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Do men resent powerful women?

One of the most intriguing statistics in “A Woman’s Nation,” the recently released survey by Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress, is this: 69% of women think men resent women who have more power than they do. Only 49% of men agree.

Who knows who’s right. What we know for sure is that men and women can’t agree about power–and aren’t very comfortable talking candidly about it.

To research Getting to 50/50, the book I wrote with Joanna Strober, we found that fear of candid talk is the biggest logjam blocking the progress of women in the workplace. For one thing, men shy away from giving women honest feedback. One male CEO of a tech start-up told us: “Every senior male executive I know has been threatened with discrimination charges regardless of the goodness of their track record.” He added, “I’ve seen it make cynics out of a lot of men who started out very differently.”

All of us–men and women alike–contribute to this problem. In our politically correct workplaces, discussing male/female differences has become so taboo that the topic is broached only in heated moments, when colleagues let loose their true opinions about gender and power.

It’s a messy management issue. HR lawyers say that employers ask how to avoid suits when their priority should be retaining and promoting women, with the help of honest dialogue about everything from performance issues to maternity leaves.

But too often, men cower at giving feedback to female subordinates. That CEO of the tech start-up confessed that when he was at a big media company, his peers advised him to leave his office door open during reviews of female employees–and best to stay within earshot of his assistant so he’d have a witness if the employee made a complaint. “How much candor can you offer with your door open?” he asked me rhetorically, with understandable exasperation.

Moreover, lots of line managers keep women out of their networks (and even avoid going out to lunch with them) because it just doesn’t feel comfortable. Many managers steer clear of difficult conversations. Don’t be too hard on the guys: They’ve never been told how to engage the right way.

Rod Kramer, a professor and management expert at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, believes that men’s discomfort relates to a common insecurity: “Men often seem to think (heroically) that they should be masters at the conversation–that they should know the ‘right’ things to say.” His advice to men and women: “Be more curious about each other and their experiences. Just ask good leading questions–and invite questions in return.”

Meanwhile, women’s tendency to be super-serious (as men perceive them, at least) compounds the workplace dysfunction. “Women can make anything a chore,” a former Microsoft (MSFT) executive told me. “They’re too serious and don’t seem to understand that work is a game.”

What should women do? One of our interviewees, Larry, a partner in a national architecture firm, told us about a woman who blew up over her male colleagues’ risqué pin-ups and jocular behavior; she complained to HR and quit. Larry wishes that she had confronted the guys who offended her: “Tell guys to their face,” he says, advising women in general. “Say, ‘Hey, what’s that?’ And be funny about it. You have to do it in a way so that guys don’t feel threatened, but you are making your point.”

In the stories we heard, “right” and “wrong” were rarely obvious. But the need for a male/female lingua franca was clear.

Some wise employers are getting a jump on inventing this new language.

Deloitte, for one, has moved aggressively to bring male and female executives together to discuss questions like “Would you want your daughter to work for a company that has lower expectations for women?” Open dialogue and better insight into what women need to be successful has helped Deloitte command a lead among professional services firms in utilizing female talent.

The University of Michigan has also made strides. With backing from the National Science Foundation, the University enlisted male professors to comb research on implicit gender attitudes. For example, most people will select a resume with a male name over one with a female name, even when the resumes are identical. Professors turned their survey into a workshop and shared their insights with the University’s hiring committees. Female science hires have since risen dramatically.

It may be a long while ’til we reach 50/50. But understanding the issues and learning to understand each other is a good start.

Sharon Meers is the co-author of Getting to 50/50 and a former Managing Director at Goldman Sachs (GS).

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