How Women Can Survive and Thrive Among Men
The Science of Success Podcast interview with Joanna Wolfe (Episode 9 at http://scienceofsuccess.libsyn.com/podcast) got me thinking about how women can survive and thrive among men in male-dominated workplaces. On the one hand, the topic of women surviving and thriving in male-dominated workplaces seems so outdated. Shouldn’t we have solved this challenge by now? On the other hand, it turns out that women surviving and thriving in a male-dominated workplace is really a systems challenge. That is, employees collectively and often unintentionally create the conditions that lead to gender bias in the workplace. In addition, like many system challenges, unless you take a systems approach to the system challenge, then the challenge will persist. In researching this blog topic, I found three basic strategies for women to survive and thrive in a male-dominated workplace: a process approach, a behavioral approach, and a systems approach. Read on to learn more about these three approaches.
Employees collectively and often unintentionally create the conditions that lead to gender bias in the workplace.
The process approach comes from the research of Dr. Joanna Wolfe, Professor and Director of the Global Communication Center at Carnegie Mellon University and author of Team Writing: A Guide to Working in Groups. In describing her research, Dr. Wolfe acknowledges that there is gender bias when it comes to communication style. Dr. Wolfe spoke about both non-verbal gender bias and verbal gender bias in the podcast interview referenced above. For non-verbal gender bias, Dr. Wolfe explained how college students laugh when she asks them to comment on a picture of a man sitting in a closed position with legs crossed and hands folded in his lap. The students also laugh when Dr. Wolfe asks them to comment on her when she sits in a very open position with legs and arms spread wide. The students laugh because the examples are not the expected behavior or the norm for how a man or a woman sits in a chair. Dr. Wolfe further explains that social norms are also reflected in communication style. For example, we expect men to be aggressive in their communication style because it is socially acceptable for men to be competitive and confident or driven by ego. Similarly, we expect women to be less aggressive in their communication style because it is socially acceptable for women to be relational and deferential in communication. I remember how scandalous an event it was when a female research manager made a loud, exasperated noise during a town hall meeting, marched loudly to the conference room door, and slammed it behind her in response to a comment she disagreed with made by a male colleague. The female manager never did get another promotion despite irrefutable impressive business results and eventually left the organization.
Through research directed at uncovering tacit knowledge about how female engineers navigate a male-dominated workplace, Dr. Wolfe discovered the process approach. Specifically, when women are feeling left out or not listened to, they turn to a structured process such as brainstorming to make sure everyone has input. I offer a note of caution here with respect to the process approach based on my 25 years as a female technical professional in the male-dominated chemicals industry. A woman who steps into the role of facilitating a process approach will not be seen as leadership material in a male-dominated profession or workplace even though this is a valuable role. It is much more powerful for the woman to stay in the role of participant and seek out a third party to facilitate the structured process. This is most easily done by hiring a professional facilitator so that men and women can engage as intellectual equals. The structured process managed by a professional facilitator serves to neutralize the impact of gender-based behavior. For example, a professional facilitator discourages and manages both aggressive and deferential behavior so that input from all is possible.
The structured process managed by a professional facilitator serves to neutralize the impact of gender-based behavior.
The behavioral approach comes from the research of Dr. Dawna Markova as described in her book Collaborative Intelligence: Thinking with People Who Think Differently (see http://www.cqthebook.com/). In the book, co-authors Dr. Markova and Angie McArthur describe an approach to collaboration and influence using what they call thinking talents. Thinking talents are the types of thinking that increase our mental energy and come most naturally to us. Markova and McArthur list 35 different thinking talents in the book and arrange these thinking talents into the four “cognitive styles” of analytical, procedural, relational, and innovative. According to my thinking talents, I tend towards the cognitive style of innovative. If I want to get someone excited about an idea I have for business strategy, then I first need to use questions to assess the primary cognitive style of the person I am trying to influence. Let’s say the person tends towards the cognitive style of procedural. In that case, I would get their input on the current challenges they see with reliability and getting to action which are some of the thinking talents associated with the procedural cognitive style. Next I would incorporate their input into my idea for business strategy. Before we know it, we are collaborating with interest and energy and creating something new that neither of us could have accomplished on our own. Had I enthusiastically presented my idea before exploring the cognitive style of the person I was trying to influence, then that person likely would have labeled me as “crystal-ball gazing” and “pie in the sky” and not given my idea any serious thought. By first getting the other person thinking about the things they have energy about, and then, incorporating their perspective into your perspective, this is a surefire recipe for innovation when two people have different cognitive styles.
By first getting the other person thinking about the things they have energy about, and then, incorporating their perspective into your perspective, this is a surefire recipe for innovation when two people have different cognitive styles.
Finally, I discovered the systems approach through a blog post by Kate Heddleston, a Communication/Human Computer Interaction major who also mastered in Computer Science at Stanford University. Heddleston writes about social norms and gendered expectations in the workplace (see https://kateheddleston.com/blog/social-norms-and-gendered-expectations) and references a study by Dr. Clifford Nass. Dr. Nass studied the impact of gender voice on computer modules teaching two subjects: love and relationships and physics. Dr. Nass found that the voice was more credible when the gender of the voice matched our gender expectation for the subject (i.e., female for love and relationships and male for physics). Heddleston goes on to cite additional studies that show not only do violations of social norm expectations effect credibility as shown in Dr. Nass’s study, but can result in punitive behavior. Heddleston explains as follows: “When faced with a violation of a social or gender norm, people will exert something called ‘social control’ in an attempt to realign the situation with their own expectations of behavior. Trying to re-align someone’s behavior can involve giving them an angry look, negative comments, less money or promotions, ignoring them, and even excluding them from the group.”
Heddleston cites a McKinsey report that offers a systems approach to address gender bias in the workplace (see http://www.mckinsey.com/unlocking-the-potential-of-women). McKinsey’s integrated or systems approach has five elements. The first element is the visible commitment of top management to achieve diversity goals which reduces the risks faced by women who need to exercise behavior that crosses the line of acceptable social norms in a male-dominated profession or organization. The second element is abolishing the barrier of “sponsorship” which has been a benefit to men but not to women in mentoring relationships by making “sponsorship” a required element of formal mentoring programs for men and women. The third element is making subconscious gender bias conscious through collecting human resource data and implementing processes to achieve diversity goals that are applied at every level of the organization. The fourth element is measuring and monitoring metrics to track progress against diversity goals at every level of the organization. And the fifth and final element is empowering diversity staff to speak up with authority to executives and managers regarding diversity goals.
In conclusion, gender bias is a result of pattern recognition by our brains (see page 113 in Brain Rules by John Medina: pattern matching is one thing that gets our attention). Pattern recognition is as important to our survival as the perception of threat and reproduction. Therefore, we cannot survive without gender roles and gender stereotypes – this is a part of how our brain works to insure our survival. However, we can support each other in becoming more aware of the unintended consequences of gender roles and gender stereotypes. Just like the collective impact of humanity on the earth’s various ecosystems can have unintended consequences, the collective impact of humanity on various social systems (like the creation and filling of career opportunities in a workplace) can have unintended consequences. We need to be willing to learn and understand more about what causes the undesired consequences in social systems and at looking for ways to help avoid the unintended consequences. Systems thinking is challenging, but just like systems thinking will produce the resilient companies of the future from an environmental perspective, it will also produce the resilient companies of the future from a human resources perspective. To get to the root of undesired consequences from gender roles and gender stereotypes, sharpen your systems thinking skills and invest in the tools and techniques that researchers are having success with (for more on the tools used in systems thinking see https://fulcrumconnection.com/blog/system-building-skills-for-those-who-lead/). The process approach from Dr. Joanna Wolfe’s research is the easiest to implement because you can use a third party. The behavioral approach from Dr. Dawna Markova’s research takes work to learn and apply but eliminates the use of a third party. However, mastery of the behavioral approach positions you to influence executives to pursue the needed systems approach.
Systems thinking is challenging, but just like systems thinking will produce the resilient companies of the future from an environmental perspective, it will also produce the resilient companies of the future from a human resources perspective.
Contact Fulcrum Connection LLC if you need support on a systems approach to problem solving (firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-742-9675; ask about our first-time client offer.) Fulcrum Connection LLC provides training, coaching, and professional facilitation services using structured and proven processes and tools to help technical business professionals take novel approaches to problem solving. Fulcrum’s expertise is the people engagement part of technical project management.
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