Occasionally I am asked to write something just for women, as if there is another language for women about work different from a language for men.

There is a separateness about this which makes me uneasy. Consider the conversation of a small group of women chief executives and senior executives at a networking function I attended recently. About 20 were seated around the table complete with a drawcard speaker. After introductions we were asked to talk about our motivating passions for work. Most women identified as either having children or not having children and spoke easily and with enthusiasm about their work. Conversation was animated about the dearth of women in leadership and political roles. We moved on to politics, policies and the budget and shared contacts.

Shortly after I attended a similar event for male corporate leaders, with a couple of women thrown in, myself and one other. (We were seated together, some things never change.) Conversation flowed about the economy, where they had been, recent successes and sport. Questions to the speaker were about business growth and opportunity. No mention was made of children or family that I could pick up. Both functions were fun and informative and mercifully short.

I wondered what it would take for men to talk about family if they wanted to, and for women to feel free not to talk about family. In reality though the language of both groups was a shared one, focused on identity, opportunities, ideas and positioning. But what topics and language flow when the noise of competitive networking is dialled down? What happens in one-on-one mentoring with corporate leaders both men and women? Are there differences in language and what they want to talk about?

Not in my experience.

All want a confidential second pair of eyes to look over strategy and direction for career and business, and most importantly from someone who is experienced and with sharp insights into what may have been overlooked. Most know and understand their own pattern of working and have had a solid grounding along the way in policy and business strategy. As we know however there are more men than women in these roles.

What about senior executive leadership meetings? There the discussion is about policy and strategy, the progress of projects against budget and managing emerging contentious issues. The numbers again show fewer women around senior executive tables compared with men. In short there is not much about work language for women at top corporate levels which is different from men. There is a shared language about the business and an assumption that the skills to run the business are in place. There is just a striking imbalance in the numbers of men and women doing the talking.

So what happens to the language of work for women at the career “bottle-neck” period around the mid-30s when many walk away because it’s not worth it or feel just plain stuck and written out of a senior management career? We know women are still doing most of the heavy lifting with parenting and caring despite some pioneering workplace changes. We know too that work at the top level requires long hours and weekend work. However, the perceived conflict between senior roles and family responsibilities is not the only explanation for disillusion. Women without children feel the same.

The mid-30s is the time when women, in particular, need encouragement. The language we use at this time when we talk to women about work is critical. A great beginning is this comment:

“Susan Colantuono (Womens Agenda, December 4, 2014) is fed up with seeing women being continually told to do things they are often already doing, and will actually only get them so far – such as being assertive, speaking up, setting career goals, networking, honing their people skills and self-promotion. Colantuono believes that the answer is providing women with opportunities to learn the importance of understanding business and financial acumen in order to reach executive roles.”

But it’s time to look at all opportunities for development offered in the workplace and consider the language and program content with fresh eyes. A big step would be to provide rigorous leadership and executive development programs for both men and women at their career mid-point offering the same access to knowledge, mentors and opportunities.

Instead of “women in leadership programs” let’s have programs with equal numbers of men and women in small groups to tackle the hard stuff of work and leadership. All would benefit from programs which develop ease and familiarity with that shared language early on.

The programs could:

– provide financial analysis training on the company or firm’s annual results, making market comparisons;

– involve planning on how to improve the results;

– offer ideas on coping strategies for long hours at work;

– plan for introducing internal quotas for women in leadership positions.

Men and women will continue to network separately, but let’s make sure that no one is missing out in the workplace because of the perception that women need a language which is different, especially at that critical career mid-point.

Cheryl Vardon is an experienced chief executive and has led public, private and non-profit organisations at state and national levels.

This article was originally published at the AFR: http://www.afr.com/p/opinion/what_women_talk_about_when_they_jCpFc9JFLpJXruGV3Dr5vM#

Sectors: Business