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Cracking the Male Code 

Forget women's intuition. Author Deborah Swiss goes intelligence gathering to find out what men in the workplace really think about their female peers.

Like it or not, it is still very much a man's world. Women continue to make great strides in every arena -- medicine, law, politics, corporate America -- but many professional women sometimes find themselves playing by a set of rules they didn't help put in place on a team they find mystifying. What's a girl to do?

Her homework. Massachusetts-based management consultant Deborah Swiss embarked on a year and a half of interviews with more than 50 male CEOs and executives to find out how they approach work situations -- and how men really feel about the women they work with. The result is The Male Mind at Work: A Woman's Guide to Working With Men (Perseus Publishing).

Q: The research for your first two books -- Women and the Work/Family Dilemma and Women Breaking Through -- focused on interviewing women to determine how they deal with work. Why the change to men?

A: Most organizations are designed by male minds. So if you want to succeed, you have to understand how the heck the male mind works. For this book, the real theme is what it is like to be a man for a day in the office. It's kind of "walk a mile in his wingtips." I asked men the questions that women always ask me. Do men really take things less personally on the job? Are they more confident or do they just put up a good front? What do men really think about working with women? And, probably most importantly, does a woman need to act like a man to succeed in a man's world?

To which I would say, "Absolutely not." A woman needs to crack the male code to achieve equality not sameness. Knowledge is power, and attitude more than anything else builds control for women in the workplace.

Q: What feedback was most surprising?

A: Men were much less concerned about political correctness. I give people the chance to use a pseudonym so that they'll be honest, and many more of the men allowed me to use their real names -- even when they said outrageous things. But, when you think about it, many of these men admit that they hold invisible power in the workplace so they're not as worried about what they are going to say.

Also, many of these men revealed that they hold their women colleagues to a harder standard -- and they freely admit it. They also admit that it's not easy to share power with women. Some younger men said outrageous things like "I don't want to be beaten by a girl." On the other hand, I hear men say, "I was scared to death of the idea of working for a woman, but I found out that women bosses are terrific. They're better with feedback; they're great mentors. She sees the world in a different way than I do, and that's good for business."

Q: What's the alternative to acting like a man to get ahead?

A: You should definitely feel comfortable borrowing some of his best strategies. For instance, when a woman deals with a difficult person, our first inclination is to analyze the situation: "What did I do wrong?" Men say, "Sometimes a jerk is just a jerk; sometimes a mistake is just a mistake. Learn from it and move on."

Q: Why the disconnect?

A: Many of these men said that, as adolescents, if they didn't act confident and act like they were in control, they'd be beaten up. There's this whole game face that men bring into the workplace. Competition keeps its simple. Two men can be in a meeting, swearing at each other, banging their fists on the table, and then they walk out and say, "Hey, do you want to play golf?" A woman could never do that.

The male code is predicated on things that I think we can call on: a mask of confidence, emotional distance, keeping it competitive.

Q: What do you think of the sports metaphors in nearly all of your interviews?

A: Even guys who didn't play sports spoke in sports metaphors. The game gear protects the male ego, and there are certain tenets of that game face: if I lose, I can blame the team; if I make an error, a teammate will show me how to do it better the next time. Lost this one today, but tomorrow's a brand new game. And this allows a clean break between the public and the private self, which also explains why many of these men said, "Guilt is not in my vocabulary." In my research, I have never, ever heard a woman say, "Guilt is not in my vocabulary."

Q: Could more team sports for girls early on encourage more women think that way?

A: I think the confidence you can pick up, but there's research that indicates that girls play differently. Girls want to win, no doubt about it, but they focus more on playing fairly, rather than just winning at any cost. I think the real lesson here is confidence. When a man talks over you and you can't make your point, what you should do is just confidently stick to the business case -- just the facts, ma'am -- rather than reacting emotionally.

Q: What message did you hear most from men?

A: The real message that I heard is, "Don't you dare fit in. If women don't change the culture, we never will." The reality is we're not going to change the way men think. But if you come to see the world of work through a different gender lens, then you're less likely to take personally the behaviors that seem very alien. Hopefully, as more women move into positions of power, we'll broaden the range of acceptable styles of management. The idea is that women can begin to change the traditional rules of work.

Q: Which is good, but puts the onus on professional women.

A: It is frustrating that women have to be the trailblazers. But -- as many of the men told me -- they don't have a lot of incentive to change. And many of them welcome women reaching out to build those business alliances because they don't know how to make the first move.

Q: What's the best "first move"?

A: Many women are doing what men have done for years. Before a meeting where you're going to present a new idea, go to another colleague. It's a smart thing to do politically. If your colleague says it's a great idea, say, "Will you do me a favor? If people start talking over me, say you'd like to hear more so that I have the floor a little bit longer." You build a kind of internal support that men have always had.

Many women say it's frustrating because male colleagues are talking in the men's room. They're talking on the golf course. So you find another way to do it. You clip journal articles and share them with your male colleagues, or invite them to a professional association meeting, or send them an email when they've done a good job. After a while, they start reciprocating and thinking of you as a colleague not as a female colleague.

Q: So what are some of the pitfalls women should avoid?

A: Be careful not to default into the caretaker of the details role because, for one thing, you need to focus on the big picture. If you're doing too many of the details behind the scenes, you may not be in a visible role. Second of all, there are a lot of gender land mines out there: women as nags, women as caretakers of the details, women reacting emotionally, women taking things to heart, women as perfectionists. It's not to say men are better than women or women are better than men, but you need to understand some of the land mines out there that you might step on. First you become aware of perceptions and misperceptions about women at work, and then you can begin to undo them.

If a woman wants to have an aggressive style, fine, there shouldn't be any one style. The reason I strongly suggest that a woman shouldn't have to act like a man in order to succeed is because I firmly believe that real power comes from the comfort we feel in our own skins.

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