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Dena L. Anthony, Ph.D.
San Francisco, Palo Alto, Albany
(510) 525-6156


UNDERSTANDING WOMEN'S PSYCHOLOGY IN THE WORKPLACE AND HARNESSING IT FOR OPTIMAL RESULTS
Dena Anthony, PhD, Psychotherapist; Researcher of the psychology of women in corporations
Presentation to The Commonwealth Club, San Francisco, August 16, 2010.

Description of Talk: Defining Our Differences and Making the Most of Them. No matter how gender-neutral companies try to make their hiring process and everyday environment, there can be distinct differences in how men and women approach and solve problems. Dr. Anthony has not only studied these differences, she has also experienced them firsthand within corporate and academic hierarchies and has counseled women extensively about using their specific attributes productively. Drawing on recent research in brain imagery and hormones that highlight the possible bases for these differences, Dr. Anthony will suggest how a company might use the inherent variations in approach between the genders to contribute to workplace effectiveness.

Introduction by Patrick O’Reilly PhD: Dr. Dena Anthony has been on the cutting edge of research about women and our culture. For over a quarter of a century she has worked in academic and corporate hierarchies. Her original research looked at the experiences of successful women in their work places. This research focused on the styles and values that women tend to use more than men. At the time of her research, she documented the difficulties that bright and talented women experienced in not having their value acknowledged. Her private psychotherapy practice helps men and women move into a more comfortable and effective blending of the masculine and the feminine in their professional and personal lives.

Presentation: I would like to start this evening with one of my favorite stories: A long time ago in a far away land a warrior named Agamemnon set sail on a voyage to Troy. His mission was to retrieve the beautiful Helen, the wife of his brother Menelaus. His young daughter, Iphigenia, accompanied him on this journey. At one point the winds died down, and the ship could not move. To have the winds return, the goddess Artemis required that Agamemnon sacrifice Iphigenia, his devoted daughter. So Agamemnon did a shocking thing! He sacrificed his beautiful, young daughter to fill his sails.

I share this story with you today to emphasize that there are deep roots in the heritage of our culture, which are conflicted about the place of women in our lives and in our enterprises. In this story a young woman is sacrificed so that the wind can return and the task be accomplished. In the history of our culture, women have been excluded from many enterprises. More recently, as women are included, too often their voices are not heard. Their alternative ways of viewing situations are not recognized or valued.

My purpose here this evening is to introduce you to the research on the differences between men and women in the world of work. I will also discuss how the traits that are more specific to women can be utilized more effectively in today’s workplace.

As a psychologist and psychotherapist, I encourage women and men to deepen their view of their workplace challenges to include using their more feminine traits effectively. My clients find more fulfillment and success in their work when they are able to integrate more of themselves into that work.

First we will explore the recent history of men and women at work and look at the cultural changes of the last several decades. Then we will look at differences in how men and women solve problems in work and in life. And finally we will explore specific female tendencies, their effectiveness in the work place and how to address workplace gender gaps. At the end I will leave time for your questions.

To become clearer about the differences between men and women that we are talking about, let’s begin by going back in time to a research lab at Harvard University in the 1970’s. I’d like to introduce you to two of the subjects of the study: Amy and Jake, two bright, articulate eleven year olds.

The purpose of this research project was to explore the stages of moral and ethical development. Quite unexpectedly, this project became a catalyst in an earth moving cultural shift. Here is how it happened:
  1. In this research study Amy and Jake were told a story that involved an ethical dilemma. This is called The Heinz Dilemma. The children were told that Heinz faced a difficult decision. He must decide whether or not to steal a drug that he cannot afford -- a drug that will save the life of his dying wife.


  2. When presented with the Heinz Dilemma, Jake responded that the life of Heinz’s wife is more important than the rule “Do not steal.” He argues that Heinz is justified in stealing the drug to save his wife. Jake points out that if Heinz is caught, a judge would probably understand this and go easy on him. This response placed Jake in what was considered by the researchers to be an appropriate stage of moral and ethical development for his age. What are the characteristics of Jake’s response? They were linear, logical, straightforward, non-relational, and black and white.


  3. Amy’s response was different than Jakes. She believed that Heinz should not steal the drug. She thought there must be other ways of obtaining it. She also thought that stealing might have very bad consequences.


I would like to read you a quote from the book In a Different Voice by Carol Gilligan:
“Asked if Heinz should steal the drug, [Amy] replies in a way that seems evasive and unsure:

Well, I don’t think so. I think there might be other ways besides stealing it, like if he could borrow the money or make a loan or something, but he really shouldn’t steal the drug—but his wife shouldn’t die either. If he stole the drug, he might save his wife’s life then, but if he did, he might have to go to jail, and then his wife might get sicker again, and he couldn’t get more of the drug, and it might not be good. So, they should really just talk it out and find some other way to make the money.”

Interesting isn’t it!
What are the differences between Amy’s approach and Jake’s approach? While Jake’s approach is linear, Amy’s is multidimensional. Jake’s is black and white, while Amy’s is more multicolored. Jake’s is more direct. Amy’s is highly personal and relational. Jake is able to reduce the issue to a calculus of ethics – it is more important to save the life of Heinz’s wife than to follow the law. Amy believes that there has to be a way to solve this problem without resorting to an unethical solution.

Jake’s response was evaluated as appropriate for his age. How was Amy’s response reviewed? Her refusal to accept the either/or situation was evaluated very poorly. Her open-ended exploration of the situation was seen as a failure of logic -- an inability to think for herself. She was placed in a lower stage of ethical and moral development for her age. The researchers did not listen to Amy. They could not hear her different point of view.

What are the lessons here for us? Jake’s solution is simple and straight forward: steal the drug, save your wife. Amy’s solution is more nuanced. Amy is looking for relational solutions, such as borrowing the money and talking it out until an acceptable solution is found. She is also looking at the long-term impact: if Heinz goes to jail his wife will be left alone. Amy’s insight was dismissed by the researchers. Her meandering approach was sacrificed to Jake’s more simplistic, direct solution. 

You can see from this simple segment of a study, that girls and boys have different ways of approaching problems. And so do men and women! Who’s right here?

For a highly productive and satisfying society we need both approaches to problem solving.

In the story of Iphegenia and Agamemnon, we saw the young woman left behind, totally eliminated from the enterprise. In the story of Amy and Jake, the young woman is included in the study, but she is not listened to. The researchers were unable to hear the unique voice that she brought to the research project.

Four decades later it is clear that women bring qualitatively different skills and talents to the table and to the bottom line. What are these differences?

From recent research, from years of experience in this field and with my own clients I have identified four key tendencies:

First: In general, women use relationships and interpersonal skills to facilitate teamwork and innovation. They build and maintain relationships that keep a project going. They provide generous listening to better ferret out and develop ideas. They tend to be more aware of the relational aspects of a situation and to use their emotional intelligence to further the company’s goals.

In general, women consider the long-term social impact of a situation or decision more. They see a broader picture that includes many more aspects of the consequences of a decision. They are more aware of risk and better able to plan for its results. They consider a “societal bottom line” as well as a financial one. This is the mindset that Amy was using when she considered the consequences to his wife if Heinz went to jail for stealing.

Third: In general, women are more active in creating, preserving and advancing community. Being sensitive to people’s needs and emotions, they recognize the need for care taking and they provide the care taking that supports a workplace community.

Fourth: This is an important one It is misjudged and misunderstood all too often. In general, women are motivated by the prospect of having a positive, personal impact. They want to be personally effective! They will act on that goal to the benefit of the company. And all of the above are essential for a productive and successful company. Just like Amy, women today are most concerned about how to do the right thing and get the job done.

Now let’s meet a few women in today’s workplace.

  1. Joyce Fletcher was a mentor of mine and is the author of the book Disappearing Acts: Gender, Power and Relational Practice at Work. She studied women engineers in a technical company. She tells the story of Jessica, whose company was up against a major challenge that could determine its success for years to come. Jessica saw a unique and unusual solution to the problem. Being interpersonally astute, she knew that upper management would not take the time to hear her out, but that they would listen to her boss. So she told the solution to her boss, who did listen to her. He brought her idea to upper management, and it was implemented and successful. But there was fall-out. When it was learned how this woman had used relationship to be effective for the company, she was considered politically naive for not pushing her idea for her own political advancement. She was taken less seriously because of this. Jessica’s main concerns were two: to help the company find a solution to a major challenge, and to use relationship to achieve her goal. She wanted her contribution to be recognized and her voice to be heard. It is deeply distressing that Jessica’s approach and similar approaches of many women are not honored by management.

  2. One of my research participants, Annie, told of a situation that highlights both women’s attention to future consequences and their use of relational skills in service of their community. Annie was describing her experience as a new, young employee at an agency. She said:

    I remember so well going to one of my first staff meetings, and there was a woman there that I perceived as a very empathic person, ... and we're sitting there, and the management proposed an awful proposal that I knew was going to upset all kinds of people, and really hurt... We'd be cleaning up the mess for a long time. I was just about to explode with a rage, and an objection, but of course I didn't, 'cause I was brand-new. This woman... I could not believe what she did. This was my first experience with this. She, in this calm way, enumerated the liabilities of this plan, and then said, "But I can see the advantage," and then named a few things they had named, and said, "Basically, of course, it's something we'll have to decide, but I did want to point out the disadvantages of it." I couldn't believe she could be so cool. I just couldn't believe that anybody could do this, you know? I really admired what she did, and I thought it was just a personal trait of hers. But as I got to know her I really realized she had learned to do it just as I myself, by the end of six months, or certainly by the end of a year, had learned to do it.

    Both Annie and the woman who became her mentor saw the dire consequences in the long term social impact of a particular proposal. The more experienced woman knew how to diplomatically raise these issues in such a way that management would not become defensive. She had learned how to communicate effectively and to modulate her voice so that she would be listened to and her ideas be considered. We have considered two women in the workforce, seen some of the challenges they face and how they handle them. Now let’s look at how women manage.


  3. There is much written about women’s management styles. I look to the book Why Women Mean Business by Avivah Wittenberg-Cox and Alison Maitland to very briefly touch on the “frequency of use of major leadership behaviors” by men and women. They have found, as you might expect, that “women use more people development, more expectations and rewards, more role modeling, more inspiration, [and] more participative decision making.” And that’s what the stories above show us.


The stories of Jessica and Annie as well as the list of more common behaviors highlight women’s ways of working. They focus on women solving problems using relationship and communication, and on women being risk aware. They highlight a value system for women that favors being effective in the company over getting ahead in the company.

What accounts for these gender differences? Do they stem from how we are raised, or from expectations of society? Or are they more fundamental than that? What light can modern neuroscience shed on the rich differences between Amy and Jake, or on the propensities of Jessica and Annie and women managers in the workplace?

Current neuroscience research shows great differences in the way males and females approach situations and consequently solve problems. The brain is incredibly complex and individual differences are richly varied. Neuroscientists are just beginning to unravel it. Let’s look at several of these differences and see how they may help to explain Amy and Jake, or Annie and Jessica.

  1. Under a microscope or in a brain scan the differences between male and female brains are many, varied and intricate. Neuroscientists are just beginning to unravel them. These variations can actually give us indications of what differences in values and behavior we might expect. Some of the differences are structural and some are hormonal.


  2. In her book The Female Brain (pg.5) Louanne Brizendine, MD, tells us that “In the brain centers for language and hearing, ... women have 11 percent more neurons than men. The principle hub of both emotion and memory function – the hippocampus – is also larger in the female brain, as is the brain circuitry for language and observing emotion in others. This means that women are, on average, better at expressing emotions and remembering the details of emotional events.” So if a man and a woman are in a meeting with a prospective client, the women is likely to pick up and remember the client’s emotional responses to specific parts of your company’s proposal, better than her male colleagues. You can see the benefits this would provide!!!


  3. Again Dr. Brizendine tells us that “Men ... have larger processors in the core of the most primitive area of the brain, which registers fear and triggers aggression -- the amygdala.” So if a situation requires confrontation and all out competition, a man may be more attuned and skillful than his female colleagues.


  4. The primary chemical differences between men’s and women’s brains involve the hormones estrogen and testosterone. Making personal connections and being engaged in relationships uses and produces estrogen in a woman’s body. Estrogen is then implicated in the production of oxytocin, which leads to dopamine, which can give a woman great joy and pleasure. This creates a reward circuit in women that is very much involved with relationship. On the other hand testosterone in a man’s body contributes to his individualism and to his drive to compete and win. Both relationship and the urge to compete are useful in most workplace situations. And of course, both men and women have all of these hormones, in different amounts throughout their adult lives.


Once we realize that there are intrinsic differences hardwired into the brain structure and chemistry of men and women, that these differences go beyond social expectations and conditioning, perhaps we can take them more seriously and invite them both into our workplace enterprises. Fundamentally women may be more attuned to working together to get the job done, while men may be more focused on competing to win. Both of these approaches are of great value to our workplace endeavors.

In this slow economy, employers are looking to hire a new type of business leader. They are looking for people who can guide their companies in saner growth patterns than the debacle of the last years gave us, with its precarious inflated booms. There is evidence that companies with a more gender-balanced workforce prosper better. Worldwide women are being called in to help fix the results of recent short-sighted excesses. It is hoped that more gender-balanced leadership will lessen the consequences of future risk. Iceland and Norway are requiring quotas of 40% women on corporate boards. The government of Spain is pressuring for 40% women on corporate boards. More locally, women are prominent among those overseeing Wall Street’s restructuring, as well as in the clean-up of BP’s phenomenally disastrous oil spill. But talented women often have difficulty adjusting and thriving in environments that are suited more to men. This leads the savvy business leader to the questions of how to recruit, retain and promote women. As Wittenberg-Cox and Maitland tell us in their book Why Women Mean Business, “The time to see women as a problem for corporations has passed. Women are part of the solution of our economic challenges.” How do we harness women’s contribution for the business solution?

Imagine you have twenty candidates for six positions, ten men and ten women. If you pick the top six men you have lost the best and brightest of the women in favor of the last several men on your hire list, who may not perform as well as some of the women. But, if you broaden your hiring practice to allow the women to compete in ways that reflect the needs of the jobs, you will become a meritocracy. Not only will you have hired the best and the brightest, you will have added the diverse voices of women -- who do represent half the population, and, by the way, make 80% of the consumer decisions.

Many companies have found that the decision to hire women is only the first step. If your company environment is particularly suited to men, it may be necessary to consider how to recruit and retain women employees, and how to open up the promotion ladder for them. This is eminently worthwhile because there is evidence that companies with women represented in their higher echelons prosper better and avoid some unnecessary risks. This brings us to the question:

How do you recruit, hire and retain women? Let’s get specific here!

  1. The first step for a company in recruiting women is to consider its hiring procedures. For instance consider the visuals and vocabulary of hiring ads. Are there women represented in any of the pictures in the ad? Does the ad use women friendly words? An ad seeking “dynamism, aggression and competitiveness” is likely to receive many more male respondents than female. Whereas an ad inviting “enthusiasm, innovation and audacity” is much more attractive to women as well as men.

    Already having women in top positions is very helpful in hiring women. The current generation of women applicants has learned to ask about the opportunities for advancement. If there are no women currently in top positions, then the wise woman knows that there is little likelihood of advancement based on her talents and the quality of her work. Today’s women know from their battle-scarred big sisters, mothers and aunts, that being on the absolute cutting edge of a social change within a company can make for a bloody and painful journey. How much more productive for a woman to find a company that has a track record in providing an environment in which she can grow and flourish!


  2. Once you have hired women, you must look at retaining them. This may require a company to adapt its internal systems to ensure that women can make the most of their abilities. I will use two points as examples -- advocating that women be heard and listened to, and being sensitive to life-cycle needs. In a corporate women’s group that I led, there was a delightful, brilliant young marketing woman. She had a certain quiet, gently focused, piercing determination. (You can tell I liked her!) One day, in group, she was infuriated and terribly frustrated. She had just come from a meeting with young marketing men in which a problem was being brainstormed. She described loud talking and yelling, with each man trying to get his point of view heard, but with no solution to the problem at hand. She had a solution, but could not cut through the power posturing of her colleagues to be heard. The meeting was destined by the power dynamics to be useless. This was part of the culture of the company. This young woman needed a company culture in which she could present her more nuanced approach that would get the job done. To retain bright, innovative women you must listen to and hear them. You must allow them to be effective. Remember: being effective is a major motivator and reward for women.

    To the issue of life-cycle needs: women can be more affected by the need to balance their careers with their family life. A company that can take steps to overcome such challenges will have a much wider group of applicants from which to recruit, retain and promote employees for a stronger organization. For example, in 1997 Chanda Kochhar at ICICI Bank in India was given a year’s leave to care for her baby. She returned to work and hit the ground running. And she has been running ever since. In 2009 she became the 3rd woman to ever run an Indian domestic bank. Work policies that support a balanced work/home life include job sharing, ease of taking leaves when necessary, and allowing part time work when necessary. Attention to the need to balance family life with work life will produce a much more attractive workplace for men as well as women. We have looked at recruiting, hiring and retaining women. What about promoting them?


  3. If there are no or few women in upper management, a company needs to determine the level of the organization where the percentage of women starts to drop sharply. The company needs to analyze why this happens. Perhaps they should ask the women employees who have been stopped at this level. Then it must begin to emphasize hiring and promoting women into leadership positions. For instance, focus on identifying talented women and assisting them in moving up the leadership ladder. Ensure that the shortlists for senior jobs include women. Make managers accountable for promoting their women employees. Identify blockages in the (pipeline for women) to (leadership roles). Encourage progress through these blockages, with mentoring, with high quality leadership training. And don’t make assumptions about what women want or don’t want – ask them, and then listen and respond!


Let’s look at several benefits from promoting women. Women in leadership roles may provide more highly developed and nuanced emotional intelligence in creating policies and programs. Also they may allow a company to be more risk aware. Being more risk aware will help a company be more prepared for the possible consequences of the risks it decides to take and to avoid situations that are not worth the risk. (Is anyone else thinking BP and Wall Street here?) Women in visible, responsible positions will help the company to hire bright, talented, forward moving women at all levels of its workforce.

To quote again from the book Why Women Mean Business, “hiring, supporting and promoting women is not a problem companies have to solve. Recruiting, supporting and listening to women is the solution to many of today’s woes.”

Incorporating women’s psychological differences into your workplace is necessary. When you do, your company will have “the competitive advantage of the complementary skills and natures of both men and women.”

The place of women, and the feminine aspects of life, have not always been valued by our society’s standards. A woman’s way of understanding and approaching a situation involves considerations of community, relationship, future risk and how she can be most effective. Whereas a man’s might be more focused on competition, presenting an aggressive stance, logic and his own advancement. The sources of these differences in values and approach go deeper than upbringing and social norms. There are fundamental differences in the structure and chemistry of the male and female brain. To harness the best of these differences it is necessary to bring women into the workplace, to listen to them, to retain them and to promote them.

Remember Amy and Jake from the beginning of this presentation? Can you imagine what might have happened if Amy’s and Jake’s responses had been taken a step further. What if the researchers had really listened to Amy? What if her responses had been taken seriously, heard and valued? What if, in that early Harvard research project, these two bright, intelligent youngsters had been brought together and asked to talk it out—to decide together what Heinz should do? How would Jake’s clean, direct, logical solution meld with Amy’s focus on relationship, community and risk awareness? What a productive team that might have been! This is the scenario being played out between adult Amys and Jakes in today’s companies. They are bringing together the best and the brightest of both genders!

My final thought: Listen to that different voice that women bring to the enterprise. If you are a woman, speak your understandings. If you are a man, bring women into the enterprise and listen! The voices that you hear, the alternate views presented, will enrich your company, your bottom line and your future.