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scared manI learned about an obstacle that keeps more women from reaching the top from my late former husband. Donald had been CEO of a start-up company in which the number 2 person was a woman (I will call her Celeste).  There was discussion of making Donald board chair and making Celeste CEO. Donald was struggling with this.

Being an expert in “gender differences,” I asked him a series of questions of how Celeste tended to think about and do things, applying the “masculine-feminine continuum.” There are 10 dimensions of this continuum, for example, how we structure things, talk, handle conflict and use humor. This instrument (which you can download at http://difference-works.com/about-us/free-downloads/ ) shows how Max (the masculine prototype) and Fran (the feminine prototype) approach each dimension. From Donald’s answers to my questions, it was clear that Celeste operated on the feminine side of the continuum. I explained to him that her approach was different from – not worse or better than – his more masculine approach.

He told me he was afraid. “Of what?” I asked. He explained, “I know it works the way I do it. I have never seen it work the way she does it. I am afraid it will not turn out well.” He had a financial stake in this company and truly feared for his investment.

Much is written about the different work and leadership styles of men and women. One obstacle to getting more women at the top is that we are all used to seeing white males at the top. We have images of how success and leadership look. If someone looks like those we see at the top, they are more likely to be thought of when career-making assignments and promotions come up. Those who do not “look the part” may not come to mind. This is an obstacle that I call “unconscious images” or preferences. I already knew that leaders may not think of women because they do not look the part. What I learned from Donald is that they may actually fear giving such assignments and promotions to a woman. They have a harder time envisioning her succeeding. And they may fear that her different approach will not get as good a result.

I did not judge Donald for being reluctant to embrace and trust a different style of leadership. I had yet to explain to him the strengths (and limitations) of each approach. My book and blogs explore the strengths of both and why businesses do better when they have a balance of the two. When leaders (men and women) understand and appreciate both masculine and feminine ways of working and leading, the “fear factor” can be eliminated as an obstacle for women.

Have you ever seen people not only judge, but actually fear, a way of doing things different from their own way? How would you go about reducing this “fear factor”?