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Posted: May 01, 2009

Guest column: A case for inclusive work cultures in tough times

With their complementary strengths, men and women together align and energize the work force

Caroline Turner

Since 1999, the Women’sVision Foundation has published a business case on the importance of hiring and retaining women. In its early versions, the crux of the business case was that having women in leadership roles improved business results.

It noted the growing number of women in the work force. It advocated for the unique strengths that women bring to the table and for creating inclusive cultures where women are more fully valued and engaged.

The business case evolved into a broader argument for inclusive cultures, meaning organizational environments that leverage differences. The argument was based on imminent “talent wars” resulting from the predicted mass retirement of baby boomers and a much smaller generation to fill their shoes. It noted the challenges of engaging and retaining members of generation X and millennials, who demand a better balance of masculine and feminine elements in the workplace.

Then came 2008. The supply/demand ratio for talent did a headstand. With an abundance of qualified workers, some businesses may think it‘s no longer necessary to maintain inclusive work cultures. There is a risk of relapse — to corporate cultures that work well for white male baby boomers but less well for everyone else. That would reduce the level of workers’ engagement and therefore the bottom line, the foundation says.

Research links engagement to better quality, customer service, effort, productivity, retention and bottom-line results. Engaging workers who fear for their jobs, benefits and retirement funds requires more focus, not less. Today’s work force is gender-balanced and includes two new generations that value both masculine and feminine leadership styles. Because of this, engaging today’s work force takes a blended approach.

Men and women combining their complementary strengths can align and energize more of the work force to keep morale and productivity high and solve the biggest challenges.

Balancing masculine and feminine leadership approaches is not as simple as having an equal number of men and women leaders. Women’sVision’s consulting arm, AthenA Group, uses the model of a gender continuum — from extremely masculine on one end to extremely feminine on the other. Many women exhibit leadership styles on the masculine part of this continuum, and many men operate on the feminine side.

By “masculine” we mean what men are more likely to do; by “feminine” we mean what women are more likely to do. In an organization of nearly all male leaders, the masculine approach generally dominates. In an organization with a greater balance of men and women, it is more likely that both masculine and feminine approaches will show up. Today, both must do more than show up. To achieve an inclusive culture and so engage more of the work force, masculine and feminine leadership styles need to be equally valued, honored and encouraged — in both men and women.

There is much to value in the masculine leadership style. Masculine leaders tend to exhibit more self-confidence and to be more goal-focused, more direct and less emotional. Their more hierarchical approach offers clarity and order. Their direct style of influence and managing conflict is efficient, and their competitive spirit can enhance focus and effort.

There are also strengths in the feminine style of leadership. Feminine leaders tend to share power, the stage, and credit for success. Rather than building hierarchies, women are likely to build more egalitarian networks. Feminine leaders tend to be more relational and collaborative. They focus on process as well as the end game and influence through persuasion and inclusion.

One end of the continuum is not better than the other. This is about “both-and,” not “either-or.” Catalyst, the leading research organization working to advance women in the private sector, has demonstrated that businesses with the highest representation of women in top management and on their boards have significantly better financial results than those with the lowest.

Gender diversity pays for several reasons. One is that it brings more of the continuum to life in an organization. Organizations with men and women leaders who operate all along the continuum and demonstrate that they value multiple ways of getting things done enable more people to feel valued and heard — in a word, engaged.

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Caroline Turner is an emeritus board member of the Women’sVision Foundation and principal of its consulting arm, The AthenA Group LLC. The foundation is a nonprofit organization with more than 3,500 individual and 65 corporate members and is committed to developing women as leaders in the corporate world.

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