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The Boston Phoenix Mars and Venus Go To Work

Welcome to the world of gendered management -- where men are competitive, women are nurturing, and feminism is over a barrel

By Ellen Barry

JULY 27, 1998:  By midafternoon, when the "Conflict Management Skills for Women" career seminar goes to question and answer, it's clear that the 60 or so working women in attendance have shelled out their $99 for 60 different reasons.

Two marketing executives from South Boston feel shut out because the men in their office vacation together and all they see are the snapshots. A woman in a male-dominated tech field complains that men require "analytical" explanations for her "intuitive" decisions. Another woman has a problem with an older man in her office who listens to her with maddening condescension. Still another asks, "Is it possible to be aggressive at work and passive at home?"

The answers to these questions could be feminist ones, but today they are not. In fact, the seminar leader began the day by assuring the crowd that she was not a feminist, and she assiduously avoids responses that sound political. Instead, she is telling the women that they need to understand the men they work with -- understand their needs and their communication style, understand that men and women are different. She sticks to the language of self-help, veering between you-go-girl empowerment talk and the startling information that "we as females have trouble with authority. We need to learn that the boss is the boss. You don't tell the boss no." The proceedings veer off into strange territory, and several women, vexed by the mixed signals, walk out.

But there is one moment of bra-burning fellow feeling. Near the end of the day, someone in the audience reveals the acupuncture point for not crying in the office. ("Die before you cry," the seminar leader has told them. "That is career-limiting behavior.") All of a sudden, 60-odd women are sitting there with their fingers pressed against the ridge between their nose and upper lip, trying out the new tool they will take with them when they leave. Some laugh delightedly. An acupuncture point for crying in the office! Indeed, sisterhood is powerful.

When feminists like Betty Friedan began fighting for workplace equality 30 years ago, this probably wasn't the 1990s movement they envisioned. One of the aims of the women's movement at that time was to flush out the old stereotype that women were mastered by their emotions and fit best into society as full-time nurturers. Far from it -- those feminists were arguing that there was no difference in the ability or inclination of women to achieve positions of power.

But these days, even among women who consider themselves feminists, the hot topic of discussion is how profoundly different men and women are -- in their biology, in their styles of communication, in their core values. This exploration, which developed in the separate enclaves of feminist scholarship and relationship counseling, is converging on the professional world. Television watchers are going nuts for Ally McBeal, a high-powered lawyer whose outstanding personal characteristic is girlish vulnerability. Relationship hegemonist John Gray, having dispensed with the topics of dating, sex, marriage, and child-rearing, is preparing to release Mars and Venus in the Office. And feminist academics are working to include the idea of "gendered organizations" on syllabuses.

The differences between men and women are easy to notice and easy to talk about. In some ways, they seem important. But the truth is that in the course of detailing what these female and male qualities are, all the parties involved -- feminists, scholars, Ally, Mars, Venus and whoever else weighs in on the topic -- run the risk of relaxing into the exact stereotypes that people like Betty Friedan attempted to destroy. A fair professional setting is the only place in society where sexual equality can be legislated and monitored, and we are only a few decades into a great experiment in sharing power between men and women. A premature celebration of the "female work style" -- whatever that may be -- could sweep it to the floor in a huge crash of beakers and test tubes.

These are good days for the difference business. With a great sigh of relief, working women are beginning to engage in discussion about the peculiar lives that have resulted from the equality experiment. In popular culture, this relief has taken the shape of Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary, and Ally McBeal, and the poet Deborah Garrison, who created a sensation with her collection A Working Girl Can't Win. These new heroines aren't the power-suit viragoes of the 1980s. Instead, they are refreshingly vulnerable -- women who can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, have a nervous breakdown, and then head out for more bacon. As Ally's sensitive colleague Billy argued to a skeptical review board, her overmastering emotions are exactly what make her so great.

Twenty years ago, voiced by someone less obviously liberal, these sentiments might have sounded, well, condescending. One of the reasons they have taken on a note of empowerment these days is that feminists have been talking this way for a while. In 1982, Carol Gilligan's In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development introduced the idea that women have been chronically disserved by psychological theory developed by and for men. After observing the play styles of girls and boys, Gilligan came to the conclusion that boys grow up valuing logic and laws, whereas girls grow up valuing relationships. In 1990, Deborah Tannen joined the fray with You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, which argues that men and women communicate so differently that they might as well be from different cultures.

It was only a matter of time before difference theory bobbed to the surface in the workplace. This summer, the Simmons Graduate School of Management is celebrating the establishment of its new Center for Gender in Organizations, which aims to write the first management curriculum based on the idea that "masculine" organizations undervalue "feminine" work styles. Meanwhile, the stigma has been lifted from discussing the difference between the sexes in a workplace setting. In fact, it's now considered kind of progressive.

Here's a 28-year-old female lawyer from a major Boston law firm: "The other day I was talking to a partner and discussing how to respond to a problem, and he says, 'Women are really good at this.' It had to do with women being less combative and good in certain areas. I'm not clear if that's a good thing or a bad thing."

Working women feel comfortable making generalizations of their own. In an informal poll of a dozen professional women in male-dominated fields, most agreed that women are less wedded to hierarchy, less comfortable with open confrontation, more likely to defer credit for their accomplishments, less protective of "turf," more protective of their outside life, better at building consensus, more likely to take professional criticism personally, and more likely to develop personal relationships with staff. Stereotypes exist for a reason, said both experts and professional women interviewed for this article.

Feminists who defend this thinking argue that there's something useful about acknowledging the types of behavior typical to women, because those behaviors are commonly associated with incompetence, which may be one reason why the average American woman still makes 76 cents for every dollar a man makes. If we live in a world where behavior considered female is also considered unprofessional, then equal opportunity does not exist.

"I say to my girlfriend, we'll have equality when it's accepted newsroom behavior to cry at your desk," says Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who's spent 20 years in various newsrooms and who recently published Sex on the Brain: The Biological Differences Between Men and Women. "When you look at that, that's a male standard. Men don't sit around and cry at their desks. I'm not holding that up as a model of behavior. I'm saying, who sets the standards for acceptable professional behavior?"

That question has inspired a wave of scholarship. At a conference put together by Simmons's Center for Gender in Organizations, Stanford's Debra Meyerson draws the following analogy: say the world has been designed by short people, and then suddenly an equal number of tall people are invited to take their place in the power structure. How, precisely, do you accommodate the tall people? Do you ask them to slump? Do you simply eliminate all structural impediments to the advancement of tall people? Do you acknowledge that tall people are different and create a different office building for them? Or do you somehow attempt to create a new system where power is distributed without regard for height?

Her metaphor is clear enough: it's not enough to allow women into the workplace if the only way they can succeed is to act like men -- to accept masculine values and masculine standards of behavior. A surprising number of young women I spoke to agreed that success sometimes means acting male. One friend who went from a women's college into a Big Six accounting firm says, flatly, "You lose all your feminine qualities." And one young lawyer recalls that at her old firm, "you had to drink like the boys, to know all the sports figures like the boys, to be aggressive in the way you have to handle outside counsel like the boys."

At the heart of these gender-difference theories is the idea that women entering male-dominated fields will always be stranded on foreign territory. That idea helps explain some of the things that haven't happened since the 1970s. For instance, women remain underrepresented in high-level management -- women are very good at starting their own small businesses, but there are only two female CEOs in the Fortune 500, where America's money and power are most heavily concentrated.

One of the experts in attendance at the Simmons conference is Nancer Ballard, a senior partner in the Boston law firm of Goodwin Procter & Hoar, who has spent the past year at the Wellesley Centers for Research on Women, studying why women don't make partner in law firms. The statistics are jarring. Since the late '80s, half the first-year associates in many major law firms have been women, but as of 1994, the proportion of female partners hadn't broken 12 percent in studies of leading firms -- this in an atmosphere of supposedly enlightened men. Ballard's overall conclusion was that women were dropping out because the big-firm environment did not satisfy their definition of success -- which incorporated criteria such as doing interesting work and helping others -- but instead valued "male-identified" qualities like high earning, long hours, and competitiveness.

Joyce Fletcher thinks she knows why. "The workplace itself is gendered. You could say it's masculine," says Fletcher, who along with Deborah Merrill-Sands is a founding member of the Simmons Center for Gender in Organizations. "Workplaces are created out of the life-situations of men. A lot of the rules are masculine -- the kinds of things we've socially ascribed to men. Women would do things differently."

The ideal end point, Fletcher says, is a world in which female-identified qualities, such as relationship maintenance and nurturing, are invested with real value -- a world where nurses (who are still typically women) might make as much money as doctors, as one of her colleagues puts it. In this best of all possible worlds, sending a thank-you note (a more typically "feminine" move) would count as management strategy instead of good manners. Until that happens, women are just assimilating.

"That's one of the questions I started with: Are women changing organizations or are organizations changing women?" Fletcher says. "If organizations are changing women, I think that doesn't bode well for us."

Fletcher and her colleagues are finding a captive audience for their work: major corporations such as Xerox, Corning, and Tandem Computers are funding studies toward the goal of a workplace that allows women to rise to the top levels of management. But as Fletcher's theories about "relational" management filter into the public domain, she's also a little bit nervous.

"I was very reluctant to have my work popularized, because I felt it could be misused," she says. "This kind of thing has so often been used against women. There are a lot of women who are really suspicious."

Part of the problem is terminology. This group of feminist scholars is so thoroughly in agreement on what is meant by masculine and feminine that it's barely necessary to define the terms -- "masculine" qualities are hierarchy and competitiveness; a "feminine" style involves more empathy and nurturing. Given that the feminists of the 1970s spent many years decrying these same stereotypes, that seems a little dangerous. Some scholars try to get around the problem by referring to these qualities as "socially ascribed to females," or sometimes as "stereotypically female."

"I put it in quotation marks," says Judy Jordan, a psychologist affiliated with Wellesley's Stone Center for the Study of Women. "I want to emphasize that this is socially constructed. There isn't an essential masculine style of leadership."

They are right to worry. When people outside this rarefied (and mostly female) group begin using the same language, women don't necessarily come out on top. If you were to put a face on the fear, it would look something like John Gray, the self-help guru who has built an empire with his Mars/Venus books, and who is preparing to put in his two cents on the issue of men and women in the office. Fueling his argument with the ideas of feminist scholars such as Carol Gilligan and Deborah Tannen, Gray approaches male-female relations from an ebullient diversity angle. In the realm of marriage counseling, this formula has met with phenomenal success, and marriage counselors across the country have ponied up $1000 each to become licensed "Mars-Venus facilitators."

The trouble is that the Mars-Venus curriculum, with its sweeping generalizations about the sexes, sometimes sounds a lot like old-fashioned sexism. Maybe that's not so bad when it's brought to bear on the private domain of romantic relationships, but applied to the workplace, as Gray's Mars-Venus Institute is intending, the same ideas could set back the cause of equal rights. Joyce Dolberg Rowe, who operates a Mars and Venus Counseling Center in Brookline, has prepared speeches for use at corporate seminars, with messages like "for women, feelings are always going to be on top" and "the way women solve problems is, they do better if they're talking with other women" and "when women understand what makes a man feel successful, then he won't feel competitive. I think when you understand psychology, you have an edge."

As the message drifts toward the public, it becomes simpler and, in some cases, deeply retrograde. Although Gray was not available to discuss his upcoming book, the Mars-Venus Institute directed me to Paul Homoly, a North Carolina dentist who is working with him to develop materials. In a long conversation about the differences in male and female work styles, Homoly issued this warning about the danger of working with spinsters:

"One of the issues that connects the workplace with romantic relationships is the female worker who does not have a spouse," says Homoly. "She will look to the workplace to satisfy her emotional needs, and that is not appropriate. Single women tend to have their lives revolve around work. When her needs are not met at work, the same resentment occurs that would occur at home.

"What happens then is, after she does not get the support -- and Dr. Gray has a term for it, 'resentment flu' -- she begins to resent the people she works with, and that resentment affects people in the office. She becomes overdependent," he says. "Oftentimes when a female does not have a male to listen to her, who does she vent her frustration on? People at work."

Which gives you a sense of why Joyce Fletcher might be worried. Among academics, the condition attached to gender theory is that it's okay to call competition a "masculine" quality and nurturing a "feminine" quality, as long as everyone is prepared to agree that those "feminine" qualities are desperately needed in the workplace. Meanwhile, with Homoly spreading the Mars-Venus idea, future managers will be scribbling down principles like this: "When the male in the workplace is stressed, he tends not to concentrate on the little things. The female weakness in the workplace is she's going to have difficulty getting to the bottom line." As if "the little things" and "the bottom line" were equally valued by CEOs across America.

Another problem with the Mars-Venus model is that it's against the law to discriminate on the basis of sex. The basis of equal-opportunity law is that masculine and feminine should be meaningless terms in the workplace -- the idea is that there is no position that could not be filled equally well by a man or a woman. To educate people in the supposedly innate work-related qualities of each sex flies directly in the face of that principle.

"We recognize the need for caring and relational models of leadership, but it's illegal, often, to use gender-based kinds of characterizations. Personally, I think it would probably violate equal-opportunity law," says Marshall Sashkin, a professor of human resource development at George Washington University, who carried out a study of management styles in conjunction with the American Management Association. "You can look at organization in terms of masculine or feminine, but I don't think that's terribly useful, because those stereotypes are eroding, and I think that's a good thing."

And while the qualities of nurturing and competitiveness are in theory important concepts for organizational reform, they aren't necessarily stapled to our sexual organs. UMass Amherst's Tony Butterfield, who has studied voters' responses to candidates' gendered qualities, found that Geraldine Ferraro's "male" (read: leadership) traits outstripped Michael Dukakis's "male" traits by a mile. Men can be pretty relationship-oriented (e.g., Bill Clinton) and women can be tough (e.g., Margaret Thatcher) without suggesting that they've decamped from their gender.

Sashkin also makes a compelling argument that everyone needs to change a little in order to become a good leader -- no one should be wholly relationship-oriented or wholly competitive, and what we should be aiming for is a workplace where those qualities are valued equally in men and women. After assessing a vast field of managers, Sashkin found that the managers who scored highest among their employees were the ones whose working styles were "androgynous" -- in other words, equally relationship-focused and task-focused. His conclusion was that "good leadership isn't a masculine or a feminine thing -- it's good leadership."

The possibility of personal change is borne out by science; alongside the abundant evidence that men and women have distinct brain chemistry, there is also some evidence that power dynamics can dictate physical properties. In Sex on the Brain, Deborah Blum cites a workplace study that paints gendered qualities as somewhat mutable. The research involved the hormone testosterone, which seems to prepare people for conflict and the baseline levels of which are 10 times higher (sixty-millionths of an ounce versus six-millionths) in men than in women.

In 1980, researchers tracked the levels of testosterone and androstenedione (which aids production of testosterone) in women in a variety of social roles, including the traditionally female jobs of housewife and sales clerk as well as competitive, male-dominated fields. The research showed that testosterone levels were higher in women who worked in professional environments. In other words, women in competitive environments seemed to become more competitive. To Blum, this finding meant that biological differences could possibly respond to environment. What we expect of women may influence what we get. We are, she points out, an evolving species.

"Biology and behavior do this interesting dance together -- your biology influences your behavior, and your behavior influences your biology, and you get this incredible moving target," Blum says. "It seems to predict you could actually, in the long term, alter women's biology."

Today, as young girls are raised with the expectation of competing with boys, "would you expect women to be a little bit more competitive? I think you would," she says. "And if you saw men take on more of the typical female roles, would you expect them to be a little more laid-back? Are we -- by the choices we're making -- making men and women more alike?"

Those changes could be happening fairly quickly. Here's Beth Boland, 36, who is a partner in the firm Mintz Levin Cohn Glovsky and Popeo: "I've always been very comfortable butting heads. I always did a ton of sports in school, which I think is very instrumental," she says. She recognized early that she didn't act like other girls. And watching young women follow her into the workplace 10 years later, she says, "I think they're probably a little more like me -- a little more self-confident and a little less likely to [constantly say] 'I'm sorry' and internalize. As time goes on, the roles they grow up with are less gender-specific."

If Boland is right, then it's too early for gender difference to be a useful concept in the workplace. Gender remains too much of a moving target. Less than 100 years ago, the commonly agreed-upon truth of gender in this country was that women were too stupid to vote. Only 150 years ago, the commonly agreed-upon truth of gender was that women were not complete enough humans to possess property. The least we can do, 34 years after the Civil Rights Act made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sex, is admit that we don't really know just yet what the truth of gender is.

"We're sort of in a backlash against the 1980s idea that men and women are exactly alike," Blum says. "The risk is swinging back too far."

There's something comforting about being allowed to talk about how men and women operate differently, especially since women seem to find themselves changing their behavior to fit in to corporations far more than men do -- or, as an alternative, dropping out and starting their own organizations along a different model. Why, after all, should young women try to act more like men? One of the few self-consciously feminist moments I have had since entering the workforce is a ringing don't-cry-in-the-office speech that I gave to a 19-year-old intern one summer, which went along the lines of Cry in the bathroom. Don't let them see you. What I didn't mention was, women know crying isn't a sign of mental instability -- it's a tic, it passes. So why should I be presenting this as a cardinal rule? It shouldn't be career-destroying behavior to act like a woman.

But I'm not prepared to take it back, either. It's worth protecting the idea that men and women should not be distinguished from each other in the workplace. This idea has been brought into the world slowly and painfully; it's a new idea; it is in no way intuitive. Men and women do act differently, and anyone with eyes can begin making generalizations. But the office is where money is doled out, and it's the only part of society where distribution of power can be controlled by law. So for now, the most important goal is to shift that distribution through the fastest means possible. Which is, I suppose, what I was telling that intern. Make partner, and then cry if you want to.

Ellen Barry can be reached at ebarry@phx.com.

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