Gender Bender: Are We Really So Different?

Gender Bender: Are We Really So Different?

“Are men and women really so different that we have to spend two days of billable time discussing the subject?”. This question was posed to me recently by a workshop participant in a major accounting firm.

For most species, we accept male and female as more alike than different without question. A female zebra is more like another male zebra, for example, than she is like a horse. A goose is more like a gander than a dog, a dog is more like a bitch than a cat – you get the point. But when it comes to people, suddenly we are not so sure. Millions of us buy books suggesting that men are more like some beings from outer space we haven’t met yet – “Martians” – than they are like women, who are also likened to creatures from another planet, or “Venusians”.

And to the extent that we operate – usually unconsciously – in our socially defined roles of ‘men’ and ‘women’, they are different. Men tend to be more competitive, more concerned with rights, and take action based on highest priorities; while women tend to be more concerned with relationship, share information to empower people, and want to consider the overall context of a situation before taking action. We operate according to these gender roles not just because we are male or female – although research suggests genetics may have some influence – but because that is what we have learned to do since childhood. As a result, male and female humans have to constantly determine how best to work together as equals in systems and structures created primarily for people of one or the other gender. If you are one of those who think it doesn’t really matter what gender you are, ask yourself this: what is the first question anyone on the plant earth asks when a child is born?*

Does gender matter at work?

In the workplace, one thing is clear. Gender did make a difference in the past. One look at who is leading most major corporations today will tell you we come from a culture that held leadership up as a man’s job. But with women today starting businesses at three times the rate of men, and small businesses providing more jobs than all businesses providing more jobs than all Fortune 100 companies combined, that situation may soon be reversed.

To ensure your company can attract and retain the skilled workforce needed in this global economy, being gender-friendly is essential. Employees need “straight A’s” – Assumptions, Attitudes and Actions – that are in alignment on the gender issue. Start getting your workplace in alignment by having people examine their assumptions about gender, because if assumptions are out of whack, attitudes and actions follow that are also problematic.

Some traditional assumptions are out-of-date, and can create attitudes and actions that are out of alignment. For example:

· Women get married, have babies and quit (assumption);

· Therefore they aren’t as committed to their work (attitude);

· So I won’t promote them (action).

Now, we all know that most women go back to work after childbirth: it takes two full time incomes to maintain the standard of living that one income supported just a generation ago. However, if you look around for evidence that women have babies and quit, you’ll find it – a few do choose to stay home and raise a family rather than work at a paying job. Another assumption – ‘men just don’t listen!’ – is an example of another typical gender miscommunication.

We grew up in a world where many assumptions were true for the most part, and we still see ‘evidence’ that parts of them remain true today. But working from assumptions gets in the way of treating each individual we meet with full respect. To keep talent in today’s skills driven economy, we need work environments where people – men and women — are treated with respect.

What is respect?

We have raised the bar on respect in the workplace. From the dictionary, respect means: to esteem, to honour, to relate to, to refer to.

We can look at this definition as a hierarchy. At the most basic level, to refer to people with respect is now required by law, even if there are some differences you personally have difficulty with (for example, some people are challenged by different sexual orientation). At the next level, it is not necessary to be able to relate to people with respect. Gone are the days where you could just agree to disagree. In a global economy of teamwork and constant change, we must relate effectively to each other to produce the best products and services. Most importantly, wouldn’t it be great to come to work every day and feel honoured and esteemed as a person? Respecting our individual differences is the first place to start to create a better workplace for everyone.

Are males and females really that different? No, but vive la difference! Are women and men really that different? In most of today’s workplaces, the answer is a resounding yes. And building our mutual respect – discovering what it means to be men and women – is a journey, one we must take together.

*Is it a boy or a girl?*

Maureen Geddes, President of CANGRAM International Inc. (519) 354-4260, is a consultant/keynote speaker/facilitator and presented Gender Bender: Transforming the Workplace at the two day Workplace Diversity Update/CIBC Diversity Management Forum on January 18/19, 1999 at the Toronto Hilton Hotel.

Credit: Workplace Diversity Update: November 1998, p. 5

Author: Maureen Geddes

Originally Published: November, 1998