Gender Differences at Work: We’re not that Different!
By: Kim Elsesser, author of Sex and the Office: Women, Men and the Sex Partition that’s Dividing the Workplace (Taylor Press Publishing, 2015)
Regardless of whether we’re talking about power differences, communication differences, differences in friendship style, or different interests, understanding gender differences can help us to understand our cross-sex coworkers a little better.
However, we must be careful not to overly exaggerate these differences.
After all, the most striking lack of knowledge about the opposite sex is how similar the two sexes really are.
That may sound like a contradiction. Gender differences exist and these do contribute to the sex partition. However, biological differences aside, men and women are far more similar than they are different.
Unfortunately, stereotypes of men and women tend to exaggerate differences, and these stereotypes also work
to keep the sexes apart. In other words, we tend to perceive men and women as much more different than they actually are. Take, for example, perceptions of male and female managers.
Women in management often must behave counter to the traditional feminine stereotypes. You can’t always be nice and polite when running a company or managing a work group. However, we notice it more when women behave in these characteristically unfeminine ways. When a male boss reprimands an employee, he’s doing his job.
When a woman does it, she can be labeled “bitchy.” Despite the abundant research evidence that men and women have very similar management styles and are equally effective in the management role, these stereotypes persist. Busting myths like “men make better bosses” or “female leaders are bitchy” is an important step in bringing the sexes together.
Despite overwhelming evidence that women and men make equally good leaders, my own research (with co-author Janet Lever) indicates that twice as many people would prefer to work for a man than a woman.
Why this preference? In one word — stereotypes. Female managers in our study were described as too:
Indeed, these were the nine most popular adjectives used to describe why people didn’t want to work for a woman. Not surprisingly, none of these adjectives were used to describe male bosses. Those who didn’t want to work for male bosses described male leaders as too self-centered and competitive. They had too much “male ego” and were too “power hungry.”
Male and female leaders essentially behave in a very similar manner, yet are described quite differently. Increasing awareness of how men and women are similar is also important in bringing the sexes together.
A new movement to eradicate these harmful stereotypes, started by Sheryl Sandberg, suggests we ban the term “bossy” when describing young girls. An assertive young boy is often labeled a leader, while a similar young girl can be labeled “bossy.” When the young girl grows up and goes to work, the label may change from “bossy” to “bitchy.” If we can change perceptions in children, then perhaps future generations of female leaders will gain more acceptance.
Although subtle, these gender differences and perceived differences create real obstacles to cross-sex friendships at work. One almost cost me a job offer. Funny how we make efforts to teach employees how foreigners might misinterpret their behavior but completely ignore how gender differences (or perceived differences) might contribute to misunderstandings between men and women in the workplace every day.
Just as we teach employees about the pitfalls of conducting business cross-culturally, we need to educate our employees about gender differences. Greater understanding of the sexes will help reduce the likelihood of misunderstandings and increase our appreciation for our cross-sex co-workers.
Adapted from “Sex and the Office: Women, Men, and the Sex Partition That’s Dividing the Workplace” by Kim Elsesser, PhD., published by Taylor Trade.