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What She Said, What He Heard

Gender communications expert Connie Glaser talks about the behavior of men and women in the modern workplace—and what she found on a recent trip to India.

Think of men and women as two different nations, each with its own culture, language and ways of seeing the world. From this perspective, the challenge isn’t to label one language and culture as better than the other, but to understand and use those differences to build alliances that benefit both.

Gender in the workplace
The need for men and women to understand and cooperate effectively is especially critical in the modern workplace, where women are increasingly moving into managerial and professional positions which were once the exclusive territory of men, according to Connie Glaser, author, columnist and corporate speaker. She is an expert on women and leadership and how gender differences can frustrate communication and cooperation between men and women.

Glaser, a frequent consultant and keynote speaker to some of the world’s largest multinational firms, is the author of five books on diversity, gender and leadership in the workplace, including “Swim With the Dolphins” and “GenderTalk Works: 7 Steps for Cracking the Gender Code at Work.”

Talking and listening
For Glaser, the differences between men and women are quite real and cross both cultural and national boundaries. They are also quite surmountable when addressed in practical and straightforward ways.

“Men tend to use conversation as a means to assert their opinions and negotiate,” Glaser said in an interview to Atlanta Business Chronicle.

“For women, communication tends to be a more collaborative, give-and-take exchange. They use conversation to establish rapport and connection with others, the subject of the conversation often being secondary to building the relationship.”

Glaser cites other common communication differences. While women use language to facilitate cooperation, men use conversation to maintain status. As a result, women often try to avoid conflict by not asserting themselves, qualifying their statements, smiling and even offering ritual apologies that men perceive as weakness or lack of confidence.

“Women subscribe to the fairness doctrine,” Glaser says. “Men subscribe to the ‘if you’ve got something to say, say it now’ theory.”

“Men can benefit by curbing their verbal enthusiasm and hearing a woman out,” she says. “Women need to stand their ground and finish what they’re saying without allowing themselves to be interrupted.”

Indian encounters
Glaser traveled to India in 2011 under a U.S. Embassy program, where she met with a wide range of groups, including professionals at TCG Lifesciences in Kolkata, women’s groups in Mumbai and the South Vihar Welfare Society for Tribal in rural Jharkhand.

The good news is that more than 5.5 million educated Indian women enter the workforce each year, Glaser says. The bad news is that women still constitute less than 25 percent of the workforce—at a time when India faces an anticipated shortage of 5 million skilled jobs in the next few years.

India may rank relatively low on the global gender-gap index, Glaser observes, but the rise in the number of women pursuing higher education is encouraging.

As she traveled, Glaser wrote, “It became increasingly clear to me that India’s secret economic weapon is its untapped pool of women’s talent.”

Glaser recently spoke with SPAN about her Indian experiences and the broad global changes she is seeing in the workplace. Excerpts:

In what ways did you find the gender dynamic the same, or different, in India than in the United States?
I’ve found that these issues are quite similar around the world. In every country there is a similar culture of humanity, and equally important, a culture of business. In the past, business has been the exclusive arena of men. In this world, men typically speak in short, direct declarative sentences. Women tend to speak more in the language of cooperation and support.

Which isn’t to say that you’re not seeing important changes as women increasingly move into these managerial and professional positions. Take Indra Nooyi, the CEO of PepsiCo, who is ranked as one of the most powerful corporate leaders in the world today. When Nooyi speaks, she speaks authoritatively, with the voice of leadership.

"Dressed in a bright red dress and speaking in a soft yet assertive tone, Ms. Glaser stood tall among the people who had gathered to hear her. I could not help grabbing this moment to address my worries. Her tips on how to conduct oneself in a professional environment, how to manage time better, and how to not settle for anything less just because of being a woman, are some of the many invaluable lessons I learned from her that evening. Courtesy Ms. Glaser, I am still a workaholic and have plenty of assignments every day, but my work-life relationship is perfectly balanced."

Aditi Raman, a journalist at the Hindustan Times, attended Connie Glaser's talk at the Federation of Jharkhand Chamber of Commerce and Industries in Ranchi.


Photograph courtesy Aditi Raman

How did you find the responses of some of the groups and audiences that you addressed?
I didn’t see myself as someone coming with answers so much as providing a catalyst for discussion. What struck me is that, with change happening so quickly, there has been no forum for discussing these issues.

Social and family expectations often discourage women from working outside the home. Yet, I met many motivated and ambitious women who are taking on the challenge of trying to integrate their work and personal lives.

At TCG Lifesciences in Kolkata, for example, I found a tremendous range of responses to these questions. One woman, a Ph.D. scientist, said that she had been raised to believe she had the same career opportunities as anyone else. But another woman, also a Ph.D. professional, had grown up in a...village, where her brothers were encouraged to pursue their ambitions and she was expected simply to marry and raise a family.

We need to remember that when innovation and the modern business world run up against generations of tradition, there are no easy answers.

How did you observe this tension between change and tradition in women’s roles being played out?
I can give you one memorable example. At the Federation of Jharkhand Chamber of Commerce [and Industries] in Ranchi, one man expressed genuine puzzlement about who would care for the home and children if women were to go off and have careers. A young female journalist, who was covering the event, couldn’t contain herself and said, very respectfully, that in her family, the responsibilities for home and child care were shared. The man still looked quite bewildered—this was just too far outside his experience.

More broadly, what kinds of changes or progress have you witnessed in the course of your work over the last decade or so?
The issues of how women can balance work, family and have a personal life are not particularly new in the United States or Europe. But elsewhere, these changes are coming so fast that societies are just beginning to address them.

In India, for example, some companies have found that it is very difficult for young women to travel alone to conferences and training opportunities vital to their careers. These are upcoming professionals whom the companies have invested in heavily and don’t want to lose. One partial solution: allow their mothers to travel with them. I find that a wonderfully practical solution, still respectful of the weight of tradition, and a great example of thinking outside the box.

In the end, we must recognize that these issues of gender, diversity and leadership do transcend nationality. Our goal must be to build a world of genuine diversity and opportunity in the fullest sense, one that, beyond gender, recognizes the individuality and individual strengths and differences of all people.


Howard Cincotta is a U.S. State Department writer and editor.