Now that women make up 50 percent of the workforce and are moving into more leadership positions than ever before, there's more opportunity for tension to develop over how offices should be run. To give more perspective, the number of women in the workforce has increased from 44 million to 72 million in the past 30 years—that's a huge shift in societal norms. In their book, Work With Me, authors Barbara Annis and John Gray say this rapid change underscores the fundamental differences in how men and women typically communicate, lead and cope with stress.
"Greater understanding can only lead to a greater appreciation for each other and the realization that our gender differences can be so amazingly complementary," the authors write.
We've highlighted four of the most damaging gender blindspots, according to Annis and Gray. It's important to note that these are generalizations, not absolutes:
1. Men and women view work-life balance differently.
Women are usually more empathetic—and responsive—to diverse workforce needs, whereas men are more singular-focused. For example, if an employee is conflicted between work and other aspects of his life, the authors argue that a woman in a senior position will be more likely to notice the needs of her employee. Put simply, women value work-life balance more than men. In researching for their book, they conducted in-depth interviews with 2,400 women who left leadership positions at Fortune 500 companies, and concluded women overwhelmingly left their positions for personal reasons. On the other hand, men are more comfortable with the status quo. For decades, men have made up the majority of the workforce, and they're more comfortable with traditional management and corporate culture principles, since they align with the way men prefer to work.
Annis and Gray sum it up: "Bring men and women together into a team and we begin to see the clash of expectations in the absence of understanding."
2. Women want consensus; men want a quick decision.
Women will often ask questions "intended to stimulate an exchange of ideas, discover what's important, and arrive at a best possible outcome," say Annis and Gray. Women more often prefer to build consensus, show concern for others, offer feedback and ask for support—then offer their opinion. This is the opposite of what men typically do.
Ashleigh Shelby Rosette, an associate professor at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, writes in The New York Times that the skills women naturally posses, such as "demonstrating respect and sensitivity" and "taking an interest in employees," elicit trust from employees, creating a more productive work environment.
On the other hand, Alan Goldman, a professor of management at Arizona State University West, says in another Times article that "tough guys win for a reason," arguing that the "veneer of male dominance"—and leadership style associated with it—is what will earn you respect in the end.
3. The "Old Boy's Club" still exists.
As LinkedIn Founder Reid Hoffman points out, building networks is the new resume. Unfortunately, especially in some industries, the "Old Boy's Club" at the top still exists, and it's a challenge for anyone not considered "the norm" to break into—and disrupt—these circles.
This makes it harder for women and minorities to make it to the top. Melissa J. Anderson writes in The Glasshammer that "make no mistake, golf and business go hand in hand. Golf has long been the game of business people. It has social cache, while at the same time, it’s not too physically demanding. It’s good for building the rapport, conversation, and friendly competition at the core of strong business relationships ... [yet], the majority of women avoid the game."
4. Women and men communicate differently.
Men are more competitive and are likely to interrupt one another during meetings to get their point across, whereas women usually prefer to build consensus and weigh in after others have expressed their opinions. In Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In, she devotes an entire chapter to discussing how women don't raise their hands or "sit at the table." This is in part because females underestimate their potential, but also because women adhere to typical gender stereotypes.
Both styles of communication have value. Keith Merron, a senior associate Barbara Annis & Associates, a consulting firm specializing in gender diversity, tells Drew Gannon at The Fiscal Times that typically “women more often see a problem holistically and are able to come up with an understanding of that situation without needing to know what all the parts are," while "men are linear in thought process and more narrow in their focus, so they are able to break down problems into their component parts and solve it.”
Ultimately, it's always risky to generalize gender norms, but there are real differences between the way men and women operate in the workplace. Rather than ignore these differences and carry on with the status quo, it's important for companies to recognize them—and take action to make teams and systems operate more effectively. This will ultimately create a more collaborate, productive future workplace.
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