If you were engaged in a conversation at work with a woman and she nods, would you assume that she agrees with what you’re saying? If you’re a man, you probably would. If you’re a woman, you probably wouldn’t—you would know that her nod means she understands what you’re saying, but doesn’t necessarily agree with you.
Although this is just a simple gesture in a business conversation, you can imagine the problems that might result from misinterpretation. You can imagine the business opportunities lost and the time wasted. You can imagine losing people. You can imagine losing ground.
And this is only one of many differences between men’s and women’s usual modus operandi. For example, men usually interrupt more, talk for longer periods of time and focus more on outcome than on process. Women, on the other hand, tend to speak more politely, talk about a wider range of topics and make better eye contact while speaking.
These gender differences in orientation, communication and behavior seem subtle, yet they represent great dissimilarities in the ways that men and women operate on a daily basis. On a simple level, these differences can make working together tricky. On a more complex level, the differences can translate into a corporatewide tendency to work only within one’s comfort zone—men working only with men and women working only with women—unless this tendency is acknowledged and avoided.
At Kinney Shoe Corp., the company’s top executives decided that learning to bridge the gap between gender differences was so essential to getting business done that it embarked on a gender-sensitivity training program in 1991. The program, which was an outgrowth of a companywide diversity program that began in 1990 (see “Kinney Shoe Steps into Diversity,” Personnel Journal, September 1991), was introduced to help give Kinney a business edge in the competitive footwear and clothing retail marketplace.
Although New York City-based Kinney had already focused on general diversity issues through diversity training and had done sexual harassment training, there were still issues to be raised and discussed that only gender-sensitivity training could accomplish. “The next level after sexual-harassment training is looking at changing the interactional patterns between men and women in companies,” says Nancy Hamlin, a diversity specialist based in Marblehead, Massachusetts.
“The more diversity you can introduce into your critical-thinking processes and in decision making today, the more of an edge you’re really going to have,” says John Kozlowski, Kinney’s senior VP of HR. Although there were a good number of women in the corporation already, they were focused more in Kinney’s traditionally female-oriented companies, such as Lady Foot Locker and Susie’s Casuals, which is no longer in business. Kinney, a specialty retailer of footwear and apparel, wasn’t taking full advantage of women in the other divisions, such as Foot Locker and Kinney, to the degree that Kozlowski really thought that the company should have. Says Kozlowski: “The business issue really is introducing a new critical thinking—the thinking that comes from women in business.”
So far, the edge has been measured by the number of promotions of women since the program began, the sharing of talent between Kinney companies and the overall improvement in understanding and communication between men and women at the company.
To date, Kinney’s top 25 leaders, 50 regional vice presidents and 225 district managers have gone through the gender-sensitivity training and are sharing their learning down throughout the organization through a mentoring program, a cross-divisional management exchange program and through heightened awareness.
“If we took this as just an exclusive program only unto itself and highlighted all the differences [between men and women] in an unproductive way, it wouldn’t have worked,” Kozlowski explains. “Instead, we [said to ourselves], here we have all this talent, let’s start talking to each other and getting some ideas moving. Let’s start surfacing some of the issues that make women uncomfortable and not as productive as they could be with us. Maybe if we do some things a little bit differently, we’ll be more attractive to women in executive roles and to women wanting to go up the ladder.”
Gender-sensitivity training heightens awareness.
So, what is this seemingly touchy-feely world of gender-sensitivity training? It’s much more grounded in reality than you might think. And very much centered around business issues.
Usually, companies embark on gender-sensitivity training for one or more of these reasons:
- Their customer base is changing.
- Internal complaints or lawsuits are causing them to change.
- They realize that their values aren’t applicable to all employees, such as women and minorities.
- Their competition is doing this work.
For Kinney, there weren’t any critical incidents or specific internal pressures that caused management to examine this issue so closely. Kinney management also didn’t go into the training with any preconceived notions of how the company would benefit from the training, but rather left that open to discovery. Having been through a companywide diversity training program, senior management knew that important issues would emerge during the training that would enhance business relationships. Kinney, a 100-year-old, traditionally male-oriented company, wanted to continue creating opportunities for women in new ways.
The idea for isolating gender-issues training emerged during the more comprehensive diversity training, but HR decided to keep the two issues separate. Why spend so much time just on this topic? “We see the two issues as being very closely linked,” says Sharon Orlopp, vice president/director of Kinney’s fair-employment practice. Because senior management had made a commitment to enhancing opportunities for women, it needed a focal point on which to fix the organization’s attention. The gender-awareness program was a way to draw the entire company’s attention to the commitment, while giving the work force some tools to use on a daily basis.
Kinney’s human resources department worked with Hamlin, the diversity specialist, to help the company start down the gender-awareness path. Hamlin first conducted an organizational assessment to figure out what Kinney’s issues were regarding gender-specific perceptions. The assessment started with a survey of the company’s top 25 officers (18 men and seven women). The survey posed such questions as: What gender-sensitivity issues do you feel need to be addressed in a training program? What tools do you want to walk away from the training with?
“The worst thing in the world is to go in and assume that you know what the problem is or what the issues are,” says Hamlin. She says that you have to ask and, more importantly, listen.
They did listen. And to the surprise of HR, the consultant and everyone involved in the training program, both men and women in the survey group identified the same concerns, in the same order. They were (in order of most important): career development, attitudes (including stereotypes) and cross-gender communication (including hostile-environment issues).
“When we asked people what they wanted to walk away with, the women wanted to see changes around attitudes and behaviors; the men wanted that, too. Women wanted to see willingness to listen; men wanted to see greater respect for their fellow workers,” explains Hamlin. “The women really saw this as a journey, not an end. The men wanted to fix it. They wanted action plans for hiring, promotion reviews, departmental guidelines and action plans for change.”
Both viewpoints were taken into consideration. Although management set goals for the training, they didn’t set post-training goals. Rather, managers were asked to set their own goals based on what they learned during the training.
From the survey and subsequent discussions among the same group, management set the following training goals:
- To raise awareness of male/female differences in development, communication styles, emotions and behaviors
- To learn the benefits of the female perspective in behaviors
- To learn what behaviors and communication styles are problems for both men and women
- To change the use of any improper language
- To improve communication between the members of the senior management team.
This meant learning about how women and men traditionally think and act, what has influenced them to think and act in those ways, which of those perceptions and behaviors are problematic for the opposite sex and how to go about changing perceptions and problematic behaviors.
The training wasn’t meant to point any fingers, or to say that only men’s styles or only women’s styles are the right styles. They learned that the benefits come from being aware of both styles and integrating them into cohesive working relationships. “[Being unaware of the differences] isn’t something that can be blamed on anyone,” says Hamlin. “A lot of times, people don’t even understand that they’ve done something wrong. It isn’t done with malice, it’s just done with lack of awareness.”
Once they established the training goals, HR and the consultant designed the training for three full-day training sessions. The first session started with a historical overview, reviewing what the gender cues that people in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s grew up with. Hamlin points to the fact that 75% of the senior management teams in the United States were socialized in the ’40s and ’50s, which makes an overview like this useful and important for most groups to start with. “The ’90s are about gender-role confusion and about becoming resocialized,” says Hamlin.
People also participated in an exercise about gender-role expectations. During this discussion, individuals were asked to finish sentences beginning with: “Because I am a woman” or “Because I am a man,” “I am required to,” “I am allowed to” or “I am forbidden to”. Then people had to list five commandments that their fathers gave them when they were growing up and five commandments that their mothers gave them.
They discussed the messages that little girls and boys often hear while growing up. The women said that as little girls, they were told, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all,” and “Don’t get dirty when you go out to play.” Boys heard: “Don’t cry,” and “If anything happens to your daddy, take care of the family.”
During the training, people learned that women, in general, see work as a process while men usually focus on the end result and want to see specific action plans. Men are brought up to be much more competitive; power is key. Men have more of a succinct speaking style, similar to military speech, whereas women communicate more in a storytelling style (see “Eight Common Differences in Communication Styles Between Women and Men”).
During the training, certain interactional patterns were described as problematic. One was male bonding. For example, men often attend or participate in sporting activities and either don’t include women, or if they do, don’t think to ask what type of sport the women might like to participate in and therefore, unintentionally exclude them.
One solution the group identified was to have more than one activity available at company functions. For instance, offer tennis or volleyball, not just golf, which many women might not play.
Another more formal solution that the group identified was to develop a mentoring program to help equalize the advantages and opportunities that come from association with senior managers. The program pairs top executives of the company with high-potential women and minority staffers in the company’s headquarters location.
Another problematic behavior that women identified are men’s tendencies to be overprotective of women in business situations. “Sometimes men think that being overprotective is a gesture of being nice to a woman. Sometimes they aren’t aware of the perceptions that a woman has to this gesture,” says Orlopp. Instead, women want to be given the same opportunities to succeed and to fail on their own, and to learn from those experiences.
Issues that are perceived as traditionally women’s, such as child care and flex time, also emerged during the discussions. A solution was not to schedule early-morning meetings. This makes it easier for people to work around their child-care arrangements.
Another area they identified for improvement was avoiding red-flag behaviors. These are behaviors that cause individuals to flare up and to avoid interaction. For the women, one common red-flag behavior was when men refer to women using “girl” terms, such as hun, babe, doll, dear. Women also don’t like talk that involves a lot of sports metaphors and patronizing or domineering remarks. Instead, people can use non-sexist language that includes everybody. For example, instead of saying, “Hey, you guys” say, “Hey, everyone.”
Red-flag behaviors for men are when women try to be one of the guys by telling off-color jokes or using profanity. Men also tend to be uncomfortable if women cry, giggle, pout or are aggressive.
People learned that men usually want straight talk in response to their questions, not relationship-oriented answers. For example, if a man asks a co-worker how another co-worker is doing, he usually wants to hear about the projects that that person is working on, not how the woman feels about that person.
Knowing that red-flag behaviors are irritating to the opposite gender has helped individuals tone down or eliminate them in the workplace and therefore enhance their working relationships.
Management develops action plans.
Once the managers completed the gender-sensitivity training, they developed their own action plans for change both on personal and on organizational levels. They then shared their plans with their peers during the meetings.
HR specifically stayed away from setting promotion quotas or other goals. Rather, the plans centered around increasing awareness and increasing opportunities for women throughout the organization. “We never got into numerical goals; we didn’t really have to,” says Kozlowski. “All we said is that we wanted to increase opportunities for women in this company. Then you see if you have to come in with some hard data later if it isn’t running the way you want it to run. I haven’t had to do that.”
The group also talked about networking, doing more cross-divisional transfers, promoting more women into upper management and generally having more exposure to people of the opposite gender in the workplace. For example, Kinney focused on changing its tendency to promote women only within divisions dealing with women’s products. “Promotion used to be pretty much exclusively within a division,” says Kozlowski. “Now we cross-promote to benefit ourselves of the diversity.”
An idea that emerged from the gender-sensitivity training was to share more talent between Kinney divisions. HR developed and facilitated an exchange program between Kinney’s Foot Locker and Lady Foot Locker divisions. Traditionally, Foot Locker was predominantly run by men and Lady Foot Locker was predominantly run by women. The idea was to better integrate men and women in jobs cross-divisionally.
The exchange program was formally rolled out in November 1992. It was kicked off with a one-day gender-sensitivity program, which was facilitated by Orlopp and the former director of Kinney’s office of fair-employment practice, Bob Jacinto.
The one-day gender-sensitivity program assisted 110 district managers from both divisions to identify what the barriers, solutions and benefits were of sharing talent across the divisions. After the training, district managers were required to interview individuals from the other division.
Many interviews were conducted as a result. Generally, if an individual was interested in working for the other division, every effort was made to place the employee. The program has since developed into a less formal initiative, because cross-divisional sharing of talent has become more widespread. Interviews now are conducted on an as-needed and as-requested basis. The program has helped push Kinney’s gender-sensitive initiatives down through the company.
Gender issues cause anxiety.
“There’s a lot of anxiety around programs like this, and a lot of unknown,” says Kozlowski. What relieves the anxiety, he says, is focusing on the issue through a program that deals with the unlearning that has to go on, presents the new learning in comprehensive terms and doesn’t attempt to legislate. “Once you break down the initial barriers and you relieve the anxiety, then it just takes off. There’s nothing to fear anymore,” he adds.
Because it was senior management’s idea to focus on gender sensitivity in the first place, there was a high degree of acceptance at that level. And, when the program was rolled out to the district managers, there was some resistance, but not much.
“I was actually surprised at the lack of tough resistance,” Kozlowski says. He adds that most resistance was easily overcome. The reason, he explains, is that although gender programs and diversity programs have been around since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, workers today are more ready to embrace the concepts and initiatives that surround these issues. “I haven’t really seen the kind of acceptance I’m seeing now,” he explains. “It’s almost as though it’s the natural order of things, and people are now ready to do perhaps what we should have been doing a long time ago.”
According to Hamlin, usually one-third of a company’s work force is pro gender-parity, one-third haven’t made up their minds yet and the other third probably will never change. “Values and beliefs are very ingrained,” she says. “So the beginning work is to help people change their behaviors and attitudes, and the long-term work is to change values and beliefs.” It requires an organizational culture shift. And culture shifts take time.
Kinney’s former CEO and current vice chairman, Harold C. Rowen, was the key catalyst for gender awareness at Kinney. “Many companies are giving [gender parity] a lot of lip service, but very few really believe in it,” says Rowen. “We felt that if we could get it started with senior management and have them working with the people coming up the ladder, then we could start spreading it further up and down the ranks with our people. We just felt that otherwise, it would become just another program that sits there for a few months and then disappears.”
Even with senior management driving the initiative, Rowen admits that not everyone in the company is on the gender-parity bandwagon. “Is everybody behind it 100%? No way,” says Rowen. “I’d like to say they are, but it takes time. Senior management is the key to it.”
Businesses are finding that they can’t be as successful without addressing gender issues, because at least half the work force is women and because the work force must also mirror the customer base. Focusing on gender issues has become a business necessity. “It helps us do a better job in the marketplace,” says Rowen.
More women are promoted.
As a direct result of the gender-sensitivity training, Kinney has recently promoted several women into mid- and upper-management. Five women managers were promoted while they were pregnant or on maternity leave during past year. For example, Orlopp was promoted once while she was pregnant, then again while she was on maternity leave.
“Maternity issues came up quite a bit during the gender-sensitivity training,” says Orlopp. The stereotypes regarding women who are pregnant or on maternity leave and their contribution to the job were discussed openly and freely, leading to more promotions in the company, including hers. “You hear horror stories about maternity leaves in different companies,” says Orlopp. “I was very impressed with the way it’s being handled here.”
In addition, the total number of women who work for Kinney increased by 25% in 1993. And, over the past four years, the number of women vice presidents has increased from three to 14—a 92% increase.
Three women in the Kinney organization have shattered the glass ceilings in their divisions. For the first time in the company’s history, a woman is now the general manager at Kinney’s Lady Foot Locker division. Two women have become regional vice presidents at Foot Locker and Kinney, traditionally male-dominated companies.
“The women who shattered the glass ceilings were already strong performers for us, but they were able to go to the next step,” says Orlopp. “I think it’s a combination of the training and increased awareness. I think that the acceptance of them achieving those positions is better than it would have been in the past. Now people recognize performance, regardless of gender.”
Gender focus improves workplace equality.
Studies on gender issues show that focusing specifically on differences between the genders leads to a more efficient, higher-quality work force and increased job satisfaction. Valuable employees who might otherwise leave the company stay on because they feel more connected and included in the work force while also helping a company maintain its global competitiveness.
In the short run, incorporating women’s and men’s styles more fully into an organization opens up the dialogue. It also helps to narrow the gap between comfort zones, which is so crucial to business relationships. In the long run, it creates more opportunities. Women’s images are changing in corporate America. Their ability already is there.
“I don’t think that the cement walls exist now that existed even 10 years ago,” says Kozlowski. “The walls are a lot thinner.”
Awareness of gender differences is as simple as knowing that a nod of the head can mean different things to different people. In the end, you realize that there’s more than one way to approach a conversation—and more than one way to be successful in business.
Personnel Journal, August 1994, Vol.73, No. 8, pp. 83-89.