Vive La Difference!

The qualities that make women unique can also help them succeed.
Magazine Contributor
3 min read

This story appears in the November 1999 issue of Business Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

Women are an increasingly dynamic force in the business world. They're creating more firms, employing more people and grabbing more sales. And while some may think this is occurring by happenstance, one expert believes the reason for the increase in women entrepreneurs is not purely economic and social, but also biological and historical.

Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, states in her book, The First Sex: The Natural Talents of Women and How They Are Changing the World (Random House), "Men and women emerge from the womb with some innate tendencies and proclivities bred on the grasslands of Africa millennia ago. The sexes are not the same. Each has some natural talents."

Fisher hopes that by understanding these talents, women can recategorize perceived weaknesses as strengths. The natural talents Fisher believes will allow women to change the business world are:

1. Communication skills. "Girls speak sooner and are better at articulating and finding the right word rapidly," says Fisher, who's convinced this will benefit women in the new knowledge economy.

2. People skills. Women are also better at reading emotions in faces and deciphering postures, gestures and voice inflections. Fisher says these people skills are essential in another booming part of the economy: the service sector.

3. Web thinking. "Women gather more data from their environment and construct more intricate relationships between the information," explains Fisher. "By contrast, men tend to compartmentalize--to get rid of ancillary data and focus only on what they regard as important."

Fisher offers this example of web thinking: "An employer who couldn't decide whether to give a raise to a young man or a young woman called both into his office. He said, `Here's a business problem. Which solution would you choose: A, B or C?' Both went home and thought about it. The following morning the young man walked in and said, `I'd choose solution B.' The young woman said she would choose solution A if she wanted to solve problems X and Y; solution B if she wanted to solve problems W and Z; and so on. She was using web thinking," says Fisher. "She cast the problem in a broad contextual perspective. She arrived at the solution but took in more data to do it."

While today many people regard men's linear thinking as the best business model, Fisher notes a growing movement toward web thinking heralded by buzz phrases such as "breadth of vision." "The business world is also becoming more complex, which means you have to weigh more factors to assess what you're doing and where you're going," she adds.

Related to web thinking are intuition, imagination, an ability to multitask, a capability for long-term planning, mental flexibility and a tolerance of ambiguity. Fisher believes demand for these skills will grow as global trade increases.

4. Consensus-building skills. Women are skilled negotiators who focus on creating win-win situations and harmonious collaborations.

But there's a downside to striving for harmony, cautions Fisher. "Women have a terrible time working with people they don't like," she says.

5. The drive to nurture. "In business, you see the real importance of this in building long-term client relationships that require networking and nurturing friendships," says Fisher.

This nurturing instinct includes women's need to balance work and family--another reason Fisher believes more women are attracted to entrepreneurship. Self-employment facilitates a life balance.

Although Fisher believes these skill areas are highly developed in most women, she acknowledges that not all women possess them. "We all know exceptions to the rule," she says, "but what's interesting is that there are rules."

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