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  • Writer's pictureHannah E Greenwood

Gender Bilingualism: what we want to learn from each other

Updated: Jun 30, 2019

Photo by Dominic Nazeri

On March 8th, I was invited by BNP Paribas to give a talk to 80 women and men on this year’s theme for International Women's Day: ‘Be Bold for Change’. I talked about courage, the top 10 Attributes of the Champion Mindset and Gender Bilingualism.

Gender Bilingualism is the aim of understanding both women and men and the differences between us. There is, of course, much debate and research on whether our differences are genetic and/or learned but gender bilingualism is an attempt to communicate and bridge the gap, however imperfectly.

As part of my research I sent this question below to a number of professionally successful and talented women around the world:

 ‘If you were being mentored by a highly successful… and good… man, what would you want to learn from him so you could fulfill your highest potential?’

 Here is what these women wanted to learn:

  • Career Progression: what risks were taken and how were key decisions made?

  • Personal Impact: how to increase personal profile up, down and across the existing corporate culture?

  • Communication: how to navigate and build better relationships within the male corporate culture?

  • Inner Confidence and Gravitas: how to develop both to handle challenges effectively?

  • Influencing Skills: how to develop an understanding of the internal political structure – what counts and who counts?

  • Humour and Ease: the ability to be playful even at the highest level. As a coaching client said recently: ‘Men often act in a more relaxed manner and appear to be at ease even in difficult circumstances. Most women in similar positions act very seriously and are much less relaxed.’

  • Making great decisions: having good processes and how to do this without anxious ruminating and procrastinating

  • I then sent out the same question to highly successful men around the world with one key addition: ‘in the workplace’. ‘If you were being mentored by a highly successful… and good… woman, what would you want to learn from her and other women in the workplace so you could fulfill your highest potential?’

The difference in their response proved fascinating. The women knew exactly what they wanted to learn and their answers were markedly consistent. This is not surprising: from early childhood, girls have learned to tune into and often adapt to the psyche of the historically dominant male gender. At worst, this is the ‘good girl syndrome’, but it also has the great advantage of developing empathy and emotional intelligence. In the 20th century, women fought fiercely to claim there was no difference, hearing different as inferior. Now, with the extraordinary advances in neuroscience, we know that men and women think differently. Not better, not worse: simply different. And it is this difference that gender bilingualism embraces.

In contrast, the men’s responseswere vastly different, irrespective of age, culture, country, or industry sector, with many of them saying they couldn’t see the difference between men and women, that their focus was on talent, creating excellence and success and these transcended diversity. They all agreed, however, that this was a complex issue for them to answer. Again this is not surprising, given the deliberate addition of the workplace context to the question posed. Women in power as the norm is still recent and even then, only in certain industries and environments. And although many men have had to tune into their mother’s psyche to thrive, this has usually been confined to the home and early childhood. Another factor, as you can read from my own tentative language, is that gender difference is still a delicate subject. Some of the men’s responses about seeing no difference were because it felt risky to explore this issue. It is a testament to the empowerment of both genders that we are having these conversations with such a willingness to bridge the gap.

Here is what the men wanted to learn:

  • How to tune into my emotional intelligence. Men historically have been about IQ and PQ (Instinct) but as the world changes it will require less of the historical male psyche and more of the female mind i.e. EQ.

  • How much does intuition play in their career, how to recognise it and then act on it.

  • From the phenomenal women in my life, I have learned to allow for messiness. Not all is perfect nor should it be.  If conversations or meetings are overly choreographed, you are less likely to get the creative, disruptive or transformational outcomes. I have also learned to live balanced. Mind, body and soul need to be aligned: work smart, play hard, enjoy others.

  • I want to know how to assimilate the unspoken culture within an organisation to understand what is valued and important. I also want to talk to people rather than about people.  

  • I want to learn how to tune into my own intuition more to be able to sense the other person’s feelings; how to sense and interpret body language better and how to connect more to people on an emotional level rather than a rational and factual level. 

  • Women tend to listen better to people when they are describing their problems or issues. Perhaps it’s a level of emotional connection or intuition.

  • I want to learn to talk to people rather than about people.

  • I think women trust their intuition much more, while men tend to be super rational. I would like to improve on trusting my intuition more.

  • Sometimes, my male side pushes me in jumping into action without really thinking or listening. I think I could learn from women to be more thoughtful and a better listener.

  • As a man, I sometimes tend to take rationale, tough decisions without paying enough attention about the human factor. I think I could learn to be more empathetic toward people.

  • Less ego: in the dominant sense of ego. Women are more willing to collaborate and listen to the needs of their counterpart and compromise. You don’t have to look far to find an egocentric man these days

And finally this came in from a highly successfuland intuitive man in the creative industry who has had many female bosses

and was initially puzzled by my question on difference. On reflection he wrote,“I do think there is a difference in how we interact while exchanging information. Men will interact differently with a man than with a woman. It's a natural thing. I think our natural tendencies to interact with a person of the opposite sex in a certain way runs deep. It affects the way we communicate and behave with each other regardless of the situation. At the risk of saying something inappropriate, I think that people of the same sex feel a different sort of base level competition with each other because it’s easier to compare themselves as apples to apples, where people of the opposite sex can naturally complement each other because they occupy different spaces in the world separate from their jobs. Having said that, I think that if you are a man who respects women in your personal life, it’s no different in your professional life. I like bright, talented, creative and passionate people in general. I like to be around them, to collaborate with and learn from them. Gender does not change the way I see their qualities or abilities.”

There is such hope here for the future. To become a whole, integrated and healthy human being, and to bring the world what it needs right now, we need to learn to embrace our own gifts and also learn from the gifts and strengths of the other. This is true and productive synergy and with beautiful synchronicity, I am writing about gender bilingualism on the eve of the Equinox: equal day and night!


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