by Sophie Hahn and Anne Litwin
Published in Managing in the Age of Change: Essential Skills to Manage Today’s Workforce, Roger A. Ritvo, Anne Litwin, and Lee Butler, editors, Burr Ridge, Illinois: IRWIN Professional Publishing, 1995.
Most everyone would agree with the assertion that boys and girls are socialized differently in America, as they are in most postindustrial or “third wave” societies. Girls and boys, during their formative years, are sent endless socialization messages about how they ought to behave in order to have successful outcomes. The messages differ as functions of the gender of the particular child.
One simple example with which most of us have some familiarity is crying in response to frustration by girls and “acting out” behavior in response to frustration by boys. This chapter is a discussion of the manifold ways in which the early socialization of boys and girls is played out in the workplace, at a later stage of development, between men and women.
Managers, both men and women, must stay constantly attuned to these gender differences if they are to effectively manage across the gender divide. Anne Litwin and Sophie Hahn suggest that without this sensitivity, women’s success will be impeded, and both men and women will experience unnecessary frustrations.
However, given male dominance in many organizations, the woman manager who is not fully aware of how differences based on gender get played out is more likely to suffer than a male manager who is similarly unattuned. While the woman manager may be seen as unprepared, male managers who lack skill in managing this form of diversity may find upper management in supportive collusion with them.
This chapter is important because it reveals many of the often reflexive ways that gender differences, and the behaviors associated with them, are enacted in the world of work. Many the issues discussed in this chapter are below the surface and spontaneous, and reflect who we are by virtue of the ways in which our early socialization took place.
On this basis, frequent reference to Hahn and Litwin’s piece is worthwhile counsel. Otherwise, the behaviors will be ascribed to what is considered “normal,” and calling attention to them may be seen as “nitpicking”—a most unfair and unfortunate outcome not only for impacted women, but for men as well. Men who fail to “get it” will continue to manage in uninformed ways, leading to continuous turnover of highly talented women in their managerial purview, an unfortunate outcome at the organizational level.
Be it nature or nurture, by the time most women and men make it to the workplace, their life experiences and expectations have been different in certain gender-based ways. Of course, as human beings, women and men share many of the same experiences and expectations. And as individuals, they are each entirely unique. In each person, all of these experiences and expectations function simultaneously: the group-based differences, the universal human similarities, and the individual attributes and quirks. This makes for a fascinating—and sometimes confusing—human landscape.
Whenever women and men interact, gender-based group differences can come into play, at times creating avoidable misunderstandings. These are the innocent communication-, style-, expectation-, and experience-based misunderstandings that arise among women and men interacting in normal, friendly, cordial, and helpful ways, with no ill will intended. Managers need to be especially aware of the potential for such misunderstandings in the work environment, both in their own actions and reactions as well as those of their colleagues and staff toward each other.
Without diminishing the importance of the sameness, the uniqueness, or the other group identities of human beings, this chapter focuses on how gender-based differences manifest themselves in the workplace. Throughout the chapter, certain behaviors are labeled “feminine” or “masculine” or are attributed to women or men. These labels and attributions are a shorthand way of describing characteristics more likely to be found among members of one gender or the other, and should not be read as a negation of individual differences.
Women and men, as groups, tend to have different communication and work styles. This has been observed and documented by sociologists, psychologists, and other social observers, despite continued debate about why such differences exist (nature or nurture) and why typically masculine behavior tends to be assigned a higher value in the workplace.
Deborah Tannen’s 1990 best-seller, You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation,1 explores the different conversational styles of women and men at length. Based on her research, Tannen concludes that boys’ and girls’ early social lives are so different that they grow up “in what are essentially different cultures.” Thus, talk between women and men is in fact cross-cultural communication, fraught with as many potential misunderstandings as communication between individuals from different countries, ethnic backgrounds, languages, or religious groups.
As a matter of basic world view, Tannen establishes that men see themselves as engaged in a hierarchical social order in which they are either “one up or one down” in relation to others. Their communication styles and reactions to others’ communications often stress the need to “preserve independence and avoid failure.” Women, on the other hand, tend to see the world as a “network of connections,” and their communications and interpretations of others’ communications seek to “preserve intimacy and avoid isolation.”
Tannen’s conclusions echo an earlier well-known book on this subject, In a Different Voice2by Carol Gilligan. Gilligan cites research by a number of psychologists and other experts that has found marked differences in the basic operational modes of women and men, starting from the time they are very young children. For example, in observing girls and boys at play, Piaget and Lever (in separate studies) found that as boys grow they become “increasingly fascinated with the legal elaboration of rules and the development of fair procedures for adjudicating conflicts,” while girls “have a more ‘pragmatic’ attitude toward rules.” Girls are “more willing to make exceptions and are easily reconciled to innovations.” Boys’ play is observed as more competitive, while girls’ play “is more cooperative.”
Given these basic differences in world view and behavior, it is not surprising to find that the workplace expectations, work styles, and characteristics of women and men, as groups, also tend to differ.
Table 19-1 depicts the two extremes of a spectrum of workplace styles and expectations shared by women and men, but considered more typically feminine or masculine. Many women probably will see themselves, or be seen by colleagues, as possessing certain attributes described as “masculine,” and some men probably will see themselves, or be seen by colleagues, as possessing certain attributes described in the table as “feminine.”
All of the views and styles described as constituting the more typically feminine or masculine ends of the spectrum are equally valid and useful in a productive workplace. Increased worldwide competition and changing workforce demographics highlight this fact. Many organizations have begun to recognize the need to move away from primarily masculine structures and norms toward a more flexible definition of appropriate workplace behavior. An emphasis on teamwork and positive employee development requires that both typically feminine and typically masculine styles and expectations be valued and reinforced. This creates new opportunities for women and men to utilize and value the different strengths each brings to the workplace.
Gender Based Perceptions in the Workplace
participative (see colleagues as complementary)
hierarchical (see colleagues as potential competition)
Focus of interpersonal attention
process (care about how people treat each other in carrying out work)
outcome (care about “where they stand” in relation to others)
interactional (interact to connect, arrive at understandings)
transactional (interact to pass information and give directions)
intuitive (trust instincts; will provide proof/explanation as necessary)
linear (based on methodical thinking; will not trust intuition until proof is presented)
Individual work style
collaborative (see work as part of a whole; discuss and review with colleagues)
independent (see work as a separate piece; complete work without the “help” of others)
supportive (seek to aid, support, facilitate, and provide comfort, meaning, and rewards)
directive (seek to test, direct, organize, and provide challenges, goals, and incentives)
View of work-related conflict
disruptive (seek to create harmony; view negative comments as unproductive)
normal (accept a level of conflict as inevitable; view negative comments as normal part of work)
Despite an increased valuing of the attributes of both genders, misunderstandings among women and men in the workplace continue. Each gender tends to expect that the other operates with the same set of views and behavioral expectations. The following scenario illustrates an innocent gender-based misunderstanding in which a sensitivity to the different feminine and masculine styles and expectations would have facilitated more fruitful outcomes.
A male manager is holding a meeting with his staff, which includes both women and men, to find a solution to a departmental problem. A woman speaks first, very soon after he has presented the problem; she offers a solution. The manager is annoyed. Because she did not begin her statement with a progressive analysis of all factors and because she spoke so soon, he assumes she has not thought out her position and therefore dismisses her solution without bothering to explore its possibilities.
One of her male colleagues speaks second. He starts with a lengthy analysis and ultimately summarizes with a virtually identical solution. This time, the manager hears the solution and accepts it. The male manager has reacted favorably not to the actual solution but to his male staff member’s linear approach to solving the problem.
In the converse situation, a female manager is holding an identical meeting. A man speaks first, and begins with what seems to her to be a lengthy, overly detailed, and somewhat pompous justification for the point he is about to make but never seems to get to. She asks that he cede the floor so that others can participate, effectively cutting him off before he has finished.
A woman speaks second. She simply states the first solution that came to her mind, based on the manager’s description of the problem. The manager happily accepts the solution—it sounds right—and continues the meeting by asking if anyone sees any reason why this is not the best solution. This female manager has also favored a certain approach to problem solving—the intuitive approach.
In case 1, with a male manager, the woman staff member will leave the meeting frustrated, and the manager will not recognize her contribution. This is a gender-based misunderstanding. His negative view of her may be exacerbated because the workplace tends to favor masculine work styles and characteristics. To the extent that women as a group do not conform to the male model, they may be considered less-valuable employees. From the female staff member’s perspective, the experience may add to a feeling women in the office aren’t listened to or aren’t respected. After all, she did provide the correct solution! If she complains, this will probably also hurt her. People will tend to perceive her as weak or oversensitive.
In the second case, with the female manager, there has also been a gender-based misunderstanding, and it is the male staff member who will leave the meeting with a sense of frustration. In this instance, however, the negative interaction can be directly harmful to the female manager as well as to the male employee. The male staff member will certainly suffer from being misunderstood by his manager. He will feel that he has been treated unfairly and may receive a poor evaluation. He may also complain to others around the office. Even though he is the subordinate, his “bad-mouthing” can feed preexisting biases in the male-defined workplace. The manager may be seen as the one with the problem and her management style considered impatient or lacking in judgment. In this example, the misunderstanding can harm both the male staff member and his female manager.
These misunderstandings, if viewed alone, may seem petty or harmless. But in most instances, they form part of a continuum of misunderstandings, acted out on a playing field that itself is not level—a playing field usually disfavoring feminine characteristics, and thus women. Bit by bit, these can lead to destructive and time-consuming animosities, a factionalized workplace, demoralized employees, and, eventually, to the loss of promising members of the staff. These types of misunderstandings are often the source of the disproportionate loss of female employees who, given their backgrounds, skills, and experience, should have thrived in their jobs.
Ultimately, managers are responsible for making sure that workplace tasks are accomplished in an optimal fashion. They must create a productive work environment that brings out the best in each member of their staff, whatever her or his universal, group, or individual characteristics may be. The foundation of productive work environments is mutual respect and understanding.
Managers influence their work environments in three ways:
- How they act, which sets a powerful example
- How they treat members of their staff
- How they manage relations among staff members
Whatever managers do to derive the benefits of or to minimize the problems arising from gender-based differences in the workplace, they must address all three levels of influence.<
The following six-step program is a manager’s guide for learning more about and effectively handling gender-based misunderstandings in the workplace.
The first step for managers is to continually educate themselves about gender issues in the workplace through reading and participation in classes or workshops. Most people have a tendency to assume that all people are just like themselves. In today’s world and today’s workplace, this is rarely true. Learning more about gender issues can trigger a series of surprising observations, leading a manager to new understandings. The sources of certain frustrating workplace misunderstandings become obvious and more easily managed and changed.
The next step for a manager, armed with new information, is to assess the ways in which the structure, norms, expectations, standards, evaluation methods, and other attributes of the workplace may carry a bias. These elements must be taken into account in all efforts, to achieve meaningful gender fairness.
For example, upon examination, a manager may note the existence of an unwritten norm discouraging crying. Since crying is a normal way in which many women express strong feelings or react to stress, the norm against crying would tend to disfavor women. If women who cry at work are considered less-valuable employees, while men experience no negative repercussions when they express strong feelings or react to stress in other ways, the manager will have identified an important workplace bias.
Although managers may be able to identify some of the potentially gender-biased elements in their workplaces, it is often advisable to engage an outside expert to guide or conduct the assessment for the manager. As members of the workplace culture, managers may have difficulty identifying biases that are fully ingrained in the environment—and thus most likely in the managers themselves.
3. Ask questions.
Having observed the environment, a manager should next ask questions of each staff member on an individual basis. To gain relevant information, the manager should ask each employee to describe:
- The strengths they bring to the workplace
- The characteristics they value in a supervisor
- The aspects of the work they consider important
Focusing on the issue of gender-based differences, a manager should ask:
- What special, added value the employee feels her or his gender brings to the workplace?
- How the employee can benefit from the different gender-based attributes of co-workers?
Once these positive aspects have been explored and identified, it is useful to ask employees about:
- Frustrations they may have encountered in working with members of the opposite gender
- Behaviors that would show respect for the style differences between them
All of the information obtained through private interviews should be kept confidential between the manager and the particular employee.
As a next step, mixed-gender groups should be brought together for a guided discussion and review of the same questions that were asked in the individual sessions. A good way to conclude a group discussion of gender issues is to have participants articulate explicit agreements about ways they can show respect for and benefit from both gender-based styles. This process of sharing information about gender issues can be continually refreshed and reinforced by taking the time, upon completion of major projects and at the end of important meetings, to discuss how well members of each gender feel they have worked together and to solicit suggestions for improving group interaction in the future.
For the manager, listening is especially important for three reasons. First, the individual’s comments made during group discussions provide crucial management information, which employees will not provide if they do not trust that they will be listened to and taken seriously. Second, managers must try very honestly to hear the ways in which their own actions and treatment of staff members, and the staff’s interaction with each other, perpetuate destructive—and thus unproductive—gender biases.
The third, and ultimately most edifying, reason to listen carefully is to discover the unique gifts each individual brings to the workplace. If the male manager from the first scenario had been listening differently, he might have heard his female staff member’s correct solution. He would have been impressed by her ability to grasp complex problems quickly and see straight to the right solution. Conversely, if the female manager had listened differently to what her male staff member was saying, she would have appreciated his ability to present a well-reasoned exposition of the foundations for his conclusions.
6. Initiate change.
Having learned, assessed, asked questions, discussed, and listened, managers will probably need to make changes at all three levels of influence—how they act, how they treat members of their staffs, and how they manage relations among staff members. Depending on the situation, each manager’s strategy may be different. Some managers may find that by changing their own behaviors, the entire department or unit will change, having learned by experience and example. Others may wish to bring the issues up explicitly with staff by holding meetings, announcing new policies, or even inviting special consultants from the outside to work with them and their staffs.
Many useful books, tapes, videos, seminars, classes, and training programs can help managers create a strategy for managing change in gender-based patterns, expectations, and attitudes. These resources may be obtained through bookstores, libraries, professional associations, women’s organizations, city or state human rights commissions, unions, and the company’s human resources department.
Whatever the strategy and actions taken, there is no doubt that managers will confront gender-based issues in the workplace; most already do, without knowing it. They spend precious time managing situations arising from or exacerbated by gender-based misunderstandings—including their own! Both women and men with useful potential leave the organization—or end up being asked to leave. Organizations lose women disproportionately because definitions of what is right and good in the workplace are almost always based on a masculine model. Women eventually feet unappreciated and undervalued, and then they don’t stick around. Being aware of and confronting gender issues frees managers to take control and turn things around, to the benefit of their staffs, their organizations, and ultimately society.
- Tannen, Deborah. You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. New York: Ballantine Books, 1990.
- Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.
- Loden, Marilyn. Feminine Leadership, or How to Succeed in Business Without Being One of the Boys. New York: Times Books, 1985.