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feminine symbolMy mission is to help leaders create inclusive workplaces. That is, workplaces where both feminine and masculine ways of doing things are valued – in both men and women.

I have been doing workshops on this topic for a number of years. Years ago, once participants had an understanding of the differences, I would ask them to plot themselves on the “masculine-feminine continuum.”  Women would often proudly claim that they operated in many masculine ways. On the other hand, when a man saw that some of his ways of operating were feminine, he would hesitate to “confess” this. If he did, he would often be teased. This demonstrated a cultural preference for masculine ways of working and leading. Men, I think, associated using feminine approaches with being “sissy” or  with their sexual orientation – although having feminine strengths has nothing to do with either. I once called this the “F-word challenge.” I see signs that this is changing. Hurrah!

In my workshops, to establish a common definition of masculine and feminine, and avoid stereotyping, I use two prototypes, Max and Fran. Max is a prototype for masculine ways; Fran is a prototype for feminine ways. Men have no problem at all talking about their “Fran strengths” or in what circumstances a “Fran approach” is most effective. Maybe it is the use of prototypes rather than the terms “masculine” and “feminine.” Or maybe men are getting more comfortable acknowledging that they operate broadly along that masculine-feminine continuum.

I have had recent conversations with two men (admittedly not a scientific sample) who have proudly claimed that they use and admire “Fran’s” approach. Both are heterosexual; neither is concerned with being labeled “sissy.” One is an executive coach. He uses “Fran” strengths like intuition and empathy in his work. And he coaches tough male executives to develop strengths on Fran’s side of the continuum. The other, a retired organizational development professional, is developing his ability to share openly in conversation with both women and men – something he had never felt comfortable doing before. He is celebrating a new depth of connection.

I see articles explaining gains by women in terms of “women’s leadership strengths.” One such piece summarized research on this topic and noted that women are inclusive and collaborative; consult more when making decisions; and view the world “holistically.” Now obviously this is a bit of a stereotype. But it portrays feminine leadership strengths in a positive way. That’s good news.

A scholarly piece warns against using gender labels for different types of leadership (in part because it reinforces stereotypes). But it notes the increased interest in leadership that is “more participatory, non-hierarchical, flexible and group oriented.” These are “feminine” approaches. They just are not necessarily exhibited by women. Some women and some men lead in these ways.

Professor Anne Cummings did studies demonstrating that leadership was associated with masculine attributes. A few years ago, she noted that, when she asked seminar participants to list words describing leaders, “the descriptors have become more gender-neutral.” I am guessing that, in the last several years, this is even more the case.

Have you seen a broader acceptance of feminine forms of working and leading? Please share!