Rosener, Judy

Judy B. Rosener, Ph.D., is a professor in the Graduate School of Management at the University of California, Irvine. She is the author of the celebrated Harvard Business Review article "Ways Women Lead," coauthor of Workforce America! Managing Employee Diversity as a Vital Resource, and author of America's Competitive Secret: Women Managers. asks …

This book is about what you call the underutilization of women in the workplace, but isn’t this an issue of discrimination?

JR: I was the first one to suggest that this issue is not merely one of social justice, but that it’s really a business case.

You can say it’s about discrimination and sure, there is plenty of discrimination against women in the workplace. But I was trying to flip it the other way and say, “We’re not utilizing an available resource—women!” But that’s an oversimplification. The point is that women bring to the workplace certain unique qualities or attributes by virtue of both their “hard-wiring” and their socialization. I make the case that those differences are important, and the irony of all of this is that when I talked about brain differences, everyone laughed.

Today, at my university [University of California, Irvine] researchers are coming out with interesting studies about brain differences. It just so happened that my cousin, Dr. Joseph E. Bogen, did some of the initial brain surgery many years ago that separated the two hemispheres of the brain. That research indicated brain differences between men and women, so I was aware of this a long time ago.

The current workplace culture that values the male way of doing and thinking is not going to change until men—who happen to be by an accident of history in positions of power in almost all our institutions—see that valuing female behavior is in their economic self-interest.


JR: See, I don’t think the problem is the women, and I don’t think the problem is the men. I think the problem is what I call the “one best model,” which is the straight white male model. In other words, it is what straight white males do that is best.

In other words, to be a leader is to be a male, that male attributes are what count. Furthermore, that having a career means a straight-line trajectory up.

I’m suggesting that the attributes which women bring to work—the sharing of power and information, comfort with ambiguity, and a win/win way of problem solving—complement male attributes. They’re not there to replace male attributes, and they’re not deficient even though if you believe this “one best model,” then anything that’s different has to be deficient by definition. This “one best model” mindset coupled with the mindset that the word “difference” means deficient, because it can’t be better than the “one best,” disadvantages women, because they can’t be men.

Men and women tend to lead in different ways—and again this is an over-simplification—but those ways are effective in different kinds of situations. So I’m suggesting that you need both male and female leadership styles for a variety of reasons. You need both because the market is made up of women and men, whether you’re talking about financial services, lawyers, doctors, consumer purchases, etc. Since women are now doing a lot of the purchasing, it only makes sense to have women providing their input into the way women buy, how they think, and what they want. I always say that if women designed cars we would have a place for our purse!

That’s exactly how Tom Peters first comes at this. He says, “Guys, if you’re still running these companies, women are now making 80, 85 percent of the financial decisions in a household. Start talking to them.”

JR: That’s the first level, but there are other levels too. The second level is that women tend to view solving problems differently than men. There’s data that supports this. Men tend to, again, whether by hard-wiring or by socialization—and I believe it’s both—think in a linear way, in a straight line. Women tend to be more holistic in their thinking, and that’s because women use two hemispheres of the brain, while men tend to use one at a time.

It’s no surprise we say women are “scatterbrained,” a pejorative term, because we have information scattered all over the place and we bring it together and it’s called intuition. The way we think is not considered logical or rational, but I believe the words “logical” and “rational” are words men have placed on their own way of thinking. In other words, I think bringing information together the way women do is just as rational and logical; it’s just different.


JR: So if you’re making decisions, whether it’s technological stuff, science, accounting, legal, you get the best of both worlds if you’ve got both holistic thinkers and linear thinkers dealing with the issues.

And then there’s another level, and that is in terms of their personal relations and the way in which we make decisions. Men tend to be far more interested in the end result rather than the process.


JR: Which is not to say men are not interested in the process. However, women tend to think that process is very much related to the outcome. We tend to be very process-oriented and also more concerned about the interpersonal relationships then are men. And women connect differently than men.

For example, when men play tennis or golf they rarely know anything about the men they’re playing with except their business and their golf games. Women in 15 minutes know everything about those with whom they play—their sex life, their religion, how much money their husband makes, etc. My husband used to play tennis every week and I’d say, “Who did you play with?” He’d say, “John,” I’d say “What’s his last name?” He’d say, “I don’t know.” “What does he do?” “I don’t know, I just play tennis with him.”

It is absolutely true. I’ve been playing tennis with a guy for five years and I hardly know anything about him other than how he plays tennis.

JR: I speak about this type of difference mostly to white corporate males. Often they all come up to me after my talk and say, “Wow, that’s exactly what’s going on with me and my wife. We don’t speak the same language.”


JR: It’s not that one way is better than the other. That’s where I differ from some of the others talking about issues of men and women in the workplace. Sally Helgesen and others imply in their writings that a women’s way of thinking is better. I’m not saying it’s better, rather I’m saying it’s different. The problem is we get caught up in this competitive notion of one way of thinking and doing having to be better than another way. “Women are better; men are better.” Both the male and female ways of thinking and doing are useful, and we’ve got to value both of them. Instead of what I call “fitting in,” we need to have what I call “organizational fit.” Can’t make women men and vice versa!

For instance, during a certain stage of the life cycle of a company you may want more female decision-making, or for performing certain functions, you may need a male way of thinking. We should plug people into where they do the best, and not try to change them into something that they’re not.

I think by the time we’re adults, we’re pretty well formed. We can modify our behavior, but my Cal Tech Stanford, MBA husband could not be trained to think holistically, and I could never think in a linear fashion.

Exactly. And why would you want to bother doing that?

JR: It’s amazing but in some companies there are training courses where the aim is to make everyone consensual leaders or train women so they act more like men. You know what I’m saying?

I think for me from my limited perspective I would say that they are going to go through this phase where people are going to over-correct or somebody is going to become over-zealous about getting people to act differently. Some manager will read a book by Sally Helgesen, who makes the point that decisions reached by consensus, meaning a long, slow process, getting everybody to buy in, seem to be better than decisions arrived at through a more linear male fashion.

JR: Well as I said, I disagree that one way to lead is any better in all situations. But I would also say to you that in a lot of instances the one thing you don’t need is to take time to get consensus. I mean you wouldn’t want the guy in the airplane being shot down by an enemy plane to take time to ask his crew what he should do.

I know I’ll sound critical, but there is a tendency for lots of business books to talk about obtaining consensus as though it is one-size-fits-all solution. It isn’t.

Right. So we all have to learn that this week?

JR: Yes. And that’s where I differ from the rest. Because I think what we need to do is ask the right question in a business sense and ask the question: Where is it you want/need a consensual type leader? Where is it you want/need a linear leader?

The first step there of course is having an awareness of those differences.

JR: Absolutely. And valuing them. We haven’t done that part. This is principally the case in large companies. In small companies they don’t care what you do as long as you get your job done.

In the bigger companies, the way we evaluate people, the way we assign tasks to people, the way we give people feedback still assumes the “one best” male-oriented model.

Since that’s the case women often feel that there must be something wrong with them when they feel they aren’t being treated fairly.

The main point for me in your book was, “Let’s value the differences between men and women. Let’s honor the differences. Let’s have them work together in the workplace.”

JR: Right.

But it seems we’re in this “one best model” mentality, where white males are de facto in charge, but when you want to introduce a new situation, such as women in the workplace, guys living in that good/bad mindset, they say, “Well, we’re good, so everything else is bad,” so they feel threatened, right?

JR: The glass ceiling for those below it—mostly women—is the floor for those above it—mostly men. So when you take away our ceiling, you take away their floor, and they have a fear of falling.

To anyone who has the fear of falling: if in fact you utilize, mobilize, and retain women who will help you do your job better by virtue of your marketing being better, you’re going to do fine. In other words, the threat is that men who constitute the dominant culture—white males—don’t know much about the female culture, so they are confused. We know about the male culture because we work in it.

The threat is simply the unknown. Men think, “I haven’t taken the time to find out the way you think and the way you do things, therefore, I’m not sure I know how to deal with it.” That’s why I think that awareness training on the part of the men is so helpful, because we’re not saying what you’re doing is wrong.

When men are asked to go through awareness training, they hear, “Well you don’t know, so we have to train you.”

JR: Okay. But let’s talk about that for a minute, because I think that’s really critical, talking about words. The problem with awareness training is the word “training.” You have to call it something else. You have to put it in a framework that there’s a new business reality. We’re going to talk about new business realities. And when I talk at corporations, I don’t talk about awareness training for exactly the reasons you’re saying. Rather I talk about the new business reality—that women are in the workplace to stay.

Early on in this book you write, “But the fact that women constitute an economic resource that can provide a competitive advantage is very much a secret. In most organizations, it has yet to be discovered.” You wrote this book in 1993. These words are now eight years old. Is that statement still true?

JR: Yes. The statement is true, but things are changing. I think Deborah Tannen, Sally Helgesen, Helen Fisher, and I are helping bring about change. The fact that we’re all being asked to come talk at firms shows that there are a lot of enlightened men running companies—and, by the way, all women aren’t enlightened either.

I think Carly Fiorina [CEO of Hewlett-Packard] is one of them. She talks a good game, but I saw her quoted not long ago, and she was asked, “What’s the secret of your success?” She said, “You do this, this, and this and then you work all weekends.” Well she never had a kid. She married late. She’s married to a millionaire. You know, this is her life.

You quote her in your book, when she’s known as Carleton S. Fiorina, and she’s an example of a woman in denial about the underutilizaion of women.

JR: Was I ahead of myself or not?

Yes. I thought that was pretty impressive.

JR: A reporter from The New York Times, the first week after she was appointed, asked her, “What does it feel like being the first woman as head of a computer company?” And she said, “Gender is irrelevant.”

Let’s say we accept the fact that women are underutilized in the workplace. Where do we begin to rectify the situation?

JR: My answer to men would be, “You’ve just got to face the fact that women are going to work.” It used to be women worked because they had to work. Women work now because they want to work.

And that’s a difference. More women are graduating college, more women are going into the professions, so the labor pool of the best and brightest is going to be full of women as well as men. Therefore, understanding gender differences is critical to being able to recruit and retain the best and the brightest which means men and women.

Let’s face it, we are talking about human capital and making the business case for valuing gender differences. Sure there is discrimination for a variety of reasons, but I don’t talk about discrimination which is often conscious. Rather I think much of the difficulty women have at work is subconscious on the part of men. They aren’t aware of how what they say and do disadvantages women.


JR: I think what’s happening is what I call “sexual static.” I’ve written about it in the book and it’s the chapter that most of the men seem to find useful.

Absolutely. I think that’s the crux of it too.

JR: Because men are not used to working with women as peers and bosses at work, they sense a kind of irritation and discomfort. They don’t know the source of their irritation, so it’s like static in a radio, what do you do? You turn it off. You avoid it. I’ve had men tell me about having a female colleague who bugs them because she doesn’t think and talk like them, so it’s irritating. So subconsciously they think, “I don’t want to promote her,” or “I don’t want her to be on my project team,” or “I want her out of here.”

The way to minimize “sexual static” is to convince men that there’s always going to be this static in the same way that there is probably static in their marriages or any of their other relationships with women. The question to be asked is: “How can I minimize the static and maximize the value of having this kind of different way of thinking and doing? What needs to be done to convince men that women are a resource rather than a problem? How can we convince each other that gender differences are something we need to pay attention to.”

We’ve got to get away from blaming someone … it’s no one’s fault. What men object to is being blamed, being accused of not promoting women or not valuing them, and I understand that.

Oh, absolutely. For guys, though, when there’s confusion, there’s still this need to have an unambiguous answer.

JR: Absolutely. I was teaching a class this morning in business and government, and I was talking about Machiavelli, and I was telling my students that politics and leadership are an art, not a science. We keep trying to make both a science, but they’re not.

There are no easy answers … we need to realize that we are in the midst of lots of changes in the workplace as Tom Peters knows well, but one of those changes is that women are no longer going to act like men because they think they can succeed by acting like women.

What do you say to the women you talk to?

JR: First, I tell them that they are not the problem. I’m sick of blaming the victims. You’ve got people saying, “Women don’t want to spend as much time working as men. Women only want to work part-time. Women go home and have babies. Women aren’t motivated. Women aren’t competitive. Women aren’t the good negotiators.” In other words, women just don’t have the “right stuff.”

Women want to have a life; that’s true. But there are a lot of men who also want to have a life. The difference is that they don’t want to admit it, because it’s not considered masculine. I have been to some of the biggest companies in which I have been told by the men, “We lose women because they sell their stock, and they become millionaires.”

To which I say, “What about the men? So do they. Why don’t they leave?” Then they say, “Well, the women go home to have babies.” However, many of the women who leave are unmarried women who aren’t leaving to have babies. The truth is the men want a life as well, but if they admit that it’s understood that they’re not committed to their work.

So the problem is the corporate culture, and because it’s more difficult to conceptualize and think about changing the culture than changing the women, and it takes a longer time, only those companies that are really committed undertake that endeavor. The little companies starting now, and those headed by women have a different culture and that will help change the overall workplace culture.

I’ve been studying women-run companies and male-run companies, and women-run companies are run differently and a lot of men like to work in them, because of that.

So what I would say to the women is, “If you can’t change your own work environment, your own department or your company, then get out.” Why do I say that? Because it’s only when companies start losing their best people that they begin to say, “What the hell is going on?”


JR: And that’s when they call me in usually, or some of these other folks. But if you’re going to stay and try to make some changes, find a man or somebody, the CEO or whoever you’re working for, and let them carry the spear for you. It seems very self-serving for women to be bellyaching about the culture. You know the old story. A guy says, “I have to leave early because my son’s playing soccer.” They say, “Oh, what a wonderful father he is.” A woman leaves, and they say, “My God! Isn’t she committed? She’s got to go home and take care of kids?”

But women notice this all the time, and men don’t even think about it, this difference in the way you view the very same behavior on the part of a man or the part of a woman. So what I then say to women is, “Find someone within the organization who is respected, who is sympathetic to what you’re saying, and let the man carry the spear.” People don’t think of that.

But then some people will say, “Well wait a minute, what good is that?” I would see people taking offense at that notion, because the attitude is, “Why do we have to ask a guy to do this for us?”

JR: I agree with you, but there again I’m just saying—

It’s just being political?

JR: There are a lot of ways to skin a cat, and if you want to change the organization, sometimes this is what you have to do. And I don’t see anything wrong in that, if it works.

Women, for a variety of reasons, tend to feel uncomfortable with power because they see it as a zero sum game. I don’t see it as a zero sum or win/lose game. I see the exercise of power as a win-win. That’s a different way of looking at the exercise of power. I see it as strategy. Power by itself is not negative. It’s what it’s used for and how it’s used that determines whether it’s good or evil.

The third thing I would tell women is to join women’s professional organizations and attend conferences for networking purposes. The shared experience of these women is very powerful. It’s incredible. And the networks being developed among women are terrific.

Many women are getting put on boards mainly because of other women who are already there. I know a woman who is a first woman on a Fortune 500 board, and there are now three women, and they’re about to put a fourth on. Why? Because she was so impressive that the CEO said, “Put her on the membership committee.”

Up until eight or ten years ago, there weren’t enough women in positions of power that it made any difference. But now there are. And many professional women have networks of powerful women, lawyers, CPAs, doctors, IT women, etc.

The other thing that I would say to women is, “Hey, all is not well, and there still is discrimination against women, but if you really want to do something, identify with women and men who see the issue of gender as a business case. Find people with like minds. Work together. And then the last thing is, start your own business.

Women are starting businesses now and some of them are still small, but they’re growing and they’re very different kinds of businesses. Many of these women’s companies are merging with or forming alliances with other companies. And as men form alliances with women-owned companies, things will really change. So I see a lot of avenues. I’m optimistic. I see a lot of progress.

I’m encouraged. The discouraging part to me is that I think a lot of women are getting worn down. It’s hard constantly having to feel that you’re responsible for helping make the change. It’s, “Gosh, why doesn’t everyone see our value?”

I like the cartoon that shows a man and a woman rowing in the same boat. They’re facing each other, but they’re rowing in opposite directions. The caption says, “Can’t we row together?” The issue is not are men and women in the workplace together; it’s can we row together. The point is we’re there, and we’re going to be there—we’re not going back to the kitchen. So instead of fighting it, why not figure out how to make it work. In my opinion, this means seeing the gender issue as a business issue … the war for human capital!

Thank you.


Web site
America’s Competitive Secret: Women Managers
Workforce America! Managing Employee Diversity as a Vital Resource (coauthor)