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Tuesday, Jun 6, 2023

Is It Just a Question of Style?

It’s 7:30 a.m. and about 40 members of The Professionals Network Group (PNG) are gathered around a conference room table in Encino in animated discussion. The topic for the morning, what do you do when you discover your client has engaged in wrongful or illegal conduct, is drawing impassioned responses from the participants, mostly lawyers, accountants and financial consultants who meet each month to share ideas and seek out business contacts. They share stories of soul searching and sleepless nights in dealing with clients, partners and employees who have stolen funds, defrauded investors and sexually harassed employees until one of the few women in the group speaks up. A financial advisor, she concedes that perhaps the boundaries in her industry are more straightforward, yet she appears to bristle at the way many of her peers struggle with decisions like how to react to sexual harassment, that seem quite clear to her. “We all love our clients, but what is right and wrong is in your heart,” she tells the group. Another female colleague adds that the group seems to be dividing into lines along gender, but the fact is, both the men and the women who have shared their stories all responded to their dilemmas in the same way. It is just the process that they used to get to their decisions that is different. The difference, in short, was a matter of style. Ask almost any female executive about how she views the gender gap in the workplace and it won’t be long before the conversation turns to differences in style. Men compete, women collaborate. Men focus on facts, women use instinct. Men track scores, women get personal. Men will charge that women’s relationship-building approach takes too long. Women will counter that a man’s tactics keep him from getting to the real heart of the matter. “I think men think very differently than women, they forge relationships very differently, they maintain relationships differently, they communicate differently and their decision making process is often very different,” said Barbara C. Oberman, a senior account executive at Calabasas-based insurance brokerage Poms & Associates, “and I think that can create obstacles for women, and it’s still a man’s world.” Many women report that they have adjusted their style to better compete in the workplace. Indeed, in a report comparing the way men and women have advanced their careers, Catalyst, a nonprofit research and advisory group, concluded that, “to facilitate their advancement, most women have also developed a style with which male managers are comfortable.” That, some say, may be changing. “One of the things we do know is that more and more organizations are paying attention to developing cultures that work for all employees,” said Kara Helander, vice president for the Western region at Catalyst. “Catalyst did a piece of research that established a strong correlation between gender diversity and corporate performance, so we know companies are increasingly paying attention to this issue and paying attention to it because it’s smart for the bottom line.” Women themselves are taking the matter into their own hands. Female members of PNG in the San Fernando Valley recently formed their own networking group to help women make contacts and share experiences in an environment they believe is better suited to their style. The group’s meeting follows the same format as the larger networking group it spawned from, but the women say the experience can be completely different. “There’s a real difference in the gender specific group and women can be more comfortable talking about a range of topics that men don’t talk about or don’t want to hear about,” said Oberman. Some of the group members say they began attending the women’s meetings because they did not feel welcome in a sea of grey-suited men. But even those who regularly attend the larger meetings say the women’s group provides support and mentoring they don’t often find among male-dominated networking groups. “I find that when women get to that point where they are partners or they are the senior person in the organization they have faced some kinds of issues that are common to all women because it comes up all the time,” said Judith Chipps, first vice president for investments at Merrill Lynch. “And sometimes it’s nice to be sitting down and talking to another group of other professional women. You have some of the same things going on.” Several weeks before the larger group was discussing ethical dilemmas, the women’s session revolved around achieving a balance between seeking out new business, something they called powering, and managing the current business, steering. “As a woman we’re nurturers anyway,” said one of the participants. “I tend to micromanage things. It’s really hard for me to let go.” Several others chimed in to offer counsel. “We need to understand the difference between delegating and giving up,” said one.” “You need to be thinking, what are the different processes in my business,” another said. “If you can systematize these, write them down, put them in a manual, you can have someone else do it.” Many of the women who attend say they still get most of their referrals from the larger group. But communicating with a group of women is easier, and they learn more from each other. “A man will brag about his accomplishments and make it about how much money changed hands or the level of success you’ve achieved, and a woman looks for other values that shape character,” said Deborah Shames, a partner at Eloqui, a Calabasas-based firm that does communication training, and one of the leaders of the group. “I don’t have to know you by telling me anecdotes or case studies about how you solved a client’s problems. I need to know the background. Who you worked with on your team, who you acknowledged and whether you share responsibilities and successes. We listen for different things.” Ask a male member of PNG about the women’s group and he will tell you it is a strictly support group with no focus on building business. But even the women who joined the group simply to build relationships with other female peers, have lately noticed that their contacts are, more and more, generating business referrals as well. “I’ve been pleasantly impressed that the last four months the testimonials of saying who is doing business with whom has grown equal to what I see in the other PNG groups,” said Shames. “It may have taken us a while, but we’re getting there.”

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