Breaking Glass (Women & Men: Changing Leadership

Breaking Glass
Women & Men: Changing Leadership
by Nancy Kline

What are the early effects of gender conditioning?  Nancy Kline argues that they are central to an understanding of the role of women and men in the workplace. 

Ask any man or woman what they learned as children about their own gender and they may well tell you some version of this.  This is gender conditioning, or sexism.  It is largely responsible for the ‘glass ceilings’ which women encounter later in their working lives and for the fact that today only 10 per cent of the top decision makers of our world are women.

When a managing director was asked recently what he thought held the glass ceiling in place, he replied ‘Sexism’.  Others were quiet.

He went on to say: ‘Sexism is the attitude in men that they are better than women and the agreement in women to believe it.  Until that changes, we will just keep polishing, not breaking through, that ceiling.  Anybody got any ideas about how to tackle this?’

This prompted one executive’s attempt to address seriously the issue of women and leadership.

The Hansard Report formally confirms his analysis.  It says that barriers to gender equality are general and pervasive and include:

  • outmoded attitudes towards women
  • direct and indirect discrimination

Men’s and women’s cultures

Gender culture, that set of attitudes and behaviour that boys and girls are often encouraged to adopt, may be both good and harmful. For example, traditional male conditioning often says that leaders must:

  • control
  • criticise
  • complete
  • command
  • be right

Women, however, are often believed to be weak leaders because they have been taught to:

  • collaborate
  • encourage
  • create
  • resolve
  • question

These assumptions may well fuel decisions not to promote women to senior levels, not to restructure the workplace to suit women’s needs, and not to trust women with the most important decision-making jobs.  They may even lead to restrictive workplaces, poor services and an imbalanced or aggressive environment.  If the attributes women have acquired are devalued, women may adopt more aggressive, traditionally ‘male’ approaches in order to get to the top.  These messages ultimately limit everyone, not just the women colliding with the glass ceiling.

However, women’s and men’s cultures do contain some very good things.  When the conditioning is swept aside, some very human behaviour may be found which both genders should reclaim as their own.

Many women have done just that. Over the past twenty years they have reclaimed for themselves the best in men’s culture. Women have, for example:

  • become more assertive
  • begun to speak out boldly
  • skilled themselves in areas such engineering, politics, economics
  • engaged confidently in debate
  • helped to write and administer public policy

Likewise, there are many valuable attributes for men to reclaim from the best of women’s culture, such as how to:

  • be more of a listener
  • ask courageous questions
  • feel more intuitively
  • collaborate creatively
  • abandon aggressive approaches in favour of negotiation

Men who have disclaimed women’s culture are likely to have done so because they have been conditioned not to be seen to be behaving like women.  Men have been taught to avoid being seen as ‘effeminate’ or ‘not manly enough’.  It seems that women may aspire to be like men, but men must never aspire to be like women.
Top executives calling for change

Some senior people are now recognising the pitfalls in this situation.  They have accepted that tackling the commonly-cited barriers to women’s advancement, such as poor childcare provision, inflexible work-time patterns, status loss during career and maternity breaks, exclusion from ‘old boys’ clubs, and discrimination in short-listing for top positions, is not enough.  We must remove the sexist assumptions behind the barriers, the very thinking that created the barriers in the first place.

Women and a thinking environment

Every action we take is only as good as the thinking behind it. So, when our thinking is flawed, the action we take is flawed.  The companies, organisations and governments we create, which reflect that questionable thinking behind them, will be flawed as well.

Managers and leaders need to know how to create the conditions under which people think best, so we should train managers and leaders in the skills of a thinking environment.  Among other things, this will require that they understand what gender conditioning is, how it begins in childhood, how it is reinforced during adolescence, and how in adulthood it prevents us from creating thinking environments.

When leaders understand these ideas, they will then be able to turn their meetings and organisations into more conscious places – into thinking environments. Women in such organisations will be able to rise to the top much more quickly and will be able to improve the way people work and lead others.
Women and Men: Changing Leadership Symposium


For at least the first two hours, participants take turns listening to each other without interrupting, judging or advising each other.  They listen in the full groups and also in pairs called thinking partnerships.
There is no competition allowed.  There are no pre-set right answers.  There is only genuine respect for each other, interest in each other’s ideas and encouragement to continue thinking on the cutting edge of the question.


Also during this time participants learn to observe the good qualities in each other and the strengths in each other’s thinking.  Then they describe those qualities clearly.  This is known as the Ten-to-One Ratio of Appreciation to Criticism.  This ratio helps people to solve problems and to address complex issues more successfully than when the atmosphere or behaviour is highly critical or competitive.


Participants learn to listen for the assumptions they are making which are blocking their ability to think clearly and independently.  They learn the art of making incisive questions, the kind of questions that remove limiting assumptions with laser-keen accuracy so that the person can think boldly again.

Following this the participants will be better able to listen well, to appreciate each other’s thinking and to ask incisive questions.  They can then address productively the issues of gender conditioning. They explore the gender messages they received as children, the good they learned from them, the pain associated with them, what effect those messages had on their career choices and advancement, and which of the messages they still believe and impose on others.

These comments made recently are not uncommon:

‘If I am honest I’d say I think that women are a liability in leadership because, just after you have invested huge amounts in their training and advancement, they will get pregnant.  I then have to finance and deal with their maternity leave.’

‘I still think men shouldn’t cry and that they certainly shouldn’t bring their feelings into work.’

‘I think that women can’t be trusted when the chips are down and that they can’t think decisively about major issues.  They are good at support but not really at leadership.’

‘I still look to men for approval and am nearly dysfunctional when men are unhappy with me.’

‘I am afraid to say what I really think publicly for fear of being ridiculed for being a woman.’

‘I guess I am afraid to let my little boy play with dolls or take dancing lessons; he might grow up to be too much like a girl.’

‘I mostly look for men for the top jobs and assume there are no qualified women out there if they haven’t applied.’

The big question

Finally they think about these questions:

‘How would the very structures and goals of work change if they were to be free of gender conditioning?’

‘What would change in our government and in your organisation if it were to more favourably disposed towards mothers?’

‘How will men benefit from women’s leadership?’

After the symposium, participants often return to work with a commitment to establish a thinking partnership with a colleague and to set up regular thinking times as part of their executive regime.  Many have begun to take steps to change their entire organisation into a thinking environment.

Some say that, with these changes, the glass ceiling may soon disappear because the benefits of collaboration and equality are becoming obvious.  Consider this question which was put to the men and women at the end of a leader’s symposium:

‘As women progress towards the top of your organisation, what would you say to women and what would you say to men?’
One male chief executive said: ‘I would say to women, “Don’t do it the way men have done it; do it your way.’ ‘And I would say to men, “Don’t be afraid of this change, it’s good for us all.’