When we talk about gender differences in communication, we need to bear in mind that in any research we have a bell curve, with most of us falling somewhere in the middle. So while it isn't the case that all individuals display certain characteristics, many do.
That being said, gender poses a real communication challenge for all of us. When we do business globally, we often need to take into consideration cultural differences and make allowances for the fact that the way business is done may differ from our own country of origin. We must also consider that the majority of senior managers and executives now work virtually, which entails being sensitive to cultural nuances.
Ways of selling, courting "the deal", and bringing it home differ from one culture to another, and business leaders can easily trip up on timing, approach and style, potentially jeopardizing opportunities. Smart executives take courses or steep themselves in diversity training to be able to navigate in a way that conveys respect and sensitivity to these differences.
Gender differences in communication, like cultural differences, must also be respected. How often do we hear both men and women exclaim with exasperation that they feel like they come from two different worlds? Well guess what, we do.
First off, we are neurologically wired differently. Studies demonstrate that there are differences in brain anatomy, whereby women's brains are less localized then men's and also have larger limbic systems. This means women can transition from one topic to another as well as express themselves with greater affect. Men's brains allow them to engage in more task-oriented dialogue, netting things out.
You can see the source of frustration, can't you? Women need to talk things out, express how they feel, while men need to drive to the bottom line. Each gender's needs are both accurate and valid, but they end up feeling not understood as the "process" to achieve results and ultimate execution is quite different.
It has also been shown that in school, boys and girls socialize differently. Boys' energy is activity based around a set of rules and hierarchy regarding how they play games. It is about winners and losers. They generally socialize in groups. If there is a problem or challenge, a boy will often internally review how to approach the issue. Girls, on the other hand, generally don't travel in packs. They have one best friend and discuss options out loud.
Here's what's essential: despite these differences, all managers, regardless of gender, share the same key driver - striving for the best outcomes. The primary difference is that men start with the bottom line and then move to negotiation. Women phrase ideas as questions, ask the target audience for preferences, and then drive to execution.
Great leaders are known for their agility. The ability to pivot and demonstrate flexibility regarding shifting priorities, competitive pressures, stakeholder and team requirements make for great leaders. The most cited reason for executives derailing is the inability to understand the perspective of others. The implication then is for leaders to work towards understanding the differences in female/male leadership styles. Women begin by creating a context for the end goal and men begin with articulating the end goal. Women are generally more descriptive and provide greater details, whereas men tend to be more prescriptive and claim their position at the outset.
So what can we learn from both styles of communication? Each gender can teach us something. First off, the more we understand these differences hopefully this leads to greater respect and understanding. We do know that women tend to use tags more frequently, which means they phrase their point as a question. For example, "This is the best proposal isn't it?" This style is meant to be inclusive but can be misinterpreted by men as unsure or lacking in confidence. Rather than just stating, "This is the best proposal."
It is often believed that women talk more than men. Yet studies of frequency of conversation in business meetings point to the contrary. It is men who jump in, interrupt more, and overall take up more air-time. So women need to develop a greater comfort level of doing the same. This means demonstrating overt ownership by eliminating qualifiers when they speak ("in my opinion" or "I sort of thought"), and ensuring they use definitive language.
Economy of words is also important, presenting numbers, facts and a cogent business case. Men follow the 80/20 rule. They spend 80% of the time doing their job and 20% of the time talking about what a great job they've done. Women need to follow this template and own their wins by promoting themselves and ensuring they are cultivating relationships with key sponsors who can help champion their successes.
Many of my clients, both male and female, believe that somehow their work will speak for itself. This may in part be true. But internal sponsors can also play a vital role in contributing to increased profile and scope. Men can learn a few things from women as well. Hearing women out, asking questions, and soliciting input promotes a more inclusive style. Not assuming you "got it all", but understanding that there may be some key learnings that emerge from a more robust dialogue can foster better decision making. Additionally, if men share anecdotes and personal stories from their business world this can help bridge alliances for female leaders and allow them to connect more readily.
Men and women must learn to recognize gender differences as both a pattern we learn growing up as part of our socialization, as well as based in our unique anatomies. We then can start to view unique communication patterns as neither right nor wrong. The aim is to be respectful of these differences and learn to take the strengths from each so as to enhance team dynamics and maximize business outcomes.