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Working women learn to swim with sharks

Skills that come more easily to women are in high demand in the workplace; how to leverage those skills and get them noticed

Rex Huppke

September 24, 2012

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A workplace discussion of the differences between men and women can be squirm-inducing.

Fortunately, I was born with squirm-resistant genes and dive into touchy subjects, at least until someone gets angry and I hide under my desk.

Connie Glaser, an author and women's leadership expert, doesn't squirm either. In the mid-1990s, she co-wrote a book called "Swim With the Dolphins: How Women Can Succeed in Corporate America on Their Own Terms." She compared women to dolphins and men to sharks.

"The shark is a predator, the hierarchy that prevails in the seas," she told me. "He is at the top of the game, cold-blooded and solitary. The dolphin operates in a team, has a web that she swims with. Women tend to have these dolphin characteristics, being collaborative, being engaged, being supportive, excellent communicators."

Some of you — male and female — might already be getting angry at the generalizations, but read on.

"Whereas in the past these soft skills may have been perceived as being extraneous, or even something that might diminish someone's impact, they are now being embraced in the workplace," Glaser said.

Think about how much more socially oriented our lives — work and personal — have become. We are globally interconnected, and many workplaces demand that employees brainstorm to solve problems, listen to other voices, in short, perform collaboratively.

There's something to that. A much-talked-about study from 2010 found that more gender-diverse work groups have higher levels of cooperation and a greater collective intelligence. The reason? Women tend to be better at fostering cooperation and are less likely to try to dominate conversations.

"We have tremendous collaboration skills," said Vickie Milazzo, author of "Wicked Success Is Inside Every Woman." "In my own experience, as women, we are more willing to hear what other people have to say."

Her belief is that the rising demand for these so-called softer skills — a far better term I've heard is "emotional intelligence" — might be creating a perfect storm for enterprising women.

Of course it's not as easy as standing up and saying, "I am woman, hear me collaborate!" Many workplaces remain male-dominated, and there are unquestionable obstacles for women in terms of recognition and advancement. So how does a female employee take these in-demand skills and use them to succeed?

For one thing, speak up.

Men are more apt to promote themselves. Women tend to be more humble and eager to share credit. Milazzo and Glaser say there's nothing wrong with women borrowing from the male playbook to get their skills noticed.

"If you want to be successful, I think you need a blend," Glaser said. "It's great to garner consensus when you have to make a decision, but there are times when you need to rely on your own resources and make a good, thoughtful decision without eliciting input from several people. You also have to be a good team player and collaborate while also figuring out a way to gain credit for what you have achieved."

Women, she said, need to be a little less dolphin and a little more shark — "dolphark," if you will. (Don't miss my upcoming sci-fi novel, "Attack of the Dolphark.")

Glaser also said it's important for women to promote one another. She gave the example of a meeting in which a woman makes a suggestion, and it falls flat. Then a few minutes later a man stands up and, with great bombast, makes essentially the same suggestion and everyone agrees.

"If there's another woman at the table, she can now say, 'Joe, great idea, that's just what Connie was suggesting,' and then she can build on that," Glaser said. "It's a microscopic way that women can help promote one another."

That cuts the other way too: Men can start working on the skills that might come more easily to women.

Clearly both genders have traits that are crucial to the success of any company. So shouldn't the goal be to reach some form of skill equilibrium? To break down the weirdness of our male/female dynamic and recognize that few — if any — of us innately possess the full skill set needed to be wildly successful?

We need to be less squirmy about the ways in which we're different and quicker to absorb the positive traits each gender possesses.

That's the only way we'll ever truly rule the seas of business — as a school of fearless dolpharks!

TALK TO REX: Ask workplace questions — anonymously or by name — and share stories with Rex Huppke at ijustworkhere@tribune.com, like Rex on Facebook at facebook.com/rexworkshere, and find more at chicagotribune.com/ijustworkhere.