Research Shows Gender Skills Gap Is a Fallacy, Female CEO Says

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    Men and women tend to have different strengths, leading to gender-specific differences in workplace skills like negotiation and communication, right? Wrong, says Tacy Byham.

    Byham is CEO of Development Dimensions International (DDI), a global talent management consulting firm based in Bridgeville, Pa., and co-author of “Your First Leadership Job: How Catalyst Leaders Bring Out the Best in Others.” In a recent interview, I spoke with Byham about research conducted by DDI that, according to Byham, debunked the myth that men and women tend to have different workplace skills.

    Byham said the data clearly showed that there are significant industry-specific skills differences, as one might expect. But she said gender is a different story:

    We looked at the same data to determine whether there are differences in skills between men and women. The answer is no. The gender skills gap is a fallacy. There are no statistically significant differences between men and women. You hear in the media that men are better at negotiating, strategy, delegating; women are better at communicating, planning, and organizing—really a dichotomy between the harder skills and the softer skills. But that’s just perception. The reality is, when you actually look at the data, that skills gap does not exist.

    What we then do is take the skills, roll them together into a cluster of skills that drive the business. We’ve found that with respect to those business drivers—the ability to make significant changes in the business—there is no difference between women and men.

    The research did demonstrate, however, that there are personality differences between women and men. For example, the findings indicate that men tend to be more inquisitive and more impulsive than women, and women tend to be more interpersonally sensitive than men. But according to Byham, it’s important to understand that being wired a certain way personality-wise doesn’t necessarily mean a person will behave a certain way:

    For example, when you think of introverts vs. extroverts, we know there are many actors and movie stars who are true introverts. But they step up on the stage and do incredible things. So personality is behind the scenes; the way we behave is what people actually see.

    There are other differences between men and women that have an impact on women professionally, Byham said. For one thing, women tend to be less confident than men:

    We do a global survey called the Global Leadership Forecast, and we surveyed over 13,000 leaders from more than 2,000 organizations. When we asked men and women to speak about some of the things that set them apart, men, to a person, consider themselves to be more effective leaders, compared to women. Right there we see a lack of confidence [that’s consistent with] other studies that show an undercurrent of self-doubt [among women] about what got them where they are. Men would tend to say, ‘I got that promotion or achieved that because I’m great.’ Women would say, ‘I’m lucky.’

    Gender Skills Gap

    Byham went on to say that women need to do a better job of self-advocacy. She said speaking and acting more confidently will go a long way toward accomplishing that:

    Among groups of women, you hear the pronoun we much more often than the pronoun I. I’m not suggesting that women need to become overly arrogant, but women subconsciously use words that undermine our ability to come off as confident and to really ask for things. So I suggest women use I rather than we, judiciously. Women also tend to apologize their way into conversations quite often. You might hear women say, ‘I’m not sure this is going to work, but …,’ or ‘Sorry about this, but …’ That undermines confidence right there. A final example is the word just. It softens your impact. In an email, there’s a big difference between saying, ‘Just checking on the status of that report,’ and ‘Can you give me a status update?’ Women tend to use just three to four times more often than men do.

    Byham is only six months into her tenure as CEO of DDI, having assumed the position under circumstances that present some unique challenges: She took the CEO reins from her father, Bill Byham, who co-founded the company and led it for 45 years. I asked her what she has found to be the most challenging issue she has faced in that respect. Her response:

    My father is an incredible investor and entrepreneur. I have many of his very strong attributes, but I don’t have them all. Some people make the business assumption that I am walking exactly in the mold of my father. I will tell you I have a gentler touch in meetings, but get the same results. When you have an entrepreneur founder who has built the company from one person to 1,100 people globally, he’s having a little bit of a hard time letting go. So we’re working on that.

    Finally, I noted that the situation naturally raises the nepotism question, and I asked Byham if she’s had to deal with any kind of an undercurrent within the company that the only reason she’s in the CEO position is that her father co-founded the company, and hand-picked her to succeed him. She said it was a fair question:

    I have been very conscious my entire career of making sure that nobody has the perception that I got something I did not deserve. I have always worked twice as hard as the average person to ensure that result. Outside DDI, I understand that people might make assumptions. But inside DDI, I would hope my track record speaks for itself.

    A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.

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