After years navigating the office politics of both big business and government, Trent Kittleman had seen her share of women sidelined for promotions in favor of their male counterparts. It niggled at her, because by 2002, while she was working as minority counsel for U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson, she knew that women had come a very long way in achieving professional recognition. Still, there were pitifully few in senior executive positions.
"I didn't like seeing women unhappy at work," says Kittleman. "I learned by doing it wrong. I literally wanted to help women understand what was going on."
She called her good friend Joan Athen, a serial entrepreneur who fought her own battles in industries typically male-dominated, to mull it over. Could they break the code for women across the country to step through that glass ceiling they'd been peering into so long in their rise to the top?
They believe so, and in 2007 the long-time Howard County residents formed a company, GenderStrategy, with another friend from northern Virginia, Marie Royce, managing director of Global Strategic Initiatives for Alcatel-Lucent, to tackle the problem. Between them, they have more than 100 years of business experience. By 2008, with Athen and Royce as contributing editors, Kittleman wrote "Why Must There Be Dragons? Empowering Women to Master Their Careers Without Changing Men." The book's bottom line is communication, and its goal is to help women and men learn how each other pursues goals in the boardroom and the small adjustments one must make to be recognized for executive material when just doing a good job isn't good enough.
What makes the book unique is that Kittleman unveils typical human problems in the workplace through a 31st-century allegory when dogs and cats rule the world.
The scene is Feline Foods, and the characters are the dogs that run the company and the cats that are threatening a lawsuit for not getting promoted. It's called "discatination." CEO Bernie Rottweiler hires Kathryn Woo, a training specialist, to determine the problem and fix it for the cats (and smooth things over with his board of directors). Kat is assigned to work with Ryan Wolfhound (Wolfe), executive vice president of Special Projects and Bernie's right-hand man. He's skeptical but open. After a few discussions, Wolfe lays out his view of the problem.
"It's just that first canines are told we're guilty of discatination because we haven't been treating felines like canines, so we make every effort to be sure both species are treated exactly alike," the book reads. "And now you come in here and tell me that we're guilty of discatination because we're not recognizing the differences! I don't know what we're supposed to do anymore."
Readers follow the employees at Feline Foods as Woo leads them on a discovery of how each "gender" thinks and communicates and how to embrace their differences so that no one is passed over for promotion. The book is divided into three sections: early, middle and peak years of one's career. Lessons are shared and rules are given, such as "Everything you wear sends a message," "For career success, pick a great boss over a great job," and "Sit with power, near power."
Joyce Pope, former judge of the Orphans Court in Howard County, picked up a copy of the book when Kittleman was handing it out during her campaign for county executive two years ago. Since then, she has bought copies to give to her grown children and others in her family, including students.
"It reinforced strong feelings I've had about things and have counseled my kids about," says the Fulton resident. "Things like dressing appropriately and knowing what your boss is looking for. It's all about leveling the playing field, not competing … but forming partnerships," says Pope.
Duane Carey, president of Impact Marketing and Public Relations in Columbia, read the book prior to its publication, and while he knows plenty of women executives, he has seen the differences in how they communicate with their male counterparts.
"I thought it was an honest representation of men and women," he says of the book. "Men are more likely to speak up around the board table, and women are more quiet and soak it all in before speaking up. Men are more apt to just throw it out there and see if it sticks."
Boasting vs. hedging
As Kittleman explored the validity of these communication styles, she queried her male counterparts in Washington, and did so later when she joined Gov. Robert Ehrlich's administration as deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Transportation and then later became CEO of the Maryland Transportation Authority.
Says Kittleman, "Men were saying women needed more confidence."
In her experience, this is because "men tend to boast and overestimate their abilities. Women tend to hedge. I was like that at first, but I learned," she says. However, it took heading up the Transportation Department of state government to master the knowledge.
"We don't trust in our abilities," says Athen. "Women hit that glass ceiling and won't go further, so they just stay doing a great job with what they have. But a guy at the same level?"
Kittleman finishes Athen's thought: "He's continually lobbying."
The book is neither a feminist manifesto nor a gripe-fest about men.
Athen calls the book's approach constructive. "We don't blame them," she says, referring to men.
However, not all women that Kittleman and Athen encounter believe that the issue boils down to communication. Some believe men are just wrong or no problem exists, especially if they are early in their careers.
"They're more likely to face discrimination later in their careers," says Kittleman.
That's why training is so critical, especially for women, they believe. However, not all training is created equal.
According to an article published in The Washington Post in 2008, 75 percent of diversity training is hurtful, especially when it's mandatory. The article "Most Diversity Training Ineffective, Study Finds," by Shankar Vedantam, cites the findings of University of Arizona sociologist Alexandra Kalev, who researched the impact of mandatory diversity training. In 2008, U.S. businesses spent between $200 million and $300 million a year on diversity training. Forced by managers, the training creates a backlash, the researcher found.
Spreading the word
The women of GenderStrategy have delivered their message to nonprofits, students in Johns Hopkins' Carey Business School, members of the Society for Marketing Professionals, the Chancellor's Office of the University of Maryland and other organizations. Typically, the U.S. Air Force Academy gives the book to each new class of cadets. All three women have lectured and conducted trainings and seminars on the content of the book. However, they're re-evaluating that approach.
"It's intensive to do it well," says Kittleman, who is also a certified leadership coach through a program at Georgetown University. She and Athen have been selected into the ranks of "Maryland's Top 100 Women" by The Daily Record. Athen has received the honor three times, moving her into the award's Circle of Excellence. Winners are selected based on professional accomplishment, community involvement and a commitment to mentoring, and are chosen by an independent panel of business leaders and former winners.
"We're now concentrating on selling the book and speaking to sell the books. The content stands alone," says Kittleman.
The trio is also in discussion about writing another book with a different business scenario, perhaps even with a generation strategy premise.