According to Catalyst, women hold just 15.2 percent of corporate officer positions at Fortune 500 companies, despite all the professional development and mentoring available to them. Could this in part be because many women are unintentionally undermining themselves in the workplace? Shaunti Feldhahn, a former Wall Street analyst, thinks so, and has written The Male Factor: The Unwritten Rules, Misperceptions and Secret Beliefs of Men in the Workplace to prove it, based on seven years of research and interviews with more than 3,000 men.
Feldhahn, best known for her book on Christian dating relationships, For Women Only, also holds a master's degree in public policy from Harvard University. "The vast majority of men I spoke with said they could never raise these issues [in the office]," she says. "That was one reason they were so willing to help me. They sensed that women, for the sake of our careers' effectiveness, needed to hear them." Feldhahn recently spoke with Kathryn Whitbourne about her new book, which came out in an expanded Christian edition earlier this month.
What surprised you most while doing your research?
Seriously, if I didn't say, "You've got to be kidding me," it did not make it into the book. From my surveys of men, I realized there was a lot that we as women had misunderstood. One example: There is the work world and the personal world, and they are completely separate. You don't bring personal feelings into the workplace. Women aren't like that. The problem is that when men see anybody not following these laws of gravity, they see them as un-businesslike, and that's a damaging perception.
One of the things that surprised me was that men said women were too direct. Hasn't the conventional wisdom been that women are not direct enough?
[One of the issues I raised] in For Women Only, which was all about our home life, is that men can hear you speaking disrespect without you ever intending it. So sometimes at work, when a woman approaches something in a very direct way, it hits that "you're saying I'm inadequate" nerve and that's the most personally painful feeling. A man is much more likely than a woman to be overly sensitive to whether he is perceived as adequate or inadequate. So rather than charging in, it would be better for the woman to take a respectful, direct approach, like saying, "I'm not sure I agree with you."
You also put out an expanded Christian edition of this book. What is an example of something that is unique to those who work in faith-based settings?
There is a temptation for women to think that the rule about men mentally compartmentalizing the personal and work world does not apply because it is a very family-oriented environment. People will ask for prayers for family members and so on. The reality is, it still does. The difference is that in a ministry environment, men might be more willing to listen and expect that will be part of the discussion, but they really would prefer to stick with the business of the ministry because it feels more efficient and effective to them.
Are the gender dynamics in a Christian workplace different from those in a secular setting?
I would hope that those in leadership positions would make sure that everyone has the same opportunities. We talk about the fact that everyone is equal at the foot of the Cross, and that is an important principle. In some faith-based environments, women sometimes don't feel they get as many opportunities, but some of that is because women don't recognize that they are handling things in a way that makes it difficult for their male colleagues.
What about encountering men who think it is not women's role to lead?
I know that is the mindset of some Christian men, but … the vast majority of the Christian men I surveyed seemed very motivated to help women advance and be as effective as they can possibly be. And that was very encouraging and heartening to find out. We know that we are made with just the same skills and abilities and gifts in the eyes of God.
What advice do you give to the Christian woman in the secular workplace?
There is a principle that shouldn't be controversial at all, that you love your neighbor as yourself. In marriage, there is a biblical command for husbands to love their wives and for wives to respect their husbands regardless of whether they have earned it that day. It works the same way in the corporate environment. We may think our boss doesn't know what he is doing but it will be most honoring to God if we can treat him with the same respect we would want to be treated with. That will give us favor in his eyes and you'll be even more effective in changing things once you have that favor.
Kathryn Whitbourne is a writer and editor based in Atlanta. She has written for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, The Miami Herald, and Pink magazine.