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Working Well with Men

It's almost impossible to talk about gender issues without crashing into all the stereotypes about work-obsessed men, overly sensitive women, and the nasty label that gets attached to assertive women in the workplace. So let me say this from the get go: Each sex has its strengths and weak spots, and the issues we face when we work together are the result of these strengths and weaknesses. The more we understand about the relational dynamics between men and women, the more effectively we can work together.

Here's what every woman needs to know about working with men:

Get to the point. Women are wired for relationships. It goes against our nature to pop into someone's office and ask about that report we needed two days ago without stopping to get caught up on the kids and that problem with the in-laws or the latest celebrity gossip. Men, however, ask for what they want then move on to the next thing. We can respect this difference by keeping conversations short and pertinent.

Don't take this personally. Keeping point #1 in mind, we have to remember that when a male co-worker pops his head in the office and asks for that report he needed two days ago, he's not being rude; he's just trying to get his work done. As one man I work with told me, "Just because we tend to get straight to the point doesn't mean we don't care about your emotional well-being."

Be respectful. Another male friend works for a large manufacturing company. In that male-driven world, women who want to be taken seriously have to take the men seriously as well. He says, "The guys in the head office and the guys on the plant floor all respond to the same thing: respect. Maybe we don't all deserve it, but it's what we need." Women need to make sure we never mother or belittle the men who work for and with us.

Know your value. We bring all kinds of unique gifts to the workplace - sensitivity, the ability to multi-task, compassion, creativity. Smart men know this and value our insight and perspective. A female executive I deeply admire once told me, "If you're the only woman in a boardroom filled with men, you've earned your place." There's no shame or sin in believing you're an asset to your workplace. God gave you talents, strengths, and passion. The real sin is to hide those gifts under a cloak of fear and timidity.

Know when to be assertive. Men have a very different discussion style than women. They talk over each other; they have side conversations; they interrupt. If we want to be heard, we need to be prepared to jump in, make our point, and be ready for others to run with it. At the same time, we need to resist trying to rule the room. One friend who works primarily with men said, "Don't get sucked into the competitive, aggressive back-and-forth that can develop among the guys, but be prepared to drop in your strong ideas so they effectively punctuate the discussion."

Know your role. It's terribly difficult for some women, myself very much included, to stop tending to the needs of other people once we leave home and get to work. But while I live with small people who actually need me to help them solve life's problems, I work with big people who can solve them on their own.

Establish clear boundaries. All women, married and single, need to be wary of tip-toeing across the line that divides professional and personal relationships. That means no talking about marriage (his or yours), non-work related insecurities, or anything else that feels like it belongs in a more intimate relationship. And even when we know everything's on the up and up, we need to be aware of how a friendship with a male co-worker might look to others. Limit one-on-one meetings and always, always, always, keep the office door open.

January06, 2007 at 5:52 PM

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