The Art of the Decision
In the beginning, men set the rules for the boardroom. Now that women are on the move, will they bring a different style?

(FORTUNE Magazine) – IN AN INTERVIEW with Jack Welch in the late 1980s, I challenged him about his strategy to make GE No. 1 or No. 2 in all its markets--or get out. At the time Welch was working hard to reinvent the company, which desperately needed it. He could ill afford public doubts about what became a guiding principle. As I pressed him on the subject, the GE legend lost it and stomped out of the room. He did come back--and we ended up having a four-hour talk. Some years later, when I interviewed Marjorie Scardino, the CEO of Britain's Pearson, I ended up talking about myself. The difference is not merely one of personal quirks. After 25 years of interviewing CEOs, I can say definitively: Men love to lecture, women like to listen.

Is there such a thing as a "female" management style? That debate has raged ever since women began hitting the C-level in force. But a growing body of work says there is--supporting my random field research. In executive life, "women do have a different decision-making style," says Rita Mano-Negrin, of the human services department at the University of Haifa in Israel. Women collaborate, listen, and try to build teams. Men are more apt to direct, blame others, and use the vertical pronoun. This description tends to confirm what many people want to believe, which may be reason for skepticism. But the results, drawn from research by management gurus and academic literature, are consistent--and intriguing.

In a recent personality-assessment survey of 420 executive men and women, Hagberg Consulting, an executive leadership consulting firm based in San Mateo, Calif., concluded that women weigh two factors in making a decision: how it will affect the team and whether it will achieve short-term goals. Men focus on the competitive environment and long-term results. Why the difference? Stacey Blanchard, Hagberg's CEO, speculates that women may feel that corporate cultures are less forgiving when they screw up, and "are therefore driven to get those short-term results."

Karin Klenke, who runs the school of leadership studies at Regent University in Virginia Beach, also sees temperamental differences in the exercise of power. Men, she says, are apt to take a contractual approach. "If a man is, say, the vice president of research and development, he takes the attitude that he has the power to make all decisions," says Klenke. "Women tend to want to work through people, even if they have that decision-making power."

So which approach is better? Mano-Negrin's studies of executive decision-making in crisis situations conclude that women's tendencies toward empathy and team building lead them to see the whole picture. "They see the crisis just before it comes" more often than do men, she says. Sherron Watkins of Enron saw disaster looming, for example, long before her bosses did. In weighing 47 management competencies, from judgment to reasoning ability to decisiveness, the women surveyed scored higher on 36 of them, says Blanchard.

But that doesn't mean that people perceive women as equal or better decision-makers. Catalyst, the New York organization that tracks corporate women, recently surveyed 296 corporate leaders, 57% of them women. It found that men think men are better at problem solving or decision-making, while women think women are better at it. If the job is in general management, however, which is dominated by men, both sexes think men make better decisions. Similarly, women are perceived to be better in "female" jobs, such as human resources.

Such expectations can be damning to women's prospects. In key management jobs "women are perceived to be poorer problem solvers than men, even though in reality that's probably not the case," concludes Ilene H. Lang, president of Catalyst. Which may be one reason that the top business ranks are still light on women.

In the following booklet, six women describe six tough choices. Do they display a discernibly female sensibility? Decide for yourself.