Working With Men

During a recent talk I gave based upon my curriculum, “Women who Dare,” I shared with the audience my own journey of assimilation to the dominant North American culture of work and subsequent journey away from acting like a model image “white guy” to a leader with my own unique (and feminine) style. The topics resonated with the women there, and one gal near the end asked, “But can you just give me the recipe for how to work with men?”

After the laughter died down, I realized the challenges inherent to the question itself. First of all, men are not all the same. They are unique and messy individuals, just like women, although the group as a whole has some common acculturated characteristics. Secondly, working with men requires knowing first and foremost how it is that I partner: as a woman, as a leader, as my unique self.

There is no recipe, but there are some things I have learned, having worked with mostly men the past 30+ years. Some of these are consistent with research done by others in the gender space,* and some are just my own radical views.

  1. Acknowledge your similarities and differences

This may be work you do in the privacy of your own mind, or it may be something you say out loud, but when working across gender differences it is dangerous to focus too much on “how we are the same—all human beings” or how we are completely different “Mars and Venus.” The fact is, men and women are both the same and different simultaneously, due to the cultural water we swim in and the lessons we learn from a young age. Staying in the ambiguity of this fact is essential to keeping frustration low and looking for connection rather than disconnection.

  1. Decide how you want to be seen/known

For many years I took on the role of the white men around me at work, trying hard to look like I thought I needed to look: assertive, strong, rational, direct, tough, independent. Slowly, over time I have come around to seeing that while these traits are part of me, I also want to be seen as compassionate, patient, collaborative, open, and brave. Marrying the aspects of myself that are masculine and feminine gives me a much higher chance of being seen in a congruent way by men I work with.

  1. Risk being vulnerable

We can’t actually connect well with men, or anyone for that matter, unless we are willing to risk getting hurt, making mistakes, and feeling a lack of belonging. Noticing our own triggers when these things loom, we can work to proceed anyway. The benefits of being vulnerable are huge, but the risks are always there. In partnership across difference, we have skin in the game, and that can hurt. So be it.

  1. Bravely speak your truth

As a teenager I used to get into debates with my father and my brother about feminism and what it meant. I always felt frustrated that if I said what I really felt, they would not understand. Over the years I have learned that my job is actually not to make themunderstand, but rather to simply speak what is true for me, in order to build trust and confidence between us.

  1. Challenge and support

Women are indoctrinated to support and to be empathetic from a young age. Much of this early learning is invaluable and helpful professionally. But women, especially white women, tend to go overboard on the support side. We take care of men well, but we fail to challenge them enough. Being in the fire with someone is the key to building trust. Women need to build their muscles of challenge (which can be done gracefully by the way), and let go of the perpetual role of helper.

  1. Use your natural gifts

The early training I received as a little girl gives me some privilege in working with men that I have often overlooked. For example, I have a natural ability to describe my feelings. Men at work often struggle with even finding the words due to their acculturation around emotion. I know intuitively how to utilize empathy, a critical skill for connection. While not all women share the same natural gifts, knowing our strengths as women and as individuals helps us model the way.

  1. Ask for what you need

The research is clear that as a group, women often don’t state clearly what we need, even to ourselves. It makes it hard to get what we need if no one knows. When we ask, we are being vulnerable, and that builds connection.

  1. Let men do their work with each other

Men can and will learn deeply from other men. Rather than being the counterpoint at work as the single woman in the room, invite the men you work with to talk with one another about what they see across gender differences. Let them support and challenge each other, and get out of their way as the translator, mediator, or truth teller. We have enough work as women to keep us occupied without owning and claiming the work that men need to do together.


*I am indebted to the groundbreaking work of colleagues at WMFDP on leading across difference, and find their Field Guides particularly helpful.

Jim Morris