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So far I’ve written about the bottom line value of inclusive workplace cultures, the importance of expanding engagement to include those who are different from those that most influence a culture and the issue of authenticity in the workplace.  Now it’s time to dig into some specific types of difference. 

The area of difference where I have the most expertise is masculine-feminine differences.  I’ve taught workshops on “gender difference” for years and am writing a book with a large section on leveraging masculine and feminine approaches at work. Note that the book is not about men and women; it is about masculine and feminine ways, which both men and women embody and can leverage. People agree with me that this topic has more currency than ever with women now constituting 50% or more of the workforce—and so more feminine tendencies showing up at work. 

 Yet this topic still meets resistance—or we worry that it will.  One online newsletter that I read recently illustrates the touchiness of this topic.  The article (at tip-toed up to the topic of “gender-based differences” and called it “VERY dangerous ground.”  The author practically apologized before broaching the topic, assuring readers that the newsletter was not meant to “pick a fight.” 

 Sometimes when I’m asked to conduct a workshop or give a speech, I encounter this sensitivity and assure my client that the workshop or speech won’t involve male bashing. (It doesn’t.) There’s another explanation, which I call the “F-word challenge.”  Rather than seeing the strengths of both masculine and feminine approaches, some folks seem the treat “feminine” as a four-letter word.  (Thus, the “F-word.”)  If women behave in a way that is “too” feminine, they are weak—and lack leadership.  Men may exhibit feminine strengths (good leaders exhibit both) but many wouldn’t want to call it “feminine”.  It seems important to them to be seen as totally masculine and to avoid any risk of having “sissy” characteristics.  And women sometimes hesitate to claim their feminine strengths.

My goal is to reach managers and leaders, comfortable in their manhood and womanhood, who are open to seeing the strengths and limitations of both masculine and feminine at work.  One very prominent group seems to be willing to break through the “F-word challenge.”  In 2008 McKinsey based a model of leadership called “centered leadership” on its research to determine what drives and sustains successful female leaders.  This year, it published another article on centered leadership, linking the characteristics of this model to work performance.  McKinsey found that both men and women demonstrate these characteristics, which are “somewhat different from traditional male trait.”  It declared that “centered leadership is . . . making use of mind-sets and behavior often considered feminine” (emphasis mine).  McKinsey used the F-word positively!

 I’d like your comments on these questions:

  •  Why do you think this topic creates such sensitivity? 
  • What do you suggest that can help break through this sensitivity?
  • Do you see the McKinsey study as a hopeful sign that we can actually hope to have unapologetic (adult) conversations about the strengths of both masculine and feminine approaches to work?