Good managers already know it: Gender Intelligence works

how to engage men in gender diversity

Medical Team Discussing Treatment Options With Patients

We all know that men and women are different. We also do see them behave differently at work. But have you ever considered using this difference in how you lead your team? Have you ever stopped to think about what this difference is, and if you perhaps needed to flex your style depending on gender?

If not you are missing a trick. And it could be an expensive one, leading to disengagement, underperformance of your team, or even people leaving the organisation.

Why managers are not being Gender Intelligent

It turns out most managers have never stopped to think about gender. Recently I have done a series of interviews, and not one single manager I interviewed said they use their knowledge of gender when leading a team.

There are 3 key reasons I see why flexing leadership style for women and men is something most managers have probably never thought about.

1. People are seen as individuals rather than groups

Many of the managers I interviewed tell me a good leader treats every person in their team as an individual. “I have led men and women, and see them as individuals. Men have a name of being more ambitious, but in my experience some men are focussed on their career and some women are. If they are, I support that where I can. That’s my job as a manager“

“Basically, you look for what this individual needs from their manager and you do those things that help them perform better.”

2. Leadership literature doesn’t address Gender Intelligence

The managers I interviewed are supported by literature on leadership. The literature assumes theories and tools apply equally to women and men. When you read about motivating people, you don’t read that you may need to try different motivational techniques for men and women. When you hear about reward and recognition, you don’t hear that perhaps women and men need a different approach to feel valued and stay engaged. It’s simply not part of the question researchers ask when they look into how to lead people.

3. It’s not politically correct to treat men and women differently

Last, it would sound wrong to admit that you treat people differently. After all, that wouldn’t be very diverse and equal. Ever since the seventies there has been a major effort to ensure men and women are treated equally.

In my interviews, some managers hasten to tell me that they treat everyone the same, and that they make especially sure men and women are treated the same. They will say things like: “There’s no special treatment for girls here! “ or “I have no issues with women, in fact I love working with women”

How good managers apply Gender Intelligence without knowing it

The reality, however, seems different. Deeper into the interview I explain about specific differences literature has found between men and women. Once prompted, it turns out those same managers that ‘treat everyone the same’ and ‘treat all their employees as individuals’ do things differently after all.

–        Giving feed-back

Especially when it comes to giving feed-back, managers often flex their style by gender:

“I wouldn’t think of giving feed-back in the same way to men as to women. I have been running a business with over 50% of women, right up to the top of my organisation.  In my experience it doesn’t work to give feed-back the same way. With men I tend to be more straightforward ‘This has got to improve’. If I am not, they might not even hear it. With women I have to package it more ‘This is what you are doing well, however there is one thing you need to look at’. If I don’t word it like this, they can take it personal, crumble and get quite demotivated.”

–        Manning projects, dividing tasks

But also in manning projects and dividing tasks, many managers I interviewed make a difference.

“Now that you mention it, one of my colleagues recently said “This is a male client that needs a lot of detail, it’s better to put a woman on the team”. So clearly there is indeed some difference in how men and women operate, I’d just never thought of it, but we did add a woman to the team.”

Another manager I interviewed is much more aware of differences and uses it actively to get better business results: “I know women tend to be better at gauging the atmosphere and picking up facial expressions and body language. When we come out of a client-meeting I like to check in with one of the women of my team and ask them what they have spotted, and how they feel about the meeting”.

Are you a Gender Intelligent leader?

Perhaps you are already flexing your style too. Without knowing it you might use quite different tactics with women and men. You may already be asking a particular colleague for a specific task or type of input, knowing that’s what men tend to be good at.

I recommend managers to be more savvy in flexing their style in a way that works for men and women. Getting the most out of a team is all about what works for the team. I believe leading Gender Intelligently – flexing your style based on gender differences – can make a huge difference in engagement and performance.

It’s key, though that the differences you are making are based on real differences, not on bias and prejudice. Flexing your style so it helps improve performance is not about asking a woman to fix the coffee and do the typing as traditionally that’s what women tend to be ‘good at’.

In addition remember that styles that tend to work for most women, may well work for some men too. After all we are all individuals.

Therefor, when you start flexing your style, it may be worth checking your assumptions with the men and women you lead, and be open about what their answers could be. Check in and see if your new way of giving feed-back is effective or explain why they are chosen for a client-team and check if they agree they have a strength in details.

Do let me know how you are getting on! Have you been leading Gender Intelligently without knowing it? What have you been flexing and what was the result?

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Author: Inge Woudstra

Would you like to know more or have a question? I am always happy to have a chat to discuss your needs. Why not drop me a line or pick up the phone? Call me at 01372 457 907 or Just contact me to discuss your requirements by e-mail.

I can help you recruit, retain and advance women, and typically work with organisations in tech and engineering.

Or just check out my book 'Be Gender Smart - The Key to Career Success for Women'

2 Comments

  1. Emma says:

    If they’re treating people as individuals, aren’t they likely to be treating them with some gender intelligence? I wouldn’t give feedback to everyone in exactly the same way, not because they’re male or female, but because they’re different people. I (female) share *some* traits with male colleagues and *some* traits with female colleagues.

    If you’re giving particular tasks to someone “knowing that’s what men tend to be good at”, you’re on dodgy ground – men may tend to be good at that, but any individual man might not be. If you give the task to someone knowing that their individual strengths make them good at it, then that’s firmer ground. You need to learn the strengths and weaknesses of each person in the team, and develop them accordingly, without making assumptions that they’re going to be particularly good or bad at something before they’ve had the chance to prove themselves, just because of an overall tendency shown by their gender. It’s not gender intelligence you need, but flexibility and an understanding that one size doesn’t fit all.

    • Inge says:

      That’s well put. In the end you do want to treat people as individuals.

      However, there are so many assumptions in about what is a normal way of doing business, that we sometimes forget there are other ways that work too. Often ways that work for women are overlooked, or not taken serious.

      That’s why I have started blogging about what tends to work for women. It opens the mind to other options, and starts putting them at the same level as leadership skills that tend to work for most men.

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