These days, even among women who consider themselves feminists, the hot topic of discussion is how profoundly different men and women are -- in their biology, in their styles of communication, in their core values. This exploration is converging on the professional world. Television watchers are going nuts for Ally McBeal, a high-powered lawyer whose outstanding personal characteristic is girlish vulnerability. Relationship guru John Gray, having dispensed with the topics of dating, sex, marriage and child-rearing, is preparing to release "Mars and Venus in the Office."
With a great sigh of relief, working women are beginning to engage in discussion about the peculiar lives that have resulted from the equality experiment. The new popular-culture heroines aren't the power-suit viragoes of the 1980s. Instead, they are refreshingly vulnerable -- women who can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, have a nervous breakdown and then head out for more bacon. As Ally's sensitive colleague Billy argued to a skeptical review board, her overmastering emotions are exactly what make her so great.
Twenty years ago, voiced by someone less obviously liberal, these sentiments might have sounded, well, condescending. After all, a fair professional setting is the only place in society where sexual equality can be legislated and monitored, and we are only a few decades into a great experiment in sharing power between men and women. A premature celebration of the "female work style" -- whatever that may be -- could sweep it to the floor in a huge crash of beakers and test tubes.
Nonetheless, one of the reasons the expressions of difference have taken on a note of empowerment these days is that feminists have been talking this way for a while. In 1982, Carol Gilligan's "In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development" argued that boys grow up valuing logic and laws, whereas girls grow up valuing relationships. In 1990, Deborah Tannen joined the fray with "You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation," which argues that men and women communicate so differently, they might as well be from different cultures.
It was only a matter of time before difference theory surfaced in the workplace. Here's a 28-year-old female lawyer from a major law firm: "The other day I was talking to a partner and discussing how to respond to a problem, and he says, ‘Women are really good at this.' It had to do with women being less combative and good in certain areas. I'm not clear if that's a good thing or a bad thing."
Working women feel comfortable making generalizations, too. In an informal poll of a dozen professional women in male-dominated fields, most agreed that women are less wedded to hierarchy, less comfortable with open confrontation, more likely to defer credit, less protective of "turf," more protective of their outside life, better at building consensus, more likely to take professional criticism personally and more likely to develop personal relationships with staff. Stereotypes exist for a reason, said both experts and professional women interviewed for this article.
Feminists who defend this thinking argue that there's something useful about acknowledging the types of behavior typical to women, because those behaviors are commonly associated with incompetence. This may be one reason why the average American woman still makes 76 cents for every dollar a man makes. If we live in a world where "female" behavior is also considered unprofessional, then equal opportunity does not exist.
"I say to my girlfriend, we'll have equality when it's accepted newsroom behavior to cry at your desk," says Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who's spent 20 years in various newsrooms and who recently published "Sex on the Brain: The Biological Differences Between Men and Women." "When you look at that, that's a male standard. Men don't sit around and cry at their desks. I'm not holding that up as a model of behavior. I'm saying, who sets the standards for acceptable professional behavior?"
It's not enough to allow women into the workplace if the only way they can succeed is to act like men -- to accept masculine values and masculine standards of behavior.
At the heart of these gender-difference theories is the idea that women entering male-dominated fields will always be stranded on foreign territory. That idea helps explain some of the things that haven't happened since the 1970s. For instance, women remain underrepresented in high-level management -- women are very good at starting their own small businesses, but there are only two female CEOs in the Fortune 500, where America's money and power are most heavily concentrated.
The ideal end point, says Joyce Fletcher, a founding member of the Boston-based Simmons Center for Gender in Organization, is a world in which female-identified qualities, such as relationship maintenance and nurturing, are invested with real value. In this best of all possible worlds, sending a thank-you note (a more typically "feminine" move) would count as good management strategy instead of good manners.
Fletcher and her colleagues are finding a captive audience for their work: Major corporations such as Xerox, Corning and Tandem Computers are funding studies toward the goal of a workplace that allows women to rise to the top levels of management. But as Fletcher's theories about "relational" management filter into the public domain, she's also a little bit nervous.
"I was very reluctant to have my work popularized, because I felt it could be misused," she says. "This kind of thing has so often been used against women. There are a lot of women who are really suspicious."
They are right to worry. When people outside this rarefied (and mostly female) group begin using the same language, women don't necessarily come out on top. If you were to put a face on the fear, it would look something like John Gray, the self-help king who has built an empire with his Mars/Venus books. Fueling his argument with the ideas of feminist scholars such as Carol Gilligan and Deborah Tannen, Gray approaches male-female relations from an ebullient diversity angle. In the realm of marriage counseling, this formula has met with phenomenal success, and marriage counselors across the country have ponied up $1,000 each to become licensed "Mars-Venus facilitators."
The trouble is that the Mars-Venus curriculum, with its sweeping generalizations about the sexes, sometimes sounds a lot like old-fashioned sexism. As the message drifts toward the public, it becomes simpler and, in some cases, deeply retrograde. Although Gray was not available for comment, the Mars-Venus Institute directed me to Paul Homoly, a North Carolina dentist who is working with him to develop materials. In the course of a long conversation, Homoly issued this warning about the danger of working with spinsters:
"One of the issues that connects the workplace with romantic relationships is the female worker who does not have a spouse," says Homoly. "She will look to the workplace to satisfy her emotional needs, and that is not appropriate. Single women tend to have their lives revolve around work. When her needs are not met at work, the same resentment occurs that would occur at home.
"What happens then is, after she does not get the support -- and Dr. Gray has a term for it, ‘resentment flu' -- she begins to resent the people she works with, and that resentment affects people in the office. She becomes overdependent," he says. "Oftentimes when a female does not have a male to listen to her, who does she vent her frustration on? People at work."
Which gives you a sense of why Joyce Fletcher might be worried.
Another problem with the Mars-Venus model is that it's against the law to discriminate on the basis of sex.
"We recognize the need for caring and relational models of leadership, but it's illegal, often, to use gender-based kinds of characterizations. Personally, I think it would probably violate equal-opportunity law," says Marshall Sashkin, a professor of human-resource development at George Washington University. "You can look at organization in terms of masculine or feminine, but I don't think that's terribly useful, because those stereotypes are eroding, and I think that's a good thing."
Sashkin also makes a compelling argument that "good leadership isn't a masculine or a feminine thing -- it's good leadership." He found that the managers who scored highest among their employees were the ones whose working styles were "androgynous" -- equally relationship-focused and task-focused.
It's too early for gender difference to be a useful concept in the workplace. Gender remains a moving target. "We're sort of in a backlash against the 1980s idea that men and women are exactly alike," says Blum, the journalist. "The risk is swinging back too far."
It's true, there's something comforting about being allowed to talk about how men and women operate differently, especially since women seem to find themselves changing their behavior to fit in to corporations far more than men do -- or dropping out and starting their own organizations along a different model.
Why, after all, should young women try to act more like men? One of the few self-consciously feminist moments I have had in the workforce was a ringing don't-cry-in-the-office speech I gave to a 19-year-old intern, which went along the lines of "cry in the bathroom. Don't let them see you." What I didn't mention was, women know crying isn't a sign of mental instability -- it's a tic, it passes. So why should I be presenting this as a cardinal rule?
But I'm not prepared to take it back, either. It's worth protecting the idea that men and women should not be distinguished from each other on the job. Men and women do act differently, and anyone with eyes can begin making generalizations. But the office is where money is doled out, and it's the only part of society where distribution of power can be controlled by law. So for now, the most important goal is to shift that distribution through the fastest means possible. Which is, I suppose, what I was telling that intern. Make partner, and then cry if you want to.