WHEN Carolyn Stradley first started in management, no one would take her seriously.
She had to use her initials, C. A., rather than her name in correspondence with clients so "men wouldn't know they were dealing with a woman," she says. Then when they walked in the door of the paving company she worked for, requesting to speak to "Mr." Stradley, she would say: "He's not here right now. But I'm Carolyn, maybe I can help you."
Such antics in the 1970s seem a far cry from Ms. Stradley's pink-edged business cards of today. Now proprietor of CS Paving in Marietta, Ga., Stradley has no qualms about making her mark as a woman in this hard-edged industry.
"A woman can do anything she chooses to do if she has the courage ... but you better be prepared to do a better job than the average male if you want to stay in it," she says. If you fail, it will always come back to being a woman, she adds.
In the '70s and early '80s when women were first making it into management positions in large numbers, many adopted the style and habits that had proved successful for men.
A second wave of women reaching top management in recent years carved a different path, says Judy Rosener of the Graduate School of Management at the University of California, Irvine. They have drawn on skills and attitudes from their own experience.
Holding that women could transform the workplace by "expressing, not giving up their personal values," Sally Helgesen in her book "The Female Advantage" summed up these "feminine principles" as follows:
Using intuition and compassion in decisionmaking; not being rigid about hierarchy; using profits responsibly; and recognizing that seeking profits should be kept in perspective.
Another school of thought gaining ground, however, suggests that making all these distinctions between the ways men and women lead tends to support a sex segregation in the workplace that has typically worked against women. According to Robin Ely, an assistant professor of public policy at the Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass., emphasizing differences constrains women. "It reinforces a set of expectations about what women can and cannot do. And also what men can and can't do," she says. An d this can lead to women being "professionally ghettoized" in female-dominated professions.
In her research on male and female leadership, Dr. Ely finds that the differences in the way people lead is often driven more by the work environment than by their gender. In a male-dominated company, for instance, women may feel unsuccessful because they do not operate in a way the company values. Whereas in a workplace where women have reached positions of power, their female subordinates see themselves as valued.
To level the playing field, Ely says, companies need to examine their work cultures and root out elements not conducive to women. She is quick to add it is a self-examination that can be long, challenging, and often quite threatening: You need the people in charge to be on board, and they are usually men.
Another necessary step is to promote enough women to get beyond tokenism - the one or two at the top for good form. If you promote women, Ely says, it communicates to women further down in a company that they have something valuable to contribute and will be rewarded.
Ely advises a female manager starting a new job to be clear about her own behavior and values and be careful not to collude in or perpetuate stereotypes. "Sometimes we don't recognize our own investment in maintaining some of that stuff," she says. "There are fears about dismantling traditional systems and traditional ways of behaving and interacting. I think we need to be a little braver."
Sticking to one's principles is the message of Lynda Moore, a professor at the all-female Simmons School of Management in Boston. She also teaches her undergraduates the need to "translate" - seeing both sides, as she puts it.
"Anybody these days who works in an organization needs to be able to think and act in a cross-cultural context," she says. "You have to be able to translate not only your own behavior but other people's behavior, taking into account their gender, race, culture."
But perhaps most important of all, Cynthia Fuchs Epstein points out in her book "Deceptive Distinctions" that rather than focus on the small differences between the genders, we need to draw out "the large similarities found in human behavior."