Gender Differences in Workplace Communication

Vic Napier

 

There has been a lot written about gender differences in communication as well as many other activities, but very little of it seems to be of any lasting meaningful value.  For some reason these tempests are cyclical with a limited lifetime, coming on suddenly but then quietly dying away.

For example, at the beginning of the Clinton presidency we heard a lot about gender inequities in primary education, particularly in the areas of science and math, because of unfair treatment of girls in the classroom.

According to Katherine Hanson, Director of the Women's Educational Equity Act Resource Center (WEEA):

"Through-out their learning, girls are encouraged to be passive, caring, to take no risks and to defer to the male voice."[1]

This might be true.  On the other hand, maybe females are genetically disposed to be passive, caring, and not take risks.  Human history doesn’t provide very many examples of risk taking, aggressive, and uncaring females.  One would think that if men and women were genetically equal in terms of skills and personality there would be roughly equal numbers of aggressive risk taking men and women, but there aren’t. If there were traits were distributed equally female Navy Seals would be commonplace. 

Then again, I know many women who have male characteristics, as well as men with female characteristics.  And no, I’m not talking about homosexuality, either.  There are many heterosexual men who are effeminate, as well as heterosexual women who are, well, masculine. 

A lot of these characteristics are very subtle.  My friend Kevin, for instance, makes a decent living jumping out of airplanes videotaping skydivers in freefall.  When he was in the Army he was a Paratrooper, and served with the legendary 101st Airborne Division during the invasion of Grenada.  He’s a macho kind of guy. 

Well, most of the time. 

In some ways, he is more of a mom to his kids than their mom is.  When his kids were little and scraped their knees or got scared of something they’d run right past their mom and climb up Kevin’s legs.  If you could have seen the way he was with his kids the reason would be obvious.  Kevin was more nurturing, caring and attentive to his kids than a lot of women – including their mother.  That’s not to say she was a bad mother in any way, it’s just that Kevin had maternal traits that overshadowed hers, and their kids responded to it.  He’d cuddle and coo and tickle them, and look entirely natural and appropriate while he was doing it.  Kevin has traits that are unmistakably female, yet he is unmistakably male.  When he’s away from his kids jumping out of airplanes or talking about his war experiences you’d never guess that he can be such a mom, but he is.

It seems to me that we have a culturally necessary myth that male and female are opposites, that each gender is well defined, and that there is no overlap, grey area, or middle ground.  Our gender defines us.  Men are stronger than women, and that's that. Women communicate, men dominate, and that’s the end of the discussion.  

That’s not really true, though.

To show you what I mean, look at the following table.  The word in the left column beneath each gender was collected by asking people to list the attributes of each gender.[2]  The words on the right column are antonyms I found in the American Heritage Dictionary.  If the genders really are opposites of each other we would expect the antonyms to be as descriptive of the opposite gender as the chosen words are of the identified gender.  But they aren’t. 

 

MASCULINE

FEMININE

Chosen Word

If men are…

Unstated Antonym

women must be…

Chosen     Word

If women are…

Unstated Antonym

men must be…

Active

 inactive

Attractive

ugly

Adventurous

cautious

Childlike

adult

Aggressive

complaisant

Compassionate

mean

Assertive

unconfident

Dainty

crude

Athletic

awkward

Defenseless

 powerful

Brave

cowardly

Domestic

wild

Coarse

cultured

Emotional

unemotional

Confident

 pessimistic

Flexible

constant

Courageous

fearful

Fragile

sturdy

Daring

timidity

Frail

 healthy

Decisive

inconclusive

Gentle

 untactful

Firm

soften

Helpless

invulnerable

Forceful

impotent

Intelligent

stupid

Independent

dependant

Intuitive

unperceptive

Intelligent

stupid

Nurturing

starve

Logical

illogical

Passive

passionate

 

 It might serve a useful social purpose to think of men as active and adventurous and women as inactive and cautious, but I know plenty of people of both genders who do not fit those stereotypes.  Some men are timid wimps, and some women are adventurous swashbucklers.  And some of those timid men are adventurous in circumstances where the adventurous women are absolutely panic-stricken.  And vice versa, of course.

Although a myth of diametric opposition and mutual exclusion might help us socialize into gender roles needed to establish and maintain our culture, it doesn’t otherwise stand up to scrutiny.  It might serve a purpose, in other words, but it simply isn’t true.  The truth is most of us are androgynous, whether we like it or not.    

Gender seems to occur along a range or continuum.  Few of us are male or female; we all fall somewhere between the two extremes. 

Consider this:

In the 1980’s there was a controversy regarding gender testing of female Olympic athletes.  A significant number of women – womanly women – weren’t really female according to the tests.  We’re talking genetic testing here, you understand, and feminine females, not the stereotypical truck driving diesel dyke weight lifting Amazon woman.  A number of women were emotionally shattered when they failed their gender test and were not allowed to compete in the Olympics.  They assured the press that they really were women.  They were married, had kids, liked having sex with their husbands.  Contrary to initial speculation this clearly wasn’t a matter of a few steroids or an especially extreme and virulent form of lesbianism.

It turns out that these women – and presumably a significant portion of men and women in the general population – were victims of the myth of gender opposites.  Science had come far enough that it could begin measuring where individuals stand along a continuum of gender.

According to Puffer, [Dr James C. Puffer, of the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Medicine], there are a number of disorders of sexual differentiation where an individual has a [male] genetic make-up but is female for all intents and purposes. 'Each case is very complex,' he says, 'and needs to be handled with the utmost sensitivity because of the issues involved.'
A case in point is the condition called androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS) or testicular feminization, which experts estimate affects about 1 in 500-600 female athletes. Although such individuals are genetically male because they have both an X and a Y chromosome, their tissues cannot respond to androgens and they develop as women.[3]

Here is another interesting fact that challenges the diametric opposition gender myth.  Women’s scores are catching up to men’s in most Olympic sports.  Olympic organizers might one day have to consider combining men’s and women’s events as a way to cut costs.  It just doesn’t make sense to field two competitions in which the competitors are so evenly matched that they turn in the same scores.  We aren’t quite there yet, but the trend is very disconcerting for Olympic organizers.

Here is a graph showing the difference between men’s and women’s winning times in the Olympic 100 Meter Freestyle Swimming event from 1912 to 2000[4]:

The difference in the winning times of men and women in this event has declined from more than 18 seconds to less than six since 1912.  Although men and women are both improving their times, women are improving faster.  And this is happening in almost every Olympic event.  If physical ability defines difference between genders the difference is getting smaller and smaller.

Col. Des Barker, Commanding Officer Tactical Fighter Defense Command, of the South African Air Force eloquently summarizes the point I’ve been trying to make in this paper in his fascinating article on female fighter pilots:

There's a reason that there are so few male midwives (less than two percent). These are not the primary or best-developed characteristics or instincts that most men have. There are always exceptions, though. There are also very few female fighter pilots, that's a job that requires characteristics that, on average, most men possess more than most women. There are a few women fighter pilots, though, that have distinguished themselves in conflict. Very few women want to be fighter pilots, and very few men want to be midwives. That doesn't mean, though, that those very few outliers can't be good at these jobs. Most probably, those female fighter pilots wouldn't make the best midwives, either.[5]

 

Conclusions:

Men and women are more similar than they are different. 

 

There is more absolute variation between individuals than there is average variation between genders.  In practical terms, gender predicts nothing about the skills or abilities of the next person who walks through your door.

 

There is a reason that the studies we see every year “proving” a gender difference cost tens of thousands of dollars and require the efforts of highly skilled scientists to create.  Gender differences are so subtle that it takes this level of time, money and effort to detect and measure them.  Differences between the genders, (beyond the physical ones, anyway), simply are not very obvious. 

 

Communication is hard for everyone.  Concentrate on making sure you have a clear idea of what you want to say before you say it, and let someone else maintain the gender score. 

 

Men aren’t from Mars, women aren’t from Venus.  We’re all from Earth.  Get over it.


References



[1] Panel: "Gender Equity" and Civil Rights, Independent Woman’s Forum, http://www.iwf.org/pubs/exfemina/January2000g.shtml

 

 

[2] Morone, Nicky,  Women and Risk, St Martins Press, New York, New York, 1992.

 

 

[3] Peak Performance Online, “Why The Olympic Sex Test Is Outmoded, Unnecessary And Even Harmful, http://www.pponline.co.uk/encyc/0082.htm

 

[5] Women Pilots In Operational Combat, Col Des Barker, Officer Commanding TFDC, SALUT, August-September, 1999, http://www.mil.za/Magazines/SALUT/3women_pilots_in_operational_comb.htm