What women can learn from men at work

Maureen Mackey
Frederic Cirou | PhotoAlto | Getty Images

Nell Merlino knows the one thing men do better at work than women.

The former head of Count Me In for Women's Economic Independence, a not-for-profit business resource for women, Merlino, 61, worked almost exclusively in female-dominated environments for more than 30 years. She also founded "Take Our Daughters to Work Day" in 1993. Recently, she joined the tech startup Personal Blackbox as a director, and in this new company has been working mostly with men.

Generally speaking, she says, "Men are quite good at establishing their credentials in the workplace, sometimes over and over again, to inspire confidence in those around them."

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They'll jump into a conversation, even talk over each other, and say, 'I can help with that. I did it in my last job. I know how to do it.' They think nothing of conveying their competence that way."

Merlino stressed that this workplace strength of men's is not necessarily about tooting one's own horn – it's not bragging, although that can happen and when it does, it can go over the line. "Most of the time, it's more about articulating the experiences they've had, why they're good at what they do, and how they can be instrumental to their teams at work in order to achieve a common goal," she told The Fiscal Times in an interview.

Women, however, "absolutely do not do this enough," says Merlino. "They hang back. They wait to be invited. They don't keep reminding the managers and leaders around them – the people who make very important decisions all day long – about their expertise or how they can be helpful to the team. I see very clearly how the guys at work feel confident and comfortable speaking up about themselves – women don't."

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This asset on the part of male workers may be partly responsible for why employers and colleagues tend to have more confidence in men at work than they do women, says Merlino. A Pew Research Center survey last year found that while most Americans said it didn't matter to them if their co-workers were men or women, those who did have a preference – 22 percent of respondents – favored working with men over women.

Merlino says the ongoing communication of competence is critical. "Unlike the guys, women tend to assume that once they get the job, it should be obvious who they are and what they bring to the table – since it's all there on their resumes. They assume people know their value," she says. "I really think women have to get more comfortable talking about their expertise in a way that reassures others that they know what they're doing, that they can lead a group or make key decisions on a project – as opposed to assuming people know these things."

This can be done effectively without turning people off, she advises. "Women can say, 'This is what I'm really good at,' 'here's how I can help,' or 'I know some people who might help us' – all of that works."

Other leaders who manage teams and expect to hear from all players second her insights. "If you get people talking and challenging each other, you're going to have the ability to arrive at the right decision so much quicker and easier," Robin Domeniconi, chief marketing officer for Rue La La and former chief brand officer at the Elle Group, told Adam Bryant for his book, Quick and Nimble: Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation. Domeniconi added that she manages teams by saying, "Let's win. Let's figure it out together."

So what can women teach the guys at work? In a word: collaboration.

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"Women are often more collaborative in the workplace. Companies that have women on their boards and women in leadership positions often do better," says Merlino, adding that for every study that says women bosses are harder to work with than male bosses there's a study saying how collaborative women achieve success.

Jennifer Berdahl, an organizational behavior expert at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, found, "Work teams made up mostly of women tend to share leadership roles more than teams dominated by men." In her study published in the March issue of Group Dynamics: Theory, Research and Practice, she says, "Women tend to prefer egalitarian norms in work groups, whereas men favor hierarchical structures," adding that this impacts how the two genders work together.

Merlino says the benefits of collaborative work are critical and women get this intuitively. "Women tend to listen to a wide array of people to decide what's going to be right for customers, clients, constituents. They apply this skill every day to their families, businesses, and communities. Maximizing collaboration at work is essential to get things done – and if there were ever a need for collaboration at almost every level of business and society, it is now."

—By Maureen Mackey, The Fiscal Times