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The Globe and Mail

We need gender intelligence, not myths, in the workplace

Books written today on women's issues often cite, and accurately so, how women are misunderstood and undervalued in the world of business. These books often point out how men are either blind to these inequities or intentionally instigate them. What many of these works miss, though, are the misunderstandings that women have of men. From a balanced perspective, to misconstrue is a human condition, not the domain of any one gender.

The myths that men and women have of each other are often based on generalized characteristics or expected behaviours. Such stereotyping tends to be self-perpetuating: Men and women will seek confirmation of their beliefs through any behaviour exhibited by the other side, while each gender may not realize that their very conduct may perpetuate the assumptions made about them.

Here are the leading gender myths in business:

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Women are not serious about business: Women leaving organizations will often cite their reasons as "personal" so as not to burn bridges. Men believe they are hearing the truth, which perpetuates the myth that women's personal issues will usually override their seriousness about business. Women validate this myth by not revealing the truth as to why they are leaving. We recently interviewed 2,400 women who left their positions in various Fortune 500 companies and discovered five key reasons for their departure: not being valued; feeling excluded; male-dominated work environment; lack of opportunity; and work-life issues.

Women can't hack it in business: Men will point to the one or two women in executive positions in their company as proof that, even though 50 per cent of their graduating class were women or more than half of their middle management is now made up of women, only a few are competitive enough to make it to the top. Women again perpetuate this myth by not disclosing their actual reasons for quitting.

In a 2009 Harvard Business School survey on "the exodus of women," 82 per cent expressed a desire to work with people they respect, 80 per cent wanted freedom to be themselves, 79 per cent sought flexible schedules, 64 per cent wanted recognition for their unique strengths and 15 per cent desired a more powerful executive position. Only 6 per cent said they quit because the work was too demanding.

Women lack self-confidence: When women openly express doubt, men interpret this as a lack of self-confidence or an aversion to making tough decisions. It's human nature to harbour feelings of uncertainty, but men suppress such emotions. Women, by their very nature, are more open and trusting and, as a result, regarded as the weaker gender.

Men don't listen: Women maintain that men don't listen, so they'll continue talking with the hope that men will eventually catch on. This, in turn, causes men to "tune out," which then reinforces the assumption that men don't listen. The reality is, men and women listen differently.

We tested 220 statements of more than 100,000 men and women in 5,000 diagnostic sessions. Women interpreted the simple question "What do you think?" as a prelude to a conversation or an exploration of feelings; men interpreted it as being asked to give an opinion or make a decision.

Men are exclusionary: Women will point to men's club-like behaviour in meetings and at business socials and claim that their intention is to exclude. Men, confronted with this challenge, will recall all the times they were inclusive and respond with, "No, that's not true. I really did want to include you." They will discard such accusations because, in their recollection, their intent was never to exclude.

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Men's behaviours are intentional: Women believe that men's deliberate intention is to maintain an imbalance by not including them in meetings and on teams. The assumption is that, if men are behaving a certain way, then it must be their intention. Moreover, if they're not reacting at all, it's their intention as well.

The fact is, men don't give thought to situations at the level of detail that women do. Women are more inclusive and cultivating by nature, and the fact that men aren't only serves to sustain the belief that men are intentionally non-inclusive and non-cultivating.

Myths such as these are endemic in business because men and women don't fully understand the reasons for the differences between them. "Gender intelligence" - the ability to comprehend the distinguishing characteristics of each gender beyond that of physical and cultural to include attitudinal and behavioural distinctiveness - is the best path to that understanding. It's an informed and active consciousness that values difference-thinking in such areas as strategic thinking, team leadership and decision-making.

Only when these gender myths are understood and resolved will men and women learn to fully appreciate the contributions intrinsic to each other and engage confidently and effectively in workplace settings.

Barbara Annis is chair of the Women's Leadership Board at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and CEO of Barbara Annis and Associates in New York.

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