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How {wo}men decide

We know from decades of research (and perhaps, regrettable personal experiences) that men and women treat shopping decisions differently...to say the least!

But have you ever wondered if this difference in how the two sexes make decisions also holds true in management?

It turns out it does!

Deloitte set out to investigate this unexplored question. Here’s what they found out.


B2C decisions: gender matters It’s well established that men and women behave differently as shoppers in business-to-consumer (B2C) settings. Take for example this study that investigated how the two sexes shop for a Christmas gift:

“females appeared to comprehensively acquire in-store information, whereas males appeared to heuristically limit their search to a smaller subset of in-store information.”

Meaning, Women typically treat shopping as a discovery mission. She approaches the search with an open mind. She may set out initially looking for an outfit with a professional look for an upcoming conference. If she doesn't find something suitable but comes across something else that pleases her, she is flexible and adjusts her goal accordingly. This process may take longer, but it is likely to lead to a satisfying outcome. Men usually focus on accomplishing a specific mission or task. For example, if he decides he needs a new shirt, he will go straight to a store, quickly choose one, and may even buy two to avoid shopping again soon.

Does this difference carry over to how senior women make business-to-business (B2B) decisions?


B2B decisions: gender matters here too

To answer this unexplored question, Deloitte carried out interviews with experienced buyers of professional services in 18 large organizations and observations of meetings with hundreds of prospective and existing clients.

The data revealed significant differences between men and women as B2B buyers.

Why? The neuroscience

According to a fascinating brain research study conducted at the University of California, Irvine, men’s brains have approximately 6.5 times more gray matter than women’s, and women’s brains have nearly 10 times more white matter than men’s. Gray matter represents the hubs of information processing, while white matter enables the communication and links between these hubs.

While this difference does not affect cognitive ability (such as intelligence tests), it does have important implications for how decisions are made:

Typically, men are better at tasks that rely solely on processing information, while women are better at tasks that involve combining and integrating different pieces of information.



The differences at work

Selecting project partners. Women see a big meeting with a potential service provider as a chance to explore different options together with an expert, while men see that event as a nearly final step in the process of selecting a partner.

“Sometimes women are so much more difficult, and even fickle, in business dealings”

Exploring options. Men tend to end a conversation once they come up with a good idea or solution, while women tend to be more curious and want to hear everyone’s thoughts before making a decision. They take more time to find the best solution possible.

“(Women) are so much more rigorous in the way they explore possibilities and evaluate vendors.”

Solving problems. Men often approach problems by breaking them down into components and optimizing individual solutions. In contrast, the integrative advantage of the female brain leads women towards seeking holistic outcomes that maximize overall success.

RFPs. For men, the request for proposal (RFP) is a set of rules to follow, a tool for clarifying needs and decision criteria in advance. For women, an RFP is more like a helpful guide that allows for exploration and adaptation.

Power rituals. Men typically like to have high-ranking individuals at meetings to assert their company’s power, while women value meeting the people they will actually work with.

“We don’t want to see the top person and not the rest of the team. I want to be able to introduce my fourth-tier lawyer to that person’s counterpart.”

Inclusivity. Women focus on relationships and consider the interests of multiple stakeholders, aiming for fair decisions that benefit everyone. They emphasize collaboration and consensus-building, not only to make sound decisions but also to elicit support for a course of action.

Language. Men often engage in playful competition and default to sports-related metaphors. They tend to focus on discussing objects and theories, whereas women like to focus on the social dynamics and personalities that contribute to smooth organizational functioning.

Social lens. Women are better at effectively addressing the complex social issues faced by companies and considering their multifaceted impacts.

Body language. Women's body language differs from men's. for example, men may nod to move the conversation forward, while women nod to show interest and encourage elaboration. Women often choose to sit across the table for face-to-face conversations, while men may prefer sitting next to someone to discuss matters.



Respecting gender differences in decision-making

When discussing male and female styles, we refer to tendencies rather than absolutes. This perspective is not “men are from Mars, women are from Venus”.

Each person falls somewhere on a spectrum and has traits associated with both masculinity and femininity when it comes to everyday behaviors. The better you know someone, the more you can adjust your approach to them instead of relying on general findings about the larger group they belong to.

That said, it’s good to know what neuro tendencies are associated with each group.

Knowing, as a first step to respecting and taking into consideration.

If you're a man, it's worth considering:

  • Do you pay attention to the subtle clues about your female client (such as the books on her shelf or the picture on her desk), and do you establish a connection by commenting on those things during your initial greeting?

  • Do you share a story about yourself to give her the chance to know about the person she will be working with?

  • If she deviates from the direction you are presenting, do you go with the flow and allow her to explore or try to steer the conversation back to your agenda?

  • Do you use a language she car relate to?

  • Are you prepared to discuss the broader context in which your proposed initiative must succeed? Do you have a system-level perspective to evaluate alternative ideas for achieving more successful results overall?

  • Can you articulate the benefits of partnering with you not only for her company but also for the development of her team members?

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