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Men, women fall back into old roles during meetings

Now that meetings in the executive suite increasingly are coed gatherings, you would think the distance between Mars and Venus would be narrowing.

It isn't that simple, however. Managers _ both male and female _ each attend 60 meetings a month on average, more than a third of which they say are unproductive, according to a recent survey by MCI. More men say they like meetings _ yet they fall asleep at them far more often than do women, the survey reports.

The real difference occurs during awake times, when both sexes revert to behavior they learned long ago in school. Call it the bad-boy/good-girl clash. Men seated around conference tables often start acting like adolescents _ putting on a show of bravado while "trading wit-covered put-downs to protect themselves from the pain of criticism," said Warren Farrell, author of Why Men Are the Way They Are.

As a prerequisite to success, they have learned to be both self-effacing and self-promoting, he says. Women, by contrast, can become earnest perfectionists, eager to show they have done all their homework by explaining every point, yet also quick to admit mistakes.

An executive at a Minneapolis corporation says she observed this at a recent meeting, where a female colleague in finance began her presentation with a spate of apologies. "She told the group that the books had closed just the night before, that she had been rushed, and her slides probably contained typos," the executive said. "She said she was sorry several times. Then she went on to give a flawless presentation with perfect slides. The man who followed her launched right into his presentation with no apologies whatsoever _ and his slides weren't nearly as well put together," she said.

Another time, at a new-product briefing, the executive says she felt frustrated listening to a male speaker who used one incomprehensible acronym after another. "I'm not stupid, but he left me in the dust," she said. Finally, she raised her hand and asked him what one acronym meant. After he explained, "the guy sitting next to me leaned over and said, "I'm so glad you asked; I had no idea what he was talking about.'

" She in turn realized that "guys won't ask questions that make them look uninformed _ just like they won't ask for directions."

They will, however, take up room at conference tables, spreading out papers, stretching or leaning back and swiveling around in their chairs. Julie Danis, a vice president at Foote Cone & Belding, a Chicago advertising firm, says she often observes men standing up at meetings when they want to make a point, or stretching in their seats. A former boss always walked around the room when he spoke, she said, "asserting his power position."

She almost always sits still until there is a break. Just over 5 feet tall, she said "my feet don't touch the ground in those conference chairs, and the desk comes just to my breast bone" making it difficult to feel authoritative. "I'm either sitting on the edge of my chair or else I want to sit on my legs, which I can't get away with in a formal setting."

And she still feels chagrined when she recalls how she once was called "missy" by a male executive who was chairing a meeting at a company she was consulting for. "He couldn't believe I had anything to say even though he was paying me for my advice."

Danis has, however, trained herself never to raise her hand when she wants to say something. She cringes when she sees other women do that rather than simply speaking out, and wonders "did they learn that in Catholic school like I did? We're still asking for permission to speak. Or we make apologies, saying, "Oh I just want to add one thing,'

" she said.

Researchers who have studied men's and women's patterns of communications have come to similar conclusions. On average, men talk more at meetings than women and so their ideas typically are adopted more often, says Sharon Lobel, a Seattle University professor who has studied gender roles.

Men also are more comfortable making things up, "so if someone asks about a particular financial figure, for example, they may offer one, while a woman is likely to say "I'm not sure about that.' Women go to the confessional before they say something, giving the impression that they don't know what they're talking about, while many men act confident whether they know a little or a lot," she said.

Yet men say they envy women for what Farrell calls their "beauty power." Whether women "use this consciously or not," beauty power can yield them a more sympathetic or attentive ear from male bosses, because "men love women more than we love ourselves," he said.