Different Yet Equal

We know from experience that men and women work differently. I won’t attempt to distill here the wealth of psychological and social research on the subject, except to say that it’s generally accepted that there are empirical differences in the way men and women communicate, conceptualise things, remember facts and figures, and respond to others’ behaviours. So far so good for those of us who enjoy being part of a diverse team – different complementary strengths combine to make a more effective, capable team.

But its not so simple as you go up the hierarchy and there are fewer people to blend into a balanced team: and at the top, of course, only one. Think for a minute about what words you’d use to describe a successful Chief Exec’, and you may find that most of them are usually thought of as ‘masculine’ attributes. Our mind-model of what a C-level manager is like is shaped by our past experience of these roles being filled mostly by men. Contrast this with your list of those attributes you’d most like in your manager (or senior management team) and you’ll probably see a broader range of masculine and feminine characteristics.

Pop Quiz
1. List 10 characteristics of a successful CEO
2. List 10 attributes you’d like your manager to have

After decades of progress in promoting more women to more senior positions, this gap still persists – why? In part because it takes a long time to change deeply embedded beliefs. And, because we still don’t have enough women at the top to challenge the stereotypes we’ve learned over decades. And, the women who were first successful in breaking through the glass ceiling, were often those with easily identifiable ‘masculine’ characteristics that fit easily with our mental model of what a CEO should be like.

I started my career in a traditional, technical, local government department, completely surrounded by men. The first Management Team meetings I took part in were opened by “Good morning gentlemen, and Kate”! (Way to make you feel accepted!), but thankfully over the years I’ve worked with Management Teams that have included, and been led by, some great women. Still, I don’t think we have yet achieved the perfect balance of Ying and Yang – there’s a hard-to-define tension created by the way men and women behave together. Yes, it’s sexual (though not usually actively) because of long-established norms and expectations about dominance, attractiveness, competition, eloquence, power, respect and deference.

I have hope though – during a senior management meeting on a recent interim assignment, I suddenly realised that I couldn’t sense any of the usual tensions and I hadn’t observed any of the resulting behaviours. The men were relaxed, thoughtful and listening; the women were confident, decisive and engaged. A productive and enjoyable meeting in its own right, but also because I was encouraged by evidence that equality in the workplace may just be possible after all!

The year was 2081 and everyone was finally equal – Kurt Vonnegut


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