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 We know what the “pyramid problem” is. Women aren’t proportionally represented at leadership levels of business—so business doesn’t capture the value of gender diversity in leadership. We know the problem is stubborn. People have been writing about it and trying things to fix it for decades. We’ve said it is held in place not by malicious or even conscious attitudes; it is held in place by unconscious mindsets.

Solving the pyramid problem means creating workplace cultures that engage both men and women. To be able to create such inclusive cultures, I say, leaders must first understand differences in masculine and feminine approaches to working and leading. Then they can appreciate the strengths and limitations of both approaches. And then they can behave inclusively and create cultures that leverage approaches all along the masculine-feminine continuum.

How can we create understanding of differences in masculine and feminine approaches? How can we avoid stereotyping—and therefore offending the very leaders who will benefit from solving the pyramid problem? In the blog featured in my last newsletter, I introduced masculine-feminine differences as appearing along a continuum. One side of the continuum is “masculine,” the other “feminine.” Men and women operate all along the continuum, but if you graphed how men and women in our U.S. culture tend to think and operate, two bell curves would emerge. The very center of the bell curve on the masculine side is where the average man tends to operate; the center of the other bell curve is where women are more likely to think or behave.

We simply can’t say, “Men do such and such” and “Women do this and that.” Statements like that are stereotyping. I may be a woman who does “such and such” and you may be a man who does “this and that.” To define what we mean by masculine vs. feminine ways of working, however, we need to generalize about how men and women think and behave. We define “masculine” in terms of how the average man sees things and behaves; we define “feminine” by how women are likely to think and act. I make this simple—and avoid the offense of stereotyping—by using two prototypes. Max operates every hour of every day in all circumstances at the center of the masculine bell curve. He defines for us what we mean by “masculine.” Fran operates, all the time and no matter what, at the center of the feminine bell curve. She defines what we mean by “feminine.”

Max and Fran are the keys to solving the pyramid problem. If leaders and managers explore how they each operate at work in different areas, they will become more attuned to masculine and feminine approaches to work. And they’ll be able to see the strengths and limitations of each approach. That gives them the understanding necessary to flex their own behavior along the masculine-feminine continuum. And it gives them appreciation that enables them to act inclusively rather than valuing only those who think and behave like they do. Such leaders can create inclusive cultures. In inclusive cultures both men and women feel valued and supported to succeed. The engagement of men and women increases—and the result is higher retention, productivity and profitability.

Here is an example. In the workplace, Max tends to create hierarchical structures. The organizations he creates, the teams he leads and the spaces he sets up have levels. He is more comfortable knowing who is “above” him and others and who is “below.” He learned to give and take orders in his boyhood games. There are many advantages of a hierarchical structure. It can be very efficient. Roles are clear. On the other hand, a hierarchy can feel less open; it is harder to cross lines; and it can stifle creativity from the lower ranks.

In setting up organizations, teams and even meeting space, Fran leans toward structures that are more like flat networks. She is less concerned with rank and more concerned with connections. Roles tend to overlap and lines to be blurred. She tends to share power with team members, and see them more as equals. Advantages are an increase in participation and creativity. This approach may get buy-in more than a “top down” approach. But there are disadvantages. It can be confusing. Decisions can take longer and lose focus.

When leaders see and understand Max’s and Fran’s different approaches to structure, they can leverage the approach that fits the circumstance and gets the desired result. They can act inclusively with both Max and Fran, who will both feel valued, included and engaged. Leaders who appreciate both masculine and feminine approaches can create inclusive cultures—and avoid or solve the pyramid problem!

Have you seen advantages and disadvantages of “Max’s” way and “Fran’s way”? Do you think appreciating both can increase engagement?