09/08/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Go Ahead, Let Outrage Start the Much Needed Gender Conversation

Is it just me, or is the conversation around gender heating up a bit these days? There's buzz from groups that run the spectrum -- from what might be called 'raging feminism" to what might then be called "raging anti-feminism" - talking about organizational leadership and speaker lists to name two areas that struggle with gender issues. These are all worthwhile discussions, but really - when it gets down to it, not much progress is being made. These public or media-raised discussions are really the same old "girls vs boys" set-up presented in a more self-satisfied and seemingly sophisticated way. Why must gender always boil the dialogue of otherwise smart people down to its most polarizing essence?

One reason may be that for the most sensitive topics in life, it often takes a mud-slinging, uncomfortable fight to get back to the make-up sex, or at least to get back to honest conversation. Are we there yet?

A recent kerfuffle about a "ten to know" speakers list got me thinking about this. The list was published to an immediate uproar over its representation of solely males. The venom flew on Twitter, and follow-up mea culpas ensued. The argument looked to be that such a list should automatically be half women and half men. Yet, was that really the point? Shouldn't such a speakers list instead represent a true diversity of style, background and delivery on said topic?

Along those same lines, a New York Times blog also recently ran a "Room for Debate" discussion. Given the input of the six experts (including one male) and the public comments, the consensus looked to be that yes -- the characteristics or qualities women tend to bring to the leadership table are particularly helpful. For me, what Getting to 50/50 co-author Sharon Meers contributed in that post said it all:

So here's the real question: How to make the positive qualities we see in female managers more common in men -- and more useful to all? A new report from Catalyst shows how companies win when we escape the idea that men and women are so different and work harder to get on the same page -- so that men and women bring out the best in each other sharing the same C-suite.

Just as companies "win" when men and women work harder to get on the same page, so too do speaker lists, conference agendas and a lot of other typical organizations. What we are really looking for is not a fight to the death between men and women to see who is "better." Rather we should be identifying those qualities women tend to have that make them what Gary N. Powell, also quoted in the NYT post, called "transformational leaders." According to him:

Transformational leadership includes charisma (communicating the purpose and importance of a mission and serving as a role model), inspirational motivation (exuding optimism and excitement about the mission's attainability), intellectual stimulation (encouraging others to think out of the box), and individualized consideration (focusing on the development and mentoring of subordinates as individuals).

Are any of those things gender-specific? No. Men, indeed, have the potential of charisma, the potential to exude optimism, and the potential to be able to encourage others or be interested in mentorship programs. Our organizations and corporations may just need more gender nuance training.

But, whatever you do, don't call such a training workshop: "Teaching men how to think like women." Argh! Rather, skip the outrage-inducing language and tell it like it is. How about a title like: "Leveraging Your Right-Brain Leadership Skills "(as per Daniel Pink's perspective in A Whole New Mind), for example? That's a straightforward, non-confrontational way to categorize the types of skills today's leaders really need -- no gender (and thus, less outrage) about it.

The truth is that when we focus on the qualities or characteristics of good leaders or speakers, we will get men and women on the same page. Along the way, we will find a broader diversity in gender (and race, creed, religion, too) to share with and learn from.

To me, the various levels of societal outrage about gender exist mainly because so many of those involved have so much baggage in life experience and history to unpack. That's fine, and it is the way it is. But, let's simply acknowledge that fact, and move on through. If a "men vs women" set-up is what it takes to get us frustrated enough to really talk about the characteristics that matter for leaders and healthy organizations -- let's start a fight.