What women want – and what they have to learn

October 2, 2014

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Endocode and newthinking are partner companies who campaign for gender balance. The following interview is also available in German on the newthinking blog; it was conducted in May 2014 with Jutta Wepler. It was sparked by concerns of Endocode shareholders over gender balance in the company. Jutta Wepler has worked as a consultant, trainer and coach for 15 years. Today her work focuses on female scientists in management positions or working towards such positions. As a member of the management committee of Business and Professional Women Berlin e.V., she works to achieve professional gender equality.

Jutta, why do women need help getting into management positions?

Many women need to learn the rules of company cultures, which are predominantly controlled by a strong network of men. Professional male culture is very different than professional female culture. It’s not better or worse, it’s simply different. But if you belong to one culture and you don’t understand the rules of the other culture, then you can’t join in the game. For me, it’s about women understanding male behavior rather than denigrating and dismissing it, and seeing themselves as a player in this hierarchical game, instead of standing on the outside looking in and saying, “Ugh! What are they doing?”

What is the most common initial reaction from women with whom you work?

Women often strongly denigrate male cultures. For example, they think it’s obnoxious when men begin a meeting by loudly proclaiming their own achievements. This, however, adversely affects them; especially when they are promoted. I also advise women to be more visible; to put themselves in a position where people come to them for their opinion. I’ll give you an example. I coach a female scientist who is truly excellent in her field. Her research has made her the foremost expert in Germany on a major political topic – but nobody knew that. She came to me to help her increase her exposure so that the media would come to her as an expert on this topic. She now gets frequent requests for TV appearances. However, before her first appearance, a male colleague came over, had a look at her and said: “You can’t go in front of a camera like that. You need to lose weight first.” Instead of giving him a verbal slap in the face, she was annoyed and felt personally attacked…

But isn’t that unfair?

Of course it’s unfair – but he won’t stop being unfair if he gets no clear reaction.  On the contrary, he gets exactly what he wants: she backs down. She mustn’t allow him to do that. The world isn’t fair and we have to defend ourselves against such unfair behavior. But if she informs her manager about it, that might be seen as disloyal because she’s denigrating her colleague. What’s more, the boss may also silently think, “This is dumb. Why does she put up with this and not defend herself?”

You said that men network differently in comparison to women…

Networks of women are often networks of friends. You are nice to each other, but you don’t act strategically. It’s different with men. In male networks it’s all about, “I scratch your back, you scratch mine.” This means I give you something and you give me something in return. It goes unspoken, but everybody knows it and keeps it in mind. Among women, this is often not the case. Some of them give, while others take. And there is another difference; men help each other climb the professional ladder – unfortunately, women rarely do this. Some women don’t help each other out because they see them as competitors. Men put new colleagues exactly where they belong; where they can’t compete directly [laughing]. This is very simplified, but that’s the basic principle.

Are there any other differences which you can see in a business context where women have to learn a different culture to compete in a man’s world?

Yes. They need to become more competitive. They need to learn to adapt to competitive and challenging situations instead of toppling and crying after the first blow. They need to have the appetite for competitive situations where you say, “Okay, you win this one, but I’ll win the next one.” And don’t take it personally if the other scores a point. Men distinguish very strongly between the professional and the personal. Many women want to have a friendly relationship with their bosses and colleagues. They don’t distinguish between these two areas and often take things which happen in the job far too personally. But that’s not how it works. I always say, “Think of it as a football match: Sometimes you commit a foul, sometimes I commit a foul – but after the game we both get along with each other and go for a beer.”

Is this saying that we all should behave a little bit more like men?

I would like to see women learn and master the art of playing the game by men’s rules if they want to climb the career ladder. But I do not wish for them to have to play according to these rules forever. One thing is clear: Changing a company’s culture is only possible from the top-down, not bottom-up. This means that women first need to reach the top of the hierarchy. As soon as they get there, then they can say, “These rules do not apply in my department. We communicate and act in a fair manner. I will not allow abusive and unfair behavior in my area of influence.”

Which advantages do you see in playing the game by „women’s rules“?

First of all, horizontal communication produces many more ideas and also puts them into action. This is because shy people add their opinions and this is certainly a big advantage. Another advantage of a culture of fairness and consent is that everyone can let their full potential blossom. They are not spending there time with power struggles and constantly needing to defend their position in the organization. There is a lot of energy wasted doing this that could otherwise be used doing other, more productive, work.

This means you free up energy for other uses which would have otherwise been invested in infighting?

Yes. I see this in teams that are well-aligned and have developed their own culture in which fairness takes a greater role, beside performance and quality. These teams work more smoothly and spend less time in conflict. Such cultures free up energy to move the team forward instead of burning energy on internal power struggles. I can contribute more freely to the team if I can express my opinion without fear of others immediately reacting with, “That’s nonsense!” If you are fair, solution-oriented and constructive with each other, establish these as rules in the team, and hold each other to these rules, then I’m sure the outcome will be much better.

Why, then, do we so often do it differently?

Because the world is not ruled by rationality [laughing].

In discussions on this topic you’ve very often used generalizations such as “men are like this and women are like this”…

Of course these things are only tendencies. Some men are also lost within these power games. And there are women who behave totally authoritatively. This can become fatal, e.g. with a female boss who behaves like the lord of the manor and leads with carrot and stick. I know a woman who played this game perfectly. She once cooked some delicious asparagus for the whole team and served it up. Once they were all buttered up, she told them that there were no Christmas bonuses that year. This actually worked with most employees; they accepted it. On the other hand, this team had a typical feel-good culture without any commitment to performance. In this environment the standards decreased permanently as nobody was permitted to march out of line. It was not allowed to be better than the average. In the end, all the high-achievers left because they couldn’t change anything, and were sometimes even punished for their outstanding performance.

This means both cultures have their advantages and disadvantages. What‘s your advice here?

I would prefer a mixture of both: A horizontal component which releases the potential of the team members and a vertical component which moves the team forward and is performance-oriented. I like it when organizations behave vertically with their competitors in the market. I also think there can and should be some internal competition to stimulate competitiveness and performance. But this can’t be the dominating culture. It will not work if the people have to fight permanently for their positions.

Doesn’t this mean the best members will naturally rise to the top?

In such cases the winners are not the best performers. The winners are the people who can play the best Machiavellian power games. Peter Modler addressed this in his book The Arrogance Principle. He worked for a lot of companies as an interim manager and discovered that the biggest show-offs occupied all the leading positions. These men could explain wonderfully how great they were – even if nobody asked them. On the other hand, the most powerful team members were, in most cases, women in lower clerical assistant positions. They were stuck in such positions because they found it horrible having to continuously boast. He decided he couldn’t bear it anymore and developed a training program to help women assert themselves: The Arrogance Training.

As far as I understand you, it’s about applying the right culture at the right time and in the right situation.

Exactly. Horizontal structures are perfect when it’s about the production of ideas or the design of the best solution. Vertical structures are better if it’s about quick decisions and clear-cut actions in the market. In such cases, somebody has to be the lead – and that doesn’t always have to be the same person. Teams have to be developed in a way that empower the best people in certain areas to make decisions on their own. But this requires that all others go along with these decisions and support them instead of complaining, “I would have done this differently”. Only then will it work.

This interview was conducted by Andreas Wichmann. Andreas is a partner at Endocode AG and an expert in collaboration. As a consultant he helps clients with their processes concerning teamwork and cooperation. In addition to his work at Endocode, Andreas is active on projects at newthinking in several capacities, including as an expert for open innovation projects.

Find all articles in the gender balance series here:

  1. Personal insights: women in IT – with Jennifer Beecher
  2. Just do it! – with Cecilia Palmer
  3. Free Software, Free Society? – with Silke Meyer
  4. What women want – and what they have to learn – with Jutta Wepler
  5. Endocode wants gender balance: How to start? – with Jennifer Beecher