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Barbara Annis is recognized as one of the world's leading gender specialists. In this interview, Barbara offers a fascinating and practical guide to how gender differences at work lead to misunderstandings.
During the interview Barbara talks about the latest research into the brain differences between men and women.
Shelley: Hello, everybody. It’s Shelley Holmes here and welcome to our podcast today.
Today we have with us Barbara Annis, from Barbara Annis and Associates, who are dedicated to bringing the latest research and thinking on gender diversity and inclusiveness into the workplace.
Barbara is recognized as one of the world’s leading gender specialists. The work that her and her team offers is a fascinating and practical guide to how gender differences at work lead to misunderstandings and how to avoid that so that you can positively impact your bottom lines.
So, welcome Barbara. It’s a great honor to have to today.
Barbara: Thank you. My pleasure.
Shelley: Barbara, I read on your website that there are three trends converging:
- a new generation of business leaders,
- a new value system, and
- a new client mindset.
That’s certainly something I’m sure all our listeners today would recognize.
Would you like to speak to that for us?
Barbara: Sure, one of the things that we focus on and have focused on in the last 22 years is, how can you take the lens of those three trends, and really look at building gender intelligence.
And, what we find is that leadership and business minds are shifting. The new generation of leaders are really valuing what we call a more female-centric value system.
What I mean by that is, that is that often corporations and companies were very much focused on, “Let’s just get to the destination no matter what. We’ve got to get the results every quarter, etc. Let’s just get there”.
And I see a value system changing where both men and women in the young generation, value the journey to achieve the destination. Sometimes, even more important than the destination is, “How do I experience working here. How do I feel about working here?”
So that’s some of the emerging shifts that we see.
Of course the client mindset that we see is that clients, actually even globally, but certainly in North America, Europe, and, I believe Australia, are looking for gender balance. They are looking for how to understand, how to be gender intelligent in markets, how we reach our markets.
Also, how do we advance and retain both men and women within our companies?
Shelley: Great. Yeah. It’s wonderful that it’s moving along that way, isn’t it?
Barbara: Yes, I have to say when I first started 22 years ago I thought it would take about five years to get there. [Laughs] But, it’s taken a little longer, but we are definitely getting there.
I even see it in the new upcoming administration here in terms of the president-elect. I see some of that intelligence being put to the test.
Shelley: Yes. It’s fantastic. OK, in your first book, “Same Words, Different Language,” you reveal the top challenges men and women experience with the opposite sex at work, which might be part of the reason for that delay between the five years and the 22 odd years.
Barbara: Yeah. Go ahead.
Shelley: [Laughing] Would you like to share with our High Performance Leaders today your experience in that?
Barbara: You know, it’s interesting, because it was a compilation of 3,000 workshops that we had done. We start with the workshop and we don’t put any thing in men and women’s minds. We just ask them a simple question.
Men in one room, women in another room. And we ask them, what are the challenges you experience working with the other gender?
And these are the themes that come up in every single… It doesn’t matter where we are, we hear these themes. As you will hear them, they are actually rooted in misinterpretation of gender differences.
So, the number one, that men feel and experience, is that they have to be careful. When they work with women in the workplace, they find that they can’t be as straight up, and forward, and provide critical feedback, etc. So they soft-pedal some of those things a bit, in terms of being cautious.
So, that’s one of the top, top challenges the men say all the time, which is sometimes a surprise to women.
The other one is men feel confused.
They don’t know what the rules are.
The rules seem to change.
Not only do they change, from day to day, but they seem to even change from woman to woman. So, it gets quite confusing, because men tend to relate in the workplace to just: “Let me find out what the rules are and I’ll abide by them”. You know, just give me the things to do and I’ll do them, right?
Often, that can create the sense of confusion, if that shifts, or if there is lack of clarity around that.
And, the last one that I would like to talk about is, men literally feel blamed for breathing.
And, what I mean by that is that they are blamed for their differences. There’s a sense when we look at gender, when we look at advancing and retaining women, the way we frame it, how we say, “It’s a male dominated paradigm” (or something like that), it lands for men as blame.
So, they don’t feel they can be part of the solution. And, that’s another challenge that we need to overcome.
Shelley: And what about the woman? What’s the three things that females experience? The three challenges.
Barbara: Well, women say and I should also say, that when the men and women are in separate rooms, men, will have between one to three flip charts, and women will have between 12 to 27 [Laughs] when we ask this question.
They have a lot more to say about this. But, let me give you just the top three.
Number one is, women still feel, today, excluded. They feel excluded from the real meeting, after the meeting, where they can learn and contribute. There still is that sense “I’m not quite a part of it”. Also, in some cross networking and cross mentoring, women don’t quite feel a part of that sometimes.
The second top challenge, that women experience is, they feel dismissed. Now, that sometimes can happen in how we language things, which we probably will cover later on.
In the book, I quote Madeleine Albright, who says, “I’m in these board room meetings with all these men, and I’ll say something that isn’t heard, and three or four chairs down, a man will restate it and it’s brilliant.”
So, that’s a sense of feeling … a sense of dismissed. And so, if you experience that as a woman, feeling that sense of exclusion, and being dismissed, you end up adopting behaviors in order to fit in. We call it “one of the boys” or “one of the guys.”
And, we call that, the “third sex”, those women who take on extreme male behavior, in order to navigate the corporate culture, and that’s called the third sex. Women feel that, that’s a challenge, that they have to operate more like a man.
Shelley: Actually, I would have say I would be one of those that was very guilty of that early in my career.
Barbara: I’m a recovered third sex, myself. I understand what you mean.
Shelley: This fascinates me. When you bring the groups back together after doing those flip charts, how do you bridge for them the understanding of those challenges?
Barbara: Well, that’s where we begin to talk about, these are misinterpretations of differences. That the reason that they are pervasive, and that they can experience them so readily, and they keep coming up, is the fact that we don’t understand how these differences actually play out.
And once we understand that, then we go into some of the brain based differences and the communication differences, and then we look back at those challenges. I say, “Now with this new information, let’s look at the challenges you articulated when we first started, and do they still exist?”
They start falling off the list. The literally start falling off the list.
Shelley: All right. Fantastic. You talked about the brain based differences. I was reading a book just recently called “His Brain, Her Brain” by Barb and Walt Larimore. The book just fascinated me. It was about husband and wife relationships and I could see its context into the workplace.
They talked about the actual neuroscience research, about the differences in brain physiology between men and women. I see that you have recently released a book, “Leadership and the Sexes” based on the workplace, which I think is fantastic.
So do you want to share some of your insights that you have in the book?
Barbara: Actually the book, “Leadership and the Sexes” is based on the neuroscience that covers over one million people. So, a lot of people in 30 countries and all continents. We worked with neuroscientists for the last 16 years and they are quoted obviously in the book.
But, some interesting themes around how men and women perceive things, how they problem solve, how we communicate, how we lead and it’s actually brain based behaviors.
There’s many more connections in women’s brains, around emotional centers of the brain, which means women can communicate emotions, and communicate their experience more readily.
It’s harder for men to do that, because they don’t have as many connections, as an example. And, another one is our memory centers as women, we remember everything. We typically retain more complex information and more memory information.
So, I always use the example when he comes home late, we remember all the earlier similar instances when he was late, dating back to the first day that we met him. That’s just something that we can very readily do.
Shelley: Can you talk a little bit more about that? I’m absolutely fascinated by it.
Barbara: Yeah. Some of the hard wiring is quite interesting to me versus what we call the soft science. You know, where we’re kind of socialized to be different. There really is, in the neurobiology of the hard wiring science differences, some interesting things.
One that shows up is what we call “brain at rest.”
And women’s brains at rest, believe it or not, there’s a slide here that demonstrates that. It’s actually as active as men’s are when they are working on problems.
So if you look at the slide here, this is a cut of a resting female brain and a resting male brain. You can see that there’s a lot more going on in the resting female brain than the male.
I have to tell you, I wish I had that male brain.
I speak to a lot of audiences, gender mixed, and I ask the women to give me a show of hands, and say, “When you fall asleep, with things that you are concerned or problems, etc., do you actually wake up with a list of solutions?” And they all put their hand up.
I ask, “How many of the men can do that?” You get two or three hands. But that’s about it. The rest say, oh, I’m pretty well sleeping.
And, then I’ll ask the women, “How many women have ever asked a man, ‘What are you thinking?’” And they laugh of course, because they will answer it, “Yeah, sure I’ve asked that”.
What does he say? And they’ll say, “Nothing”.
I said, “Actually men can literally think about nothing. The way men de-stress is literally to take that kind of time out, lie on the couch, click the channels, whatever.”
It’s a way men de-stress, through not talking, taking time out, what we call zoning out. That’s part of their healing process from stress.
For women it’s the exact opposite. We need to de-stress through verbal means. We need to share the situation, vent out. That’s how we get rid of some of that stress.
So another fundamental gender difference.
Shelley: It just brings to mind why I struggle so to meditate. The brain just doesn’t seem to want to quit. It’s amazing.
Barbara: [Laughs] Yeah. I totally agree with you.
Shelley: So, these brain differences can lead to men and women communicating differently and problem solving. Do you want to talk to firstly the communicating differently - how that shows up in the workplace?
Barbara: In our workshops we do what we call ‘How men listen, How women listen’. From the “Same Words, Different Language.” And we ask and I’ll give an example. We have literally 220 statements. Not that we use them all.
We see different reactions to the same statement that men and women have. So one , for example, one that stands out in my head right now is the typical one we use all the time at work and at home, “What do you think?”
And when men hear, ‘What do you think?’ What they are actually hearing is that I’m being asked to make a decision. I’m being asked for closure. Make a decision or offer my opinion and I think this, close the conversation.
Shelley: Yeah, we’re done.
Barbara: For men, yeah that’s it. Off the list, right? And for women it’s often the exact opposite. It’s an opening to a conversation of starting a dialog or sharing my thoughts and interactions. So it often can get very misinterpreted.
So, when women say, ‘What do you think’, to a man and he goes, well, I just think you should do this. She thinks, “Well obviously, he doesn’t care. He doesn’t want to discuss it. He just wants to get me out of his office, and just go and do what he thinks I should do, when I already know what I should do. I just wanted to kind of collaborate and discuss it.”
So that’s some of the gender differences. The opposite obviously, is men might think that we don’t have an opinion, when we ask that. When we actually do have an opinion.
Shelley: Or, why are you wasting my time wanting to discuss this, if you have decided?
Barbara: I know. It really is a different value in terms of how we value conversation.
Shelley: I’m sure there are some people sitting listening now saying, yeah, but I’m a female and I think that way. What’s your views on that?
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