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University of Massachusetts Amherst

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Is business too 'blue'?

By Ronna Lichtenberg | March 18, 2005 Boston Globe

reprinted with permission of Ronna Lichtenberg

On the surface, the recent battle over brain sex differences between men and women appears to be about biology, but it isn't. It's about money. But the biology debate is helping us uncover the cold-hearted truth: If men and women are different, why do ''male" attributes automatically seem to be worth more?

For decades the gender question in business has been why, if men and women are fundamentally the same, do women get paid less? One possible answer is that business is about focus, risk-taking, and aggression and that most men are better and so they deserve more. But there's another way to think about it.

Big business was built by males, for males. So it's no surprise that most people automatically believe the preferred business style is ''blue": that there are winners and losers; that emotions (except for anger) belong outside the workplace; that a feeling of connectedness and relationship is a luxury, certainly not a daily essential, and that to have focus means concentrating on the needs of shareholders to the exclusion of all others.

That's why most people believe that to be businesslike means to ''get to the point," to define tough as putting human considerations aside, and to assume that making war is better than making connection. It means to put a premium on what Cambridge University scientist Simon Baron-Cohen would call systematizing skills (that is, analytical skills and the ability to manipulate abstractions and models mentally) over empathizing skills (the ability to understand and relate to other people's emotions).

The belief system that blue is always better is behind every case study and most of the books written for women in business. Ever since the days of ''Dress For Success" and the bow tie manifesto, women -- many of whom have ''pink" styles favoring relationships, win-win, and putting decisions in a larger context --- have been taught how to be ''blue."

The problem is that you can get too much of a good thing, as many businesses have with blue styles. Just as Baron-Cohen theorizes that autism is an extreme example of the male brain (very strong systematizing ability/low ability to empathize), organizations and leaders that are too blue are set up for failure. Examples of styles that were too blue? How about Enron? Or Larry Summers? Or Martha Stewart?

Am I saying that businesses should start singing lullabies to their employees at the end of the day? Of course not. But I am saying this: Wouldn't a few pink stripes go a long way toward curing some of the woes we see in big organizations? How about a few pink stripes at Harvard to figure out how to help the institution be responsive to changing constituencies? Or at Hewlett-Packard, which is struggling to figure out how to make a strategy that looked so good on blue paper look good for real people who care about the company?

If you consider the rate of growth in women-owned businesses (responsible for 19 million American jobs) it's clear that pink styles can get results in business. If you don't think it's true for big companies, consider the 2004 Catalyst study, which indicated that companies with the highest percentage of women in upper echelons of management had returns on equity that were 35 percent higher than companies with the lowest representation. Differing styles make for better decisions.

Which would argue for a rethinking of what's hard and what's soft, what's strong and what's merely tough, and how to manage difference so that it helps to creates maximum value. In other words, maybe what biology is teaching us is that when it comes to making the green, it is time to think pink.

Ronna Lichtenberg is a management consultant and author of ''Pitch Like a Girl: How a Woman Can Be Herself and Still Succeed."

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