What Women Can Bring to the C-Suite

Much has been written lately about women’s role in the workplace; specifically about women as leaders and securing a seat at the table.  I am keenly aware of the dynamics at play when it comes to men and women in the workplace and how our success in business (and in life) is determined by the contributions of both.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I need to say that in spite of being named Aubrey (a name that has been co-opted by women) I am a male, but have been predominately surrounded by women for most of my life. I have been married for 54 years and have two daughters and a female dog. The president and CEO of Aubrey Daniels International is a woman, as is my assistant, who has worked with me for more than 40 years. This situation has certainly affected my view of life and business. However, with that in the background, I want to be as objective as I can.

Let’s face it, men and women are different. I am sure that is not news to you. However, as different as we are physically, there are also somewhat reliable differences produced by the cultural roles of males and females in the family and society at large. Our histories of learning and how we are reinforced for doing what we do adds some significant differences in how we, as individuals, and we, as a man or woman, respond. We are also different in regard to certain obvious and some subtle biological traits with evidence that what we attend to is in part shaped from genetic history related to roles we each play in perpetuating future generations. While that sets us up for certain inclinations and sensitivities, once we are outside the womb, those inclinations are built and shaped by the environments in which we find ourselves. Putting together the genetic predispositions and the attributes learned through cultural conditioning, women may well have a critical leadership advantage right now in building a business culture that creates extraordinary business success free of threat and fear.

The differences (genetic and learning histories) between men and women prepare them to respond differently to the same situation. Unfortunately, along with what we can actually see, what behavior each gender exhibits, American culture has developed strong stereotyping where we believe that some work tasks are more likely done better by one sex or the other. Men are the warriors and they bring home the bacon, putting themselves on the line through force of their words and actions to shape business as they see it. Women are the gentle guides who make decisions for the group and ignore their own needs, acquiescing for the good of the group.

Those using such stereotypes about women and their capabilities are facing hard facts these days as women drive trucks, fly airplanes and fight in wars. They run major corporations and do so as well as men. Their failures are described as large and visible in our society since there are so few females in such roles, but in fact, in relation to total numbers, they have as many successes as their male counterparts. However, in many workplaces, stereotyping is very much alive. The data show that although women make up nearly 48 percent of the workforce in the U.S., only about 15 percent of women can be found in the C-level executive suite, a number that has been relatively unchanged for the past 20 years. Women have arrived, but that glass ceiling still is in effect.

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, delivered a pointed presentation for TED in December 2010 that I believe identified a key cause of fewer female leaders in the workplace. In her presentation, she lays out one of the most important messages women need to hear: Sit at the table and be heard! From a behavioral perspective, she was dead on in identifying the behaviors that many women (and some men) exhibit when faced with the opportunity to step up in meetings and in other executive settings that require confident, direct behavior. But it is not necessarily true that women are not direct, clear and confident when talking. If Sheryl believes that women must “be heard,” there seems to be an implied high volume required — the man yelling commands comes to mind. The assumption is that because of cultural conditioning, women sit to the side, waiting for others to speak up first, and respond to verbal cues only when they feel it is safe to do so.

Studies indicate that men in leadership positions are more direct and take complete ownership of their successes, while women tend to share in successes and be more alert and responsive to social cues and the feelings of others. The science of behavior tells us that it is not their DNA but rather their consequence history that leads them to respond in this way. Men and women are both behaving and being reinforced for the patterns that they demonstrate. It really is not a gender thing. It is a cultural learning thing.

Ask any one of the 15 percent of women in leadership roles if they had a mentor help them along their path to the executive suite and I’m certain the answer will be 100 times “yes.” Men have had mentors for generations, centuries. Women for decades. The very behavior that earned men their place at the table can be achieved by women if they are mentored and reinforced (both directly and indirectly) for those same behaviors. But the behavior reinforced for and by men to gain access to what is largely controlled by them as “their” table may well rob us of the richness and smarts for business that women can and do provide.

Here is the deal. I think a big part of the reason that more women are not in the C-suite is they try to compete with men on behaviors that the men have had many years to hone, and to learn when best to use one set of skills over another based on clear consequences. Females forgo the advantages they have over men that they themselves have earned (and learned) in being raised female. Access is in the hands of men overwhelmingly.  Men cannot see women clearly for what they bring. And women want men to see them. However, a few of the subtle and decidedly culturally–derived “female skills” are at the core of producing effective business changes that we need right now, far outweighing what men are taught as they approach leadership roles.

In my seminars, I have for many years said to the men, “Look out for the women, because they are coming and in big numbers.” I say this because positive reinforcement is increasingly being understood as one of the most valuable skills a manager or supervisor can have. Delivering genuine and specific positive reinforcement is not natural to as many men as it is to most women. Seeing one’s success clearly only through the success of others is not a “naturally taught” perception of men. During the last 40 years of working in organizations I have observed that once women have been exposed to the science of behavior, they consistently hit the ground running in applying the concepts to their work and are more comfortable with using social and tangible reinforcement than men. They are more naturally inclined to shape toward success and see the possibility in behavior around them. While some men are quite good at these skills as well, they are in the minority. Of course, as with any generalization, some women are very bad at it (Leona Helmsley, a case in point).  But the few exceptions on either side do not negate the reality of who is better at socializing and supporting the achievements of others: Females.

There are many other behavior patterns where women have a head start on men. They are generally more responsive to small changes in facial expression, tone of voice, dress and behavior. In addition, they are more likely to demonstrate excitement about small improvements than men do, which leads to larger improvements down the road.  They handle ambiguity well and look to patterns that indicate growth in people — and in business.

What that means, of course, is that women can learn the behaviors necessary to lead organizations effectively, many of which men also possess through years of exposure to what is required, without giving up behaviors that are typically associated with females but that are essential to high-functioning organizations and sorely needed in the workplace today. The bottom line is that men and women can learn from each other and as a result be more effective without losing or changing those things that make us different.

On a separate but related topic, you may also be interested to read Are Women Really the Fairer Sex? Gender and Ethics at Work; written by our female CEO, Darnell Lattal.