DO WOMEN MANAGE DIFFERENTLY? Yes, says a new wave of thinking -- and they're far better suited than men to run companies in the Nineties. But purveyors of the theory aren't doing women any favors.
By Jaclyn Fierman REPORTER ASSOCIATE Laurie Kretchmar

(FORTUNE Magazine) – HERE'S A TWIST: Suddenly men have to worry about gender equality. A cadre of consultants, academics, and executives say Mr. Hardcharging Manager could soon be out of a job. In his place they see a more nurturing, empathic sort, a born consensus builder. She -- emphatically she -- shuns the trappings of power and prefers ''centrarchies'' to hierarchies. Best of all, she is simply being herself. The dust jacket of Sally Helgesen's recent book, The Female Advantage, a bible of this new brand of feminism, claims that with their superior management instincts, women ''may be the new Japanese.'' The idea is turning up all over. An article in the November-December Harvard Business Review says men and women manage in sharply different ways and suggests that the female approach is superior. A new study by headhunting firm Russell Reynolds Associates finds that leadership traits are more common in executive women than in executive men. What were once labeled women's weaknesses and cited as reasons they were ill suited for top jobs are suddenly the very traits male executives are expected to wear on their sleeves. ''Gone are the days of women succeeding by learning to play men's games,'' declares Tom Peters, co-author of management's old testament, In Search of Excellence. ''Instead the time has come for men on the move to learn to play women's games.'' The assertion that women are ideally suited to the flattened organizations of the Nineties, where teamwork and a free flow of information are paramount, is sweet talk indeed. It is especially so considering the paltry progress women have made in the upper reaches of business: FORTUNE recently found that less than 0.5% of the highest-paid officers and directors in America's largest public companies are women (''Why Women Still Don't Hit the Top,'' July 30).

But beware the siren call. This lavish new praise of women threatens to become a sea of fresh stereotypes. Says Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, who runs the Center for Leadership and Career Studies at Emory business school in Atlanta: ''There's a scary orthodoxy about this new wave of feminism. It dictates that all women should behave in a certain way.'' Strident as it is becoming, the new ideology has slim empirical underpinnings. In a thorough review of dozens of studies, Gary N. Powell, management professor at the University of Connecticut, concluded that the similarities among men and women managers far outweigh the differences. ''Managers are a self-selecting population,'' he says. ''Those who choose managerial careers, like firefighters, have a lot in common. The best embody stereotypes of both genders.'' NOT ALL WOMEN -- not even all women who call themselves feminists -- fall for the new line. For one thing, today's Ms. Corporate Success Story is no less a caricature than the navy-suited, floppy-tied, banter-with-the-best-of-' em careerist of the past. Says Cynthia Fuchs Epstein, sociologist and feminist author of the book Deceptive Distinctions: ''Even if people are putting women on a pedestal now, it's still a mindless aggregation. The notion at the base of this debate is that women have a single personality. That doesn't capture the rich variation in people.'' Consider the reverse stereotypes in Herb and Marion Sandler, the husband and wife team who run Golden West Financial in Oakland, California, a vibrantly healthy savings and loan. Says she: ''I'm less likely to compromise than my husband is when people don't perform to our standards.'' Says he: ''I'm what you'd call soft.'' But both describe themselves as organized and results- oriented, and call the notion of male and female management styles nonsense. State the stereotype and watch the retorts fly. ''Women naturally form centrarchies,'' says Anne Jardim, a dean of Simmons College graduate school of management in Boston, using a vogue term for nonhierarchical organizations with the leader at the center, not on top. Counters Mina Gerowin: ''If the situation warrants, I'd just as soon give orders.'' One of the first women vice presidents at Lazard Freres, Gerowin owns and manages specialty packaging companies as a partner in New Canaan Investments in Connecticut. Or try this new quick-and-easy distinction: Men hoard information, while women are natural disseminators. The idea is developed in detail in ''Ways Women Lead,'' an article by Judy Rosener, management professor at the University of California at Irvine, in the current issue of the Harvard Business Review. ''Oh, puleeeze,'' replies Deceptive Distinctions author Epstein, one of many people the Review invited to respond to Rosener's controversial findings. ''Just think of how Aunt Tilly always withholds the single most important ingredient in her apple pie recipe.'' And what about the movement's favorite assertion -- that women, mothers in particular, are better team players than men? In The Female Advantage, Helgesen cites a woman entrepreneur who frames it this way: ''If you can figure out which one gets the gumdrop, the 4-year-old or the 6-year-old, you can negotiate any contract in the world.'' Mary Anne Devanna, associate dean of Columbia University's business school, points up the irony: ''For years we were told we couldn't possibly negotiate deals because we didn't play on Little League. Now they tell us the opposite.'' On one issue most executive women seem to agree: They can't win in the workplace. Women are criticized for being too soft or too strident, while men % behaving identically are perceived as sensitive or decisive. Most nettlesome for women bosses is the job of giving orders. ''An authoritative woman undercuts her femininity,'' says Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University and author of the current best-seller You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. ''If she lives up to female stereotypes, she undercuts her authority.'' Take the example of a boss who needs a subordinate's report fast. He has no problem saying, ''Have this on my desk by the end of the day.'' She, by contrast, is more likely to say: ''I'm sorry to rush you, but do you think you could have this for me by the end of the day?'' The senior woman who has learned to walk the tightrope of acceptable behavior might give the order this way: ''I need this by the end of the day and would really appreciate your doing it.'' American cultural stereotypes may affect the way we communicate, but power knows no gender: Women like it and wield it just as well as men do. ''Simply because women have biases to contend with doesn't mean they're wired differently,'' says Emory business school's Sonnenfeld. Tomas Kirchhausen, a molecular biologist at the Harvard medical school, agrees. ''Speaking as a scientist,'' he says, ''the human brain is genderless.'' THE LATEST management theories favoring flatter organizations with authority less concentrated at the top simply represent the most effective way to run a business in an era of increasing global competition. It is no more feminine than the more hierarchical, autocratic style was masculine, and no less dominated by men. The most likely to succeed are not necessarily women but those of either gender best able to adapt to the tribe's customs. ''I didn't feminize Ford,'' says Nancy Badore, a psychologist who helped the car manufacturer change its autocratic corporate culture to a more participative one. Nonplussed to find herself receiving so much attention as a prime example of the new feminist dogma in Helgesen's book, Badore says most of the people she coached were men: ''Even with their highly autocratic background, they opted for a more participative approach when they could see the payoff on the bottom line.'' Though well meaning, the women-make-better-managers crowd risks diverting corporate America's attention from a critical issue in the workplace: discrimination, however subtle, against women and minorities. ''This is a great lightning rod for other mistakes we might make in dealing with our increasingly diverse work force,'' says Sonnenfeld. ''We ought to concentrate on trying to get different races and sexes to work together, without adding to the stereotypes.'' In other words, let's not value women any less, but equality more.