Mars and Venus in the Workplace: Gender Differences at Work

by Stoffer, Janet Friday, February 09, 2007
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Effective Communication – it’s tough to succeed in the workplace without it. But different people have different styles…

Susan is a manager at a mid-sized manufacturing facility. One day, John, her boss, dropped by to visit her and witnessed the following exchange. Susan was talking to Lisa, one of her direct reports.

“Do you think you could finish this report by Friday morning? I’d certainly appreciate it. And also, do you suppose you could give the customer a call and double check those figures so that we are sure the project is handled correctly?”

Being a good manager himself, John assumed this was a case of an insecure manager. Susan seemed to be forgetting that she was the boss. Obviously, Susan was not comfortable with authority, as demonstrated by her hesitancy to give her employee direct orders. He felt she needed a little management coaching and perhaps a pep talk to bolster her confidence.

What he failed to realize was that Susan was acting very correctly given her cultural background. While both John and Susan were white, Midwestern and middle-aged, they were from very different cultural backgrounds.

John is a man and Susan is a woman.

In our increasingly diverse workplace, we are becoming more aware of cultural differences, but we often forget that each gender has a unique culture of its own. During the late 1960s and 70s, we believed that gender differences were completely the result of environment. We noticed that boys and girls were treated differently almost from day one. But, as time went on, we began to recognize that there were inherent differences; that a combination of genetics and behavioral factors combined to create some general patterns that are very different for men and women. Men and women may not really come from different planets, but in a real down-to-earth way, they have very different cultures.

The primary difference between men and women is that men tend to be independent and women tend to be interdependent. Women grow up with a social structure that is inclusive and nonhierarchical. Little girls like to play house or dolls. These are noncompetitive games where everyone has equal power, gets equal turns and tends to protect feelings. If one little girl starts to take the lead, she is accused of being “bossy.” Little boys, on the other hand, are status seekers. In a group of boys, a leader will often emerge and he will be the high status boy around whom everything flows. He sets the rules, picks the teams, and tells others what to do. A high degree of competitiveness accompanies this hierarchy. Games have winners and losers.

Girls are usually the first to have boy-girl parties. Because they are interdependent, they want everyone to be on equal footing. The boys, on the other hand, are likely to be the ones who build a treehouse and then put out a sign that reads “No girls allowed!” When mom makes them play with the girls, they are resentful and sullen. The girls are delighted and jump right into the middle of things. They want to be a contributing part of the group. But, when the girls try to suggest activities or want to make additions to the treehouse, they are not respecting the hierarchy the boys have established, and the grumbling continues.

Now the boys and girls have grown up and they are working together in the same organization. The rules of the playground still apply, and apply to each group uniquely. But we often fail to recognize this.

When John observed Susan, his cultural background told him that she was not acting like the boss. She needed to establish her authority, make the rules and give the orders. He did not realize that Susan was behaving very appropriately for her culture. In dealing with Lisa, Susan had determined that the best approach was the inclusive, nonhierarchical female pattern. Susan could certainly enforce rules when she had to, but she had found that with Lisa, a more social approach yielded higher productivity. With some of her male employees, Susan used a more direct style.

While Lisa responded well to this approach, it is wise to remember that these are general patterns, and not universal traits. Most men and women are a combination of male and female patterns. Our backgrounds, experiences, personality styles, our job demands and environment all help to determine to what degree we exhibit patterns that are typical to our gender. A good manager will look at each employee as an individual and then determine the most productive way to work together.

It is important to realize that neither cultural style is right. As we become aware of differences in behavior, we can begin to adapt our style and help to minimize misunderstandings in the workplace.