by Jill L. Cohen:

I chaperoned a 6th grade retreat for my daughter’s class.  A key part of the retreat was “Team Building” and these exercises required the group to work together collaboratively to solve challenges.

As I stood watching the interaction, a common pattern emerged.  With each challenge, the boys quickly asserted their leadership and jumped into deploying solution after solution until they ran out of them.  The girls on the other hand, asked many questions, discussed options, then proposed solutions. Unfortunately, each time they shared one with the boys, it was quickly dismissed and they would go silent.

It was maddening to watch!  Both groups were unsuccessful on their own, but it took them a long time to learn how to work together effectively.  As I stood there observing, I realized this was a real life example of the challenges gender differences pose in the business world as well.

The Challenge

50+ years ago, gender issues in the workplace were non-existent — men worked, women raised families.  But in today’s world where working together is common, the challenges are very real.  Men and women ARE different — and that’s ok.  In fact, numerous studies show that those differences can add significant value.  But in a world where women represent 49% of the population, but less than 15% of business leadership, why haven’t we figured this out yet?

Carol Vallone Mitchell in her great new book “Breaking Through Bitch” helps illuminate the some of these reasons.  Her research shows that expectations of women leaders are far more complex than their male counterparts.  Stereotypes, biases, history and perceptions of both men and women come into play.

“A woman leader is likely to be sent conflicting messages about how members expect her to behave (leader like, but feminine) and since many of these are incompatible, her inability to meet all these expectations can lead to dissatisfaction with her performance.” – (B.G. Reed, 1983)

Mitchell likens the process of successful woman leadership to “walking a tightrope”, and in my experience, I’ve found 6 “Balancing Acts” that all business women must master.

6 Balancing Acts for Business Women

  1. Attention: As the 6th grade girls saw, not having your ideas heard can be defeating.  The same is true for women in business. On the flip-side, women are sometimes given more attention just because they are women.  Talk about off-balance!
  2. Expectations: All leaders are all expected to have characteristics of strength, decisiveness and control. But unlike their male counterparts, women leaders must balance those with a perfect amount of feminine traits.  How do you define “perfect”?
  3. Identity: For men, their identity is often tied to their career. But women typically desire to balance multiple identities including to their career — wife, mother, daughter, etc.  Juggling and balancing at the same time is hard.
  4. Choices: The goal for the 6th grade boys was to make decisions quickly, and many traditional leaders have the same goals. For women leaders, however, the decision process is often more complex, collaborative and focused on results vs. time.  Balancing of both can be a challenge for some women.
  5. Respect:  Ever since women have entered the workforce, they have desired  equal respect.  At the same time, there are some situations (safety, health issues, language, etc.) where women desire to be treated differently than their male counterparts.  How do you encourage balance when you’ve already tilted the scales?
  6. Opportunity: It is generally agreed today — women are equally capable of fulfilling the same roles as men in the workplace. But occasionally, capable women choose to opt-out based on traditional perceptions of how roles are performed by men.   Perhaps as the 6th graders found out, there’s more than one approach that works.


Watching 6th grade boys and girls struggle to work collaboratively, I realized an important fact.  The stereotypes, biases and expectations we all bring with us to the workplace were not born there, but much earlier in our lives.  As adult men and women, we must live consciously if we are to overcome them successfully.

At the same time, culture change takes time.  It took about 30 minutes for the 6th graders to make a change in their interaction, but it will take much longer to get sustainable change in the business world.  In the meantime, women – keep practicing your high-wire act.

QUESTION:  What can both men and women do to improve collaboration together?  What success stories have you seen? Share your experiences & answers in the comments below.

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