Learn how this gender myth is fueling workplace inequality
The idea that women are lagging in pay and recognition in the workforce because of gender differences has been thoroughly debunked.
Men, women, and those who don’t identify with either gender have different approaches to life based on genetics and societal conditioning, so it only makes sense that these factors would impact their work styles….right? Absolutely wrong!
This line of thinking is completely misguided, as demonstrated by the groundbreaking work of two professors who study the intersection of gender and work.
Catherine H. Tinsley, the Raffini Family Professor of Management at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, and Robin J. Ely, the Diane Doerge Wilson Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, shared their insights on the so-called gender divide in the workplace in a fascinating article in the Harvard Business Review.
“Many of the initiatives companies have undertaken too often reflect a faulty belief: that men and women are fundamentally different, by virtue of their genes or their upbringing or both. Of course, there are biological differences. But those are not the differences people are usually talking about.”
“Instead, the rhetoric focuses on the idea that women are inherently unlike men in terms of disposition, attitudes, and behaviors. (Think headlines that tout ‘Why women do X at the office’ or ‘Working women don’t Y.’)”
But what about the effects of all of the social conditioning we go through before we’re even old enough to join the workforce, not to mention the responsibilities that caretakers and parents juggle?
Surely we should see different behavior at work based on whether one identifies as female, male, or nonbinary. Nope! Tinsley and Ely dug deep into longitudinal studies on workplace behaviors in order to debunk this pervasive gender myth.
“Science, by and large, does not actually support these claims. There is wide variation among women and among men, and meta-analyses show that, on average, the sexes are far more similar in their inclinations, attitudes, and skills than popular opinion would have us believe.”
“We do see sex differences in various settings, including the workplace—but those differences are not rooted in fixed gender traits. Rather, they stem from organizational structures, company practices, and patterns of interaction that position men and women differently, creating systematically different experiences for them.”
“When facing dissimilar circumstances, people respond differently—not because of their sex but because of their situations.”
It other words, organizations themselves are responsible for creating and perpetuating the so-called gender divide at work. But don’t lose hope!
Tinsley and Ely have come up with an alternative approach that can help remedy gender-based disparities at your company, as well as educate your workforce on how to best advocate for themselves.
Many organizations rely first and foremost on demographic data to analyze the gender balance and upward mobility of their workforces. Unfortunately, this approach is doomed from the start.
“A consulting firm we worked with had recruited significant numbers of talented women into its entry ranks—and then struggled to promote them,” the authors shared. “Their supervisors’ explanations? Women are insufficiently competitive, lack “fire in the belly,” or don’t have the requisite confidence to excel in the job.”
This is a simple conclusion – too simple. Real people and real situations require a multifactorial analysis, not a black and white approach.
What If It’s Not About Gender At All?
Rather than accepting demographic and performance data at face value, the authors suggest looking into structural barriers that might explain gender disparities. They again draw on the consulting firm’s facile initial analysis to show an alternate approach:
“Those narratives did not ring true to Sarah, a regional head, because a handful of women—those within her region—were performing and advancing at par. So rather than accept her colleagues’ explanations, she got curious.”
“Sarah investigated the factors that might have helped women in her region succeed and found that they received more hands-on training and more attention from supervisors than did women in other regions. This finding suggested that the problem lay not with women’s deficiencies but with their differential access to the conditions that enhance self-confidence and success.”
Many organizations are looking to build a gender-balanced headcount, and this is an admirable goal. But it can have unintended negative consequences.
Is your company offering the same training and onboarding to all employees, regardless of gender? It’s also worth considering whether certain teams have individual performers who are, to put it nicely, overdemonstrative.
What might at first look like a pattern of female new hires failing to acclimate to the demands of their roles or not fitting in with your company’s culture might be more complicated.
For example, maybe there are one or two veteran employees who — male, female, or nonbinary — talk over others or hold forth for 20 minutes out of the 30 allotted for a certain meeting.
Rather than being perceived as challenging the authority of these more established employees by speaking over them, your new hires may simply rely on other means of communication, or focus more on deliverables than intangibles.
“The solution to women’s lagged advancement is not to fix women or their managers but to fix the conditions that undermine women and reinforce gender stereotypes.”
“Furthermore, by taking an inquisitive, evidence-based approach to understanding behavior, companies can not only address gender disparities but also cultivate a learning orientation and a culture that gives all employees the opportunity to reach their full potential.”
Taking an evidence-based approach and looking at your teams’ dynamics one by one, rather than dividing and analyzing your entire workforce based on gender, can help any organization retain their top talent.
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