The Masculine-Feminine Continuum

07/07/2014 12:04 pm ET | Updated Sep 05, 2014


When I talk about the business case for achieving gender diversity in leadership, I propose a solution that goes beyond gender. The solution I propose is to create inclusive workplaces where both masculine and feminine approaches are valued. What do we mean by "masculine" and "feminine"? Is "masculine" the same as male and "feminine" the same as female? No. Both men and women have and use both.

But I do define these terms by how the typical (or average) male or female thinks, works and leads. Think of masculine and feminine approaches as existing along a continuum -- from extremely masculine to extremely feminine. If I could graph how all the men in North America think and act, I would get a bell curve. It would take up most of the masculine-feminine continuum; but most men would show up in center, fat part of the curve. If I could graph the style of thinking and behaving of all American women, I would get another bell curve -- with more women operating in the fat center part than along the two long "tails." The "tails" of both bell curves represent the extremes. The extremes do not define "masculine" or "feminine." The centers of the bell curves do.

Note that the bell curves overlap a great deal. Men and women are more alike than they are different. But the centers of the two bell curves, which represent "masculine" and "feminine," are at different spots along the continuum.

For shorthand, I use two prototypes. One, "Max," operates 24/7 in the center of the masculine bell curve. Max could be Maxwell or Maxine. By following Max into the workplace, we come to a common understanding of masculine ways of working. The other prototype is "Fran," who could be Francis or Frances, and stays right in the middle of the feminine bell curve in all circumstances. Men and women move along the continuum. Max and Fran do not -- because their job is to be prototypes and define these terms.

The point of using prototypes is to disassociate the concepts of masculine and feminine from gender and to avoid gender stereotypes. When I talk about the masculine worldview or thought process, for example, I am clearly recognizing that men do not necessarily fit the description while many women do.

Let me tell you a little bit about Max. I tend to call Max "he" only because more men than women think and act like Max. Max thinks of the world as a hierarchy in which status matters a great deal. Therefore, he likes to take center stage and is comfortable tooting his own horn. He thinks in a linear, logical way. I tend to call Fran "she" because more women than men operate like Fran. Fran thinks of the world as a network of relationships, which matter to her much more than status. It is less important for her to take center stage. She is fine in a supporting role and is less comfortable tooting her own horn. Her style of thinking, rather than linear, is characterized by gathering, processing and synthesizing.

Follow me, here and in my book, to see how Max and Fran work and lead in 10 different categories, including how we talk, how we influence, how we handle humor and conflict, how we structure things, make decisions and motivate others.