By Melissa J. Anderson

In many companies, efforts to convince management to dedicate resources toward the advancement and retention of women continue to fall on deaf ears. Decades of effort have gone into conveying the point that women are just as valuable as men – yet a misunderstanding of “value” often causes people to miss the point of gender diversity.

To many people, “equal value” means “sameness.” They think, if men and women are the same, then why should we expend so much effort increasing our numbers of women when they will contribute in the same way as men?

Men and women are of equal value, but whether by social conditioning or biological construction, they aren’t the same. Studies show that, on average, women think through problems differently than men, are motivated differently than men, and build relationships differently than men.

Gender diversity means that companies have the benefit of a multitude of viewpoints and ways of solving problems and a wealth of critical insight to draw from as they approach 21st century complexity in a diverse, global marketplace.

But this is the problem that diversity advocates face – a misunderstanding of the value of diversity that leads many to believe that diversity is nothing more than a numbers game designed to annoy people with more important work to do. And this is why Barbara Annis developed the concept of Gender Intelligence two decades ago.

“I was really looking at the concept of gender equality, and how to advance and retain women – but that mindset is really a numbers game. I didn’t approach how men change their mindset for equality.”

She continued, “Especially in finance and technology, companies were saying ‘we’ve got one women or we’ve got five women,’ but they weren’t saying ‘we need their perspective.’”

Challenges in Implementing Gender Intelligence

At first glance, Gender Intelligence may seem like a reductive “men are from Mars and women are from Venus” approach, or more likely a “men are left-brained and women are right-brained” standpoint. We all know (and many of us are) left-brained women. This oversimplification of Gender Intelligence to the point of cartoonishness doesn’t do anyone any good, and when it is applied in this manner, can alienate those who feel they don’t fit the norm.

For example, telling a group of female financial analysts or programmers that the reason they are having trouble advancing in their department is because they are right-brained creatives is likely off-base, and hardly helpful.

Nevertheless, Annis pointed to neuroscientific research on the topic as one way to illuminate the value of diversity. “There is a gender norm around how men and women are wired. By remembering this, we remove effort to make women more like men or vice versa.”

It is difficult – and some may argue inappropriate – to connect neuroscientific research to outward behavior, but research does show some physical differences in male and female brains.

But more importantly, Annis explained, the point is to celebrate differences in how men and women work, rather than quash them. “Gender Intelligence is a kind of a new Emotional Intelligence. It’s about how to understand the fundamental differences in how men and women feel valued, and how to understand them in terms of a gender framework.”

One aim of the field is to ensure that people are rewarded for being authentic, rather than conforming to a homogeneous standard. “That’s the mini-me syndrome – assessing people based on things that tend to be a white male model. Many women won’t survive this. Women want to be authentic and be appreciated for the strengths that they bring.” And, she added, company management should value those strengths.

“You need a really compelling business case, but I also think that one of the conditions of success that needs to be present is a really authentic desire in senior leadership to bring in gender diversity,” Annis said.