Shuchi Sharma remembers how she once overheard a male colleague question whether a new mother at their company should have returned to work so soon.
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Sharma, now based in Washington, D.C., as the global head of gender intelligence for the software corporation SAP, knew the comment was well-intentioned. But, to her, it still carried the taint of gender bias. “That mom was the major breadwinner in the family,” Sharma told me in an email. “And, like that male colleague, she needed to make choices for herself without worrying about her professional reputation as a new mother.”
The story she tells is a perfect example of how gender stereotypes influence even well-meaning men. Despite the rush companies are making to embrace gender-equality programs, issues remain. Enter a new term to think about: gender intelligence.
“The gender intelligence problem really is the fact that we are focusing on sameness,” Barbara Annis, CEO and founder of the New York City-based Gender Intelligence Group, said by email. “We have this egalitarian point of view, where we think men and women are the same, when actually we’re not.”
According to gender intelligence theory, this emphasis on always being “equal” is why most gender-equality programs fail. By assuming men and women operate the same, respond the same, think the same, both sides are blind to each other’s skills, perceptions and experiences.
Instead, leaders should be focusing on gender intelligence to better educate men about what women bring to the table. This move may well move us toward a more accepting and collaborative workplace, where everyone is equally valued for who he or she is.
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Still, how? Here are four steps to help men become more gender intelligent:
Step 1: Dig into differences.
In most cases, men and women have distinct ways of processing and communicating information.
For example, Annis, at the Gender Intelligence Group, pointed out that when brainstorming, women tend to be apt to make suggestions. Men, on the other hand, are more direct. As a result, a woman “suggests” an idea, then a man paraphrases it and believes he’s reached the conclusion on his own. This leads to his unconsciously taking full credit for the idea.
There’s nothing wrong with that process: Two employees have collaborated together and come up with an idea. The problem is the end point, where it appears that the woman has added nothing to the idea.
This is where gender-intelligence training comes in. By teaching men — and women — about their differences, both become aware of what the other gender brings to the table. Men learn that when women talk, they aren’t rambling but rather leading to an idea. This allows everyone to better collaborate and feel equally important.
Step 2: Throw men into the issues.
It’s important for women to develop their own support networks in the workplace. But when they’re always excluded, men get left outside those discussions of women’s issues.
G2 Crowd, a Chicago-based business software and services review site, recently began to rethink its women’s groups. As a result, the site is switching from a model that works only on women’s issues and prioritizing ways to get men more involved in the dialogue, too.
“The more we allow for others to participate in the issues and topics, the more we see gender intelligence become core to our culture,” chief customer officer Adrienne Weissman, said via email.
One easy way to do this is to bring men in on “ladies’ lunches.” Traditionally, these have been meetings where women in business get together and hear a female expert speak. But there’s no reason men shouldn’t participate in these events, too. They need to hear stories about the difficulties female colleagues are facing.
This can help them better understand, and become interested in, women’s issues.
Step 3: Walk a mile in each other’s shoes
When Kim Scott, the author of Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss without Losing your Humanity, was in college, she took an internship at a bank. One of the executives was a family friend who she knew to be a good man. Yet, she was still shocked by his response when she told him where she was going to college.
“When I told him, he exclaimed, ‘I didn’t know they let pretty girls into Princeton. Why, you’re pretty enough to go to Ole Miss, and that is where you want to find a husband, now, isn’t it?’” Scott recalled in an email. “He didn’t realize how belittling what he was saying felt [to me].”
She pointed out that for women, there’s a particular issue when men lack gender intelligence: They don’t know how to respond. Knowing that her boss was trying to pay her a compliment, would she have achieved anything by showing him the offense he caused?
But times have changed. Today, with more professional experience under her belt, Scott recommends improvisational training to teach people how to respond to such situations.
“I recently spoke to a young woman who’d set up conversations in which men and women share scenarios of ‘gender idiocy,’ then brainstorm the best response,” she said. “This can help women know what to say when it happens next time. It can also help men know why some of the things they say are so harmful.”
Step 4: Acknowledge missteps . . . even your own.
Often, awareness from male leaders can be the best way to increase gender intelligence. Ken Dolan-Del Vecchio, founder and president of leadership consultancy GreenGate Leadership in Boston, said he finds it helpful to admit when he’s given in to gender bias.
“On a couple of occasions, I’ve had the presence of mind to back up and say something like, ‘I’m sorry, Peggy, for not paying enough attention to what you said a few minutes ago. Would you mind going back to the point you were making and telling us more?’” he told me.
Related: 3 Reasons Why Gender Equality is an ‘Everyone’ Issue
By admitting to their mistakes, male leaders show that anyone can falter. And by making those admissions in public, they set a good example for their male employees. That kind of action points out that what a man said was wrong and teaches others a different way of behaving should a similar situation come up in the future.