Gender at Work

By McCluskey, Karen Curnow | Public Management, May 1997 | Go to article overview

Gender at Work


McCluskey, Karen Curnow, Public Management


John was commonly viewed as overly sensitive to what some in his office considered "women's issues," spending what appeared to be inordinate time during his coffee breaks talking about child rearing and his art and music hobbies. It was no surprise to many of his coworkers that he had been passed over for promotion once again.

Sarah felt frustrated in her new job - having spoken up in meetings, only to have her ideas attributed to her male colleagues, who repeated her positions. Although frustrated, she now understood that she needed to "lie low" if she was going to move ahead.

The Dilemma

Despite the popular debate over gender differences, a degree of awkwardness still predominates in discussions on this topic. How can you bridge the "gender gap" while ensuring an environment respectful of individuals' unique differences? The goal in looking at gender issues is twofold: (1) to raise awareness about the differences that exist and their origins (possibly reducing misperceptions in the process); and (2) to give people approaches and techniques to keep them out of hot water and keep them communicating more effectively when they are interacting with men and women at work.

Supporting this twofold goal is a strong belief that, to increase productivity and effectiveness at work, men and women must understand one another, communicate honestly and respectfully, and manage conflict in a way that maintains the relationship and gets the job done. The goal is to become more productive because we are different. To improve relationships and interactions between men and women, we must acknowledge the differences that do exist, understand how they develop, and discard dogma about what are the "right" roles of women and men. Then, we can replace misperceptions and assumptions with a sensible understanding of the evolving roles of men and women in our culture.

Socialization Strongly Influences Gender Communication

Have we been socialized to behave in the ways we do, or are our behaviors inborn, genetically determined? Many have debated and researched this issue, with contradictory results.

In her 1994 presentation for an Authors' Night at the Freedom Forum, author Judy Mann explains that she interviewed hundreds of women - anthropologists, biologists, brain researchers, psychologists, educators, historians, and theologians - for her research on gender differences in America. While Mann, who wrote The Difference: Growing Up Female in America, admits that there still is a lot that we don't know, there are a few things on which the experts do agree. They know that the biggest difference between males and females is in their reproductive systems, and that boys tend to be taller and to have more upper-body strength than girls. Studies that try to prove other biological or inborn trait differences are less convincing and subject to criticism, according to Mann.

She adds, "Most experts now believe that what happens to boys and girls is a complex interaction between slight biological differences and tremendously powerful social forces that begin to manifest themselves the minute the parents find out whether they are going to have a boy or a girl." In talking about the impact of parenting and societal pressures, Mann draws a distinction between the achievement orientation encouraged in boys and the affiliation orientation encouraged in girls. Mann asserts that "we raise our sons to succeed; we raise our daughters to be happy."

Dr. Patricia Helm, consultant and author of such books as Hardball for Women, Smashing the Glass Ceiling, Learning to Lead, and The Power Dead-Even Rule, agrees that societal pressures have a strong impact on male and female behaviors and perceptions. Heim contends that men and women behave and communicate differently because they are raised in two separate gender cultures. She demonstrates her theory by providing examples from early infancy, when parents hold and play with their girls and boys differently; through school years, during which, studies have shown convincingly, boys get significantly more attention and encouragement for achievement from parents and teachers than do girls; and into adulthood and the workplace, where men and women who do not fit the stereotypical behavior patterns of their "gender culture" risk being negatively labeled and perhaps overlooked for promotions and plum assignments. …

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