the issues, he required executives in all business lines to participate in half-day workshops focused on gender intelligence.   In order to encourage the open exchange of views by men as well as women, these workshops were conducted by Barbara Annis and human resource representatives did not participate.   Recognizing the need for leadership to model desired behavior, the program started with the most senior executives and cascaded down.  

In the course of these workshops, male executives were able to express their confusion about how to deal with women – and their need for guidelines or “ground rules” – and their concern that they were being blamed for the lack of women in the executive ranks.  And the women were able to speak about their feelings of being excluded and dismissed and their concern over having to “fit in” as “one of the guys.”   The workshops permitted both men and women to address these issues in a non-threatening way, encouraging each of them to imagine himself or herself in the other’s place.

American Express is not alone in using gender intelligence to provide a competitive advantage in terms of talent development.   Following lunch, event organizer John Hart, Founder of the Impact Center, led a panel discussion featuring Orlando Ashford of Mercer, Maria Castañón Moats of Pricewaterhouse-Coopers, and Valerie Sorbie of BMO Capital Markets.

While the panelists touched on other topics, primarily sponsorship, during the course of their conversation, it was clear from their observations that a high degree of gender intelligence is a prerequisite to the successful implementation of any program intended to retain and advance women and create a culture of inclusion in the workplace.  While many of the speakers offered that their companies had not conquered this issue of gender equality in executive ranks, they certainly spoke of specific progress in the last few years. Much of this progress can be attributed to coaching and the fact that more male executives have actively sponsored women and have provided more direct feedback to aspiring female executives.   

Gender Intelligence: The Differences

Most women, according to Annis, possess some combination of the following characteristics:

  • Often have internal “lists”
  • Tend to ruminate more
  • Don’t forget much
  • Are prone to more introspection and worry
  • Are more focused on relationship- and team-building
  • Are intuitive
  • Place greater value on the journey than the destination.

Most men, Annis noted, boast some mixture of the following traits:

  • Are typically accomplishment-focused
  • Are direct
  • Are confident in their leadership ability
  • Have the ability to compartmentalize
  • Tend to be better at analyzing or building systems
  • Aren’t happy until they’ve reached their destination.

Get more insights about gender intelligence on the Barbara Annis & Associates website. 

Read this Fall 2012 Women of Influence Magazine article written by Barbara Annis on Gender Intelligence, which highlights how companies can use Gender Intelligence to work more effectively.

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