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Gender Matters: Challenges of Cross-Gender Communication in the Workplace

by Kathleen Brady

February 2006

Conversations revolving around gender differences are often difficult because they are filled with stereotypical examples, conflicting personal experiences and defensive reactions. When people engaged in cross-gender conversations disagree with a stated assertion, the speaker is dismissed as "wrong" and people simply stop listening. Sadly, that type of exchange prohibits opportunities to learn and to discover more about individuals of both genders.

To improve cross-gender communication in the workplace, it is imperative to reframe our thinking from an "either/or" model to "either/and" model. It is possible for two seemingly conflicting world views to coexist. It is unfair to assume because YOU have not experienced any difficulty communicating with the opposite gender that such difficulties do not exist. Both realities can be true simultaneously.

Recognize that gender differences are NOT about sex. Sex is a physiological state of being based on physical characteristics. Gender, on the other hand, is a social construct purported to serve societal goals. Sex simply establishes the expectations for culturally acceptable gender behaviors. It begins from the moment a baby is born. The very first question asked is always, "is it a girl or boy?" The baby is subsequently wrapped in either a blue or pink blanket and the journey begins.

Because biology establishes the norms of behavior, it makes sense to explore the science behind gender differences to gain insight and perspectives.

Science tells us that male and female brains function differently. For example, studies indicate that men's brains are 10 percent larger than women's brains. But before you accept that as evidence of male superiority; be aware that the same science suggests that men only use half their brains at a time. When men perform a specific task, brain activity is only registered in the side of the brain where that function resides. That, the scientists tell us, enables men to be better at abstract reasoning and to possess stronger navigational abilities and motor skills. Women, on the other hand, have a larger Corpus Callosum-the area at the base of the brain containing nerve endings which connects both sides of the brain. This causes brain activity to occur on both sides of the brain simultaneously, allowing women to incorporate an emotion assessment with stated facts in a way men do not. This is how the notion of women's intuition evolved.

It is important to note that the science is controversial. This is because the results can only be claimed when looking at large groups of men and women. In a one on one comparison, the differences do not emerge. There is no established "scientific consensus" regarding gender differences although anecdotal support is widely confirmed. Also, this notion that physiological differences are relevant to explaining our ways of thinking, feeling, and the social roles we have historically played, does not mean that those roles continue to be desirable or adaptive under the present circumstances. Some of these roles are based on false beliefs about the nature and scope of the biological differences between the genders; e.g., the view that women are not capable of leading because they are too emotional, or that hold men cannot be nurturers. The "facts" continue to be subject to revisions, reinterpretations and criticisms.

With so much conflicting information and inconsistent experiences, it is not surprising that gender communications are muddled.

Perhaps the most profound biological difference is the impact childbearing has on women in the workplace. The world of work has developed in a linear fashion and is not designed to accommodate a women's biology. While practical adjustments can be made and policies can be developed to accommodate this reality, the significant impact of this is that the very notion of "female authority" is shaped by the concept of motherhood. This does not bode well in a world where leadership models are based on masculine traits of warriors and athletes.

Science, for better or worse, has led to the creation of gender stereotypes. Stereotypes are not inherently "wrong"-it is how we choose to respond to them which create tensions in the workplace. Stereotypes can be useful if they serve as hypothesis which are tested and challenged before becoming established filters through which we view the world. While the scientific community continues to debate the merits of various studies, the casual observer can at least acknowledge that differences in approach between genders do exist. By exploring these differences nondefensively and in context, we can deconstruct and challenge some commonly held stereotypes about gender roles in the workplace and ultimately improve our ability to communicate across gender lines more effectively.

Stereotypes lead to the establishment of cultural norms, or a system of shared meanings based on collective life experiences. Cultural norms can be altered but such changes usually occur at a glacial pace. Many of the norms we see in today's workplace have their roots on the playground. Think back to your own childhood. Boys were "rewarded" when they competed, challenged and won. Girls were "praised" and "rewarded" when they acquiesced, accommodated and compromised. Girls got better results phrasing ideas as suggestions rather than orders, while boys stated opinions in the strongest possible terms and waited to be challenged. You rarely heard a little boy on the playground being told, "don't be so bossy!" Boys learned early on to use conversation to inform or instruct while girls learned to use conversation to interact and connect.

Over the course of history these cultural norms have designated specific behaviors as "masculine" or "feminine" despite the fact that both sexes may display the behavior. People typically approach new situations by measuring them against past experiences. As we mature from boys and girls to men and women and move from the playground to the workplace the established cultural norms create a unique problem for women. Because the world of work was established by men, the "acceptable" behaviors are disproportionately masculine.

Over the course of history, women developed behaviors and speaking styles less likely to be recognized and therefore, appear less competent and self-assured then men in the workplace. For example, women often pose statements as questions. "Could you come to my office for a meeting at 3:00 p.m.?" when they mean, "Come to my office at 3:00 p.m." Women also use disclaimers more frequently when introducing ideas. "This may not be right…" or "maybe I am missing something…" Men just state the idea and believe if they are wrong, they will be challenged. Women also tag questions onto statements, which makes them sound unsure-- "That was a very productive meeting, wasn't it?"-- when they simply meant to connect with the listener.

The differences are subtle; the evidence circumstantial, but competence is inferred by the way we speak about what we know.

Men can display natural, masculine traits and be accepted in the workplace. Women, on the other hand must operate within a smaller band of acceptable behaviors considered to be both appropriate for the workplace and feminine. This is evidenced by the words we use to describe similar behavior in different genders. A male colleague may be described as "assertive, communicative and passionate" while a female colleague displaying the same behaviors might be described as "aggressive, nagging and emotional."

When women first entered the workforce, they adjusted to fit the roles. They integrated masculine traits into their work personas in order be successful. Now, women want to adjust the roles to recognize the value of feminine traits in the workplace. The goal is to more evenly distribute the black "business traits" circle over the "feminine traits" pink and "masculine traits" blue circles. This requires a shift the cultural norms in the workplace. The current static in cross-gender communications exists because while the cultural norms are shifting, there is no definitive agreement about how to behave. Therefore, both genders continue to be "punished" for not living within the "cultural norms" as defined by the power structure in which they live.

The key, of course, is to understand the power structure in which you live. For example, in a masculine dominated culture, a woman who chooses to leave the workforce to raise children will be applauded (for displaying a feminine trait), though not rewarded (for not abiding by an acceptable business norm). In that same culture, a man who chooses to leave the workforce to raise children will be neither applauded nor rewarded. Men who display feminine qualities in such masculine dominated cultures are often mocked. Where a woman might be described as "nurturing and empathetic," a man might be described as "wimpy and whipped!" Individuals of both genders pay a price when behaviors do not match expectations of the power structure.

In addition to behaviors displayed, communication styles are used to perceive, judge and evaluate us. Language is powerful. For example, consider a negotiation. Model A begins, "What do you think about xyz?" This model begins vague, works inward and invites perspectives. Model B begins, "Here's what we will do." This model begins inside and works out with the expectation being that differing perspectives will be voiced without invitation. Both models can be effective. However, if Model B is the acceptable practice, Model A may be perceived as weak and ineffective.

In order to improve cross-gender communications in the workplace, we need to come at it from both sides. Men and women need to recognize these differences simply as "different from" not "less than." And both men and women must be prepared to discuss expectations candidly, challenge stereotypes in ways that encourage dialogue and alter their own behaviors when necessary to improve communications.

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About the Author

is the founder of Brady & Associates Career Planners, LLC and the author of Navigating Detours on the Road to Success: A Lawyer's Guide to Career Management (Inkwater Press, 2005).