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I once lost out on a gig I desperately wanted because I was having a bad hair day. Well, that's not quite true. My hair looked simply fabulosa in my press kit picture; everybody said so. Way too fabu, apparently, if you believe the feedback I got from the client I'd coveted in vain. Those men and women on the selection committee never made a peep about my photo when we met to discuss the project, but after the meeting, an insider let me know that it was my photograph -- and not my winning personality or brainpower -- that had peeved one decision-maker enough to ask aloud, "What, exactly, is she selling?" With that double entendre, my hopes of working with this company were cut off faster than a split end.
This rejection wasn't about my credentials (I had those) or my solid track record (ditto). If you'd asked me back then why I failed to get the business, I'd have said this turndown was pure coiffure. Even now, after a presentation, I still get more feedback about my hair than anything else. Sure, it seems absurd, but let's face it, this kind of thing happens every day. Say you're watching Katie Couric grill George W. Bush on the Today Show, and all the time you're thinking, Why doesn't she do something about her hair? Maybe it should be longer? Blonder? Meanwhile, Couric and Co. are jawing about the economy or the Middle East -- but none of this registers because you're too busy restyling Katie's tresses. By contrast, some poor fellow might be afflicted with the worst comb-over in the Western world, but if he's smart and has something to say, people pay attention without deducting major hairdo points.
My friend Ruth says the hair thing's just a ruse. She pins the blame on what she likes to call the OAT Anomaly. It's what happens when a woman with strong organizational and interpersonal skills is branded as Overwhelming-And-Threatening, a predatory creature, a barracuda -- with teeth (and nails). That's why professional women, Ruth believes, have to soften their approach and play down their accomplishments, or risk permanent exile. As it turned out, she was onto something.
She started me thinking about good old male-female stereotypes, and how they might thwart unsuspecting IPs who are working their tails off to market themselves in a market that's cheek by jowl with tough competitors. Do prospects really perceive the same behaviors in men and women IPs in radically different ways, and if so, how? Is this Mars and Venus thing more than talk-show fodder? And if it is, what can you do to combat it?
Over the years, there has been an overabundance of research devoted to male-female differences in the business world. Today's number one theory holds that in this rollicking New Economy of ours, women have the upper hand because they have exactly the right stuff for right now: they're integrators and collaborators. They're capable of processing a lot of information (including subtle nonverbal cues) before making a decision. The old one-way, tough-sell models feel wrong to them. Women seem to possess a certain je ne sais quoi that allows them to jump on all kinds of fast-moving, new-fangled opportunities, and to imagine new markets where nobody else could. Men, the researchers suggest, have a tougher row to hoe, since they'll have to jettison their order-barking ways in favor of a less structured, more interactive approach. They'll have to learn to extract information using both sides of their brains, since the style that's made them wildly successful in the past -- left-brain thinking -- doesn't cut it anymore. Physical prowess doesn't count for much in cyberspace. Why can't a man, the researchers seem to be asking, be more like a woman?
Of course, that's only one interpretation. Another scientist studied brain scans of men and women and found that men, when listening, used mostly the left side of their brains to process what they heard, while women relied on both sides. Some people were quick to conclude that women possessed superior listening skills -- a whole brain is better than half a brain -- but the researcher came up with another angle. He argued that listening must be harder for women, since they have to use more of their brains than men to accomplish the same task.
But hey, that's research. Out here in everyday life, we're constantly preening ourselves and sizing each other up. And although we hate to admit it, we all harbor certain notions about how civilized professionals ought to behave, and those ideas have a deeper and more complex set of implications about men and women. So, before you meet with your next prospect, consider how some subtle assumptions about men (Mars) and about women (Venus) might influence how you come across on three crucial components of the marketing cycle: Brochures and printed materials, face-to-face meetings, and presentations.
Press Kits, Brochures, Resumes, Printed Materials
As the charts show, the gender-gap's still there, and it can be infuriating to IPs who have to trudge through unreceptive territory to make a sale. Men are supposed to be good with hard data and acute analysis, while women are intuitive right-brainers who do their best work with people. Men look out for Number One; women look out for other people. Prospects are likely to be turned off by female IPs who "come on too strong" and by male IPs who seem too caring. To be fair, these double standards are especially tough on women. There's a persistent old myth that every working woman has heard somewhere along the line: women have to work twice as hard as men to be thought half as good. Some big businesses sustained that notion by viewing women as workhorses who were well suited for the scut work of middle management but not as contenders for plum jobs at the top. Guess what happened? Women bailed. As the 1099 Index shows, women started their own businesses or became IPs in record numbers because flexibility, balance, freedom from office politics, and the work itself were important to them. But female IPs understand that independence alone doesn't magically change old thinking. There are still prospects who will gladly hire women IPs for small to medium-sized, moderate-risk projects, but not for the primo gigs. It's the same story played out in a different arena.
That loud sucking sound you hear is the talent drain that this kind of cockamamie thinking creates. This is the real crime, because it hurts everybody: male IPs, female IPs, and prospects who don't take advantage of the best talent because they can't see beyond the stereotypes. Until the double standard is erased, that means that her hairdo will always be more important than it should be and his interpersonal skills will be valued less than his take-charge personality.
Meanwhile, don't grovel and don't bully. The best coping strategy for Mars and Venus alike is to tune into what prospects are saying, however softly, and address their needs as graciously as you possibly can. That's one approach that never goes out of style.
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