Overcoming Gender Undertones in the workplace

A recent New York Times article focusing on the best candidates to replace Ben Bernanke as the chairman of the Federal Reserve, showed that the issue of gender is still very much on the agenda in the workplace. Janet Yellen, is the Fed’s vice chairwoman and an architect of its stimulus campaign. Lawrence Summers, a protégé of the former Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin, is Ms. Yellen’s chief rival for Mr. Bernanke’s job. According to the Co-authored article:

“The choice of a Fed chair is perhaps the single most important economic policy decision that Mr. Obama will make in his second term. Mr. Bernanke’s successor must lead the Fed’s fractious policy-making committee in deciding how much longer and how much harder it should push to stimulate growth and seek to drive down the unemployment rate. Ms. Yellen’s selection would be a vote for continuity: she is an architect of the Fed’s stimulus campaign and shares with Mr. Bernanke a low-key, collaborative style”.

The comments responding to the article proved to be as entertaining as the main showpiece. It certainly divided opinion, and even some complaints. Is it a case of Girls vs Boys? The fact that we are even talking about it comes as no surprise to performance management firm FPMG, which believes overcoming gender differences starts with communication, realizing that men and women have vastly different ways of relating to others…and judiciously using that knowledge.

“The wildly popular book, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, highlighted the differences in how men and women think, with a focus on personal relationships,” says Denise Federer, Ph.D., FPMG founder. “In the business world, the male/female dynamic is also present, and both sexes would do well to modify their behavior in certain circumstances to take into account how their ‘opposite’ will react to it.” 

Federer notes that numerous studies have found women often feel excluded in boardrooms—and men don’t pick up on this at all. She feels that might be because of the drive differences men and women have with regard to conversations, which can be significant.

For men, conversations are:

  •     Negotiations focused on achieving and maintaining the upper hand
  •     Hierarchical, with the goal being to achieve independence 

According to FPMG, men find it difficult—and even impossible—to admit to being wrong, and their drive for independence results in them not wanting to be told what to do.

For women, conversations are:

  •  Negotiations for closeness, where they seek and give confirmation and support
  • Seen as a way to enhance their network of connections 

Federer says the goal for women in most conversations is to reach consensus, so it’s easy to see why problems can ensue when men and women stick to their traditional behavior patterns. Those issues are exacerbated when men use “I,” which they often do instead of “we” or “us,” a practice that makes women feel excluded from conversations or plans. The final nail in the conversation “coffin,” Federer notes, can be differences in content; women speak in details, while men talk about the big picture. Add to that the fact that men cite facts and often express them as absolutes, something that can make them appear patronizing.

To overcome these communication differences in work situations like meetings of boards or teams, FPMG believes acknowledging their existence is a great start, and then it’s important for people to take a look at their own behavior to see if they’re inadvertently sending a message that frustrates, angers, or tends to exclude conversational partners.

“It’s not easy to change behavior patterns that seem to be a function of gender, but it certainly can be done,” Federer says. “The goal should always be to balance the needs that conflict—involvement for women and independence for men—so both feel valued during the communications process.”