When Barbara Annis started at Sony in the 1980s, she was the first woman salesperson the tech giant had ever had. She carved her path to success essentially by acting like a man -- more specifically, "the Danish Sherman tank," as she became known -- but also came to realize that doing so wasn't the most effective or natural thing to do. Nor is it something today's workforce of women is willing to do.
Harvard calls this the "first woman syndrome" -- the idea that the first women in their field had to think and act like men to get ahead. Not only did Annis feel this way at Sony Corp. (NYSE: SNE), the company reinforced that message to her, sending her at the age of 25 to a "Guerilla War Tactics for Women in Business" seminar to teach her to be more assertive.
The thing is, however, Annis was assertive. She just expressed her assertiveness differently than a man might.
Even so, the Dane became the Sherman Tank Sony wanted her to be, but she's come to learn that building an army of tanks isn't the best way to help women succeed in today's business world -- and companies would have trouble recruiting Millennials with that sort of approach.
"The Millennials won't do it," Annis tells Light Reading. "They refuse to do it; it's not part of their values, nor are they going to contort themselves into that. Us elders did it, but I certainly don't want my daughters to do that -- not in a million years. It's about bringing your authentic self and having that be valued. We have work to do in that area."
Helping companies tackle this formidable challenge in the still male-dominated world of technology is what drove Annis to found the Gender Intelligence Group, a consultancy focused on providing Fortune 500 companies with gender diversity and inclusive leadership training.
Testing your Gender IQ
Gender intelligence is based on the theory that men and women have differences in how they think and work, and that those differences should be recognized, valued and leveraged. Rather than institute quotas or aim to simply treat women the same as men, gender intelligence suggests that men and women are, in fact, different, and companies that act accordingly and have both males and females involved in decision making have the best shot at thriving.
So, how are men and women different (besides the obvious)? Annis says that in a business setting, the differences that tend to come up the most -- and there is a bell curve here -- are that women tend to observe more, read facial expressions and diverge in their thinking, rather than converge, when making decisions. Women excel at collaboration and so-called soft skills. (See The Collaboration Imperative , Women in Telecom: Collaboration Critical to New IP and Women in Tech: People Skills Trump Tech Skills .)
These aren't just observations Annis has made -- it actually comes down to how our brains are wired. Women have more corpus-callosum in their brain, which is the interconnect between the right and left hemispheres, whereas men tend to be more left-brained. Women's insula, the intuition center of the brain, is larger, Annis says, as is the pre-frontal cortex for logical thinking.
"We observe things more; we see things more; we read facial expressions; we have intuition," Annis says. "We diverge more when we make decisions, which is a powerful tool. Men tend to converge in problem solving or strategic thinking."
When a company is faced with making important decisions or tackling complex problems, both convergent and divergent thinking is needed -- both the left brain and the right brain; both men and women. "This is not about great minds think alike," Annis adds. "This is about great minds think unalike. It allows us to make better decisions and collaborate."
Boosting your Gender IQ
All of this highlights why it's important for companies to go beyond establishing women's groups or making recruiting women a priority: It has to be a complete cultural change, as hard as that may sound. For any company just starting out, Annis suggests the first step is to figure out exactly what you are solving for and seek to understand company dynamics through the lens of gender.
"There is a lot of window dressing and throwing money at this," Annis says. "We really need to have a straight, authentic conversation and understand exactly what we're solving... what to do and stop the copy-catting. Just because they are doing it across the street doesn't mean we have to do it."
Annis also stresses the importance of cross-gender mentoring and teaching men how to coach, empower and be supportive of women in the workplace, as well as appreciate the differences in how we communicate. Men have to be part of the conversation, she says, and they can't view this as simply a "women's problem."
Companies should re-evaluate their culture with gender in mind, as well as top-down management's approach to gender dynamics and the talent management process. But, Annis warns, don't just look at the data or do a survey of employees; actually do something about it. It takes an authentic commitment from the CEO, and it takes action.
"Women are ambitious," she says. "When they look at the top and different levels and don't see authentic role models -- not women who emulated men, but authentic women leaders -- they see that and go, this is not for me... There is very focused, transformational work needed to [transform this culture]."
— Sarah Thomas, , Editorial Operations Director, Light Reading