For several decades now, women have fought for equality in the workplace. Men are told to think like a woman and women are told to act like a man. But the advice tends to reinforce stereotypical traits like empathy for women and aggressiveness for men. And while these stereotypes are often exaggerated, research shows gender characteristics do exist and play an influential role in the workplace.
Even though more women have entered the workforce and have risen in the ranks, they haven’t become male clones. Indeed, men and women can be just as different in the professional world as they are in their personal lives. What executives are just beginning to understand is that these differences can be great for business.
Typically, “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,” says Keith Merron a senior associate Barbara Annis & Associates, a consulting firm specializing in gender diversity. “Women more often see a problem holistically and are able to coming up with an understanding of that situation without needing to know what all the parts are. When it comes to problem solving – particularly in business – you need a balance of both perspectives.”
BATTLE OF THE SEXES
Though most experts agree that a balance of gender in the workplace is ideal, studies show that women tend to excel in some areas and men excel in others. While today’s business culture more often associates masculine attributes with success (women still earn 81 percent of what their male counterparts do, according to the Labor Department’s 2010 data), there’s no evidence to suggest that hiring more men will drive a company’s bottom line. According to available research, here are some strengths of each gender in the workplace:
They’re team players. A 2005 study on gender bias by New York research group Catalyst found that women leaders are typically judged as more supportive and rewarding, whereas men are judged better at behaviors such as delegating and managing up. In another 2005 study by Caliper, a professional services consulting company, women demonstrated higher levels of compassion and team-building skills.
They’re persuasive. Women leaders scored significantly higher than male leaders in persuasiveness and assertiveness, according to the Caliper study. They were able to “read situations accurately and take information from all sides,” write the authors. “This willingness to see all sides of a situation enhanced their persuasive ability.”
They like a challenge. A 2009 international study by Accenture found that 70 percent of businesswomen asked their bosses for new challenges at work, compared to less than half of businessmen polled.
They’re honest, hard workers. As women ask for more to do, they are likely to work longer hours than their male counterparts. Polls by career site theFit showed that 54 percent of women worked 9 to 11 hour days compared to 41 percent of men. Women more than men also expressed a willingness to do some work on vacation, and were less likely to spend their sick days “playing hooky, taking a mental health day, suffering from a hangover, or interviewing for another job.”
They’re early adopters of technology. The Accenture study found that men were more likely to be early adopters of technology and tended to rely on technology more than their female counterparts.
They’ll ask for what they want. Men demonstrate strengths in negotiation. In 2003, a study looking at students graduating from Carnegie Melon with master’s degrees and found that the male students attained salaries 7.6 percent higher than their female counterparts, thanks to negotiation. More than half of the male students negotiated higher salaries, while only 7 percent of female students did so. Other research by Accenture shows that only 45 percent of women would be willing to ask for a raise, compared to 61 percent of men.
When in doubt, they’ll ‘wing it’. “Males tend to convey more confidence than women in performance-oriented settings,” writes George Washington University law professor Charles Craver in an essay titled The Impact of Gender on Bargaining Interactions, based on experiences in his classroom. “Even when minimally prepared, men believe they can ‘wing it’ and get through successfully. On the other hand, no matter how thoroughly prepared women are, they tend to feel unprepared.”
They make friends in high places. Men score more promotions than women, and that may be explained by who they mingle with in the office. Among participants of a 2008 Catalyst survey on mentorship, 72 percent of men received promotions by 2010 compared to 65 percent of women. According to a Harvard Business Review paper, Why Men Still Get More Promotions than Women, this is because men are more likely to be mentored by senior executives, whereas women are more likely to have junior-level mentors. This difference is an issue of access. Sociology researchers Lisa Torres and Matt L. Huffman found in a 2002 study that both men and women build social networks comprised of people of the same gender. As upper management still tends to be male dominated, this places men in a better position to receive promotions from their mentors.
A HAPPY MARRIAGE OF GENDERS
Despite the differences research shows, men and women’s professional attributes are not solidly black and white. In fact, research by Stanford’s business school last year found that women who exhibited “masculine traits” such as aggressiveness and confidence and were able to self-monitor, or control, their behavior received 1.5 more promotions than men exhibiting similar qualities. Such results imply that gender diversity isn’t a numbers game. It’s about ability to understand the different strengths individuals bring to the boardroom table.
“A team doesn't have to be 50 percent women and 50 percent for it to be balanced,” says Merron. “But the degree to which the masculine and feminine qualities are represented and are utilized well is the essence of balance.”