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Daily RC Article 109

Beyond the Myth: Rethinking Gender in the Workplace

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The conversation about the treatment of women in the workplace has reached a crescendo of late, and senior leaders are increasingly vocal about a commitment to gender parity. That’s all well and good, but there’s an important catch. The discussions, and many of the initiatives, companies have undertaken, too often reflect a faulty belief: that men and women are fundamentally different, by virtue of their genes or their upbringing or both. Of course, there are biological differences. But those are not the differences people are usually talking about. Instead, the rhetoric focuses on the idea that women are inherently unlike men in terms of disposition, attitudes, and behaviours.

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One set of assumed differences is marshalled to explain women’s failure to achieve parity with men: Women negotiate poorly, lack confidence, are too risk-averse, or don’t put in the requisite hours at work because they value family more than their careers. Simultaneously, other assumed differences – that women are more caring, cooperative, or mission-driven – are used as a rationale for companies to invest in women’s success. But whether framed as a barrier or a benefit, these beliefs hold women back. We will not level the playing field so long as the bedrock on which it rests is our conviction about how the sexes are different.

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The reason is simple: Science, by and large, does not actually support these claims. [While] there is wide variation among women and among men, and meta-analyses show that, on average, the genders are far more similar in their inclinations, attitudes, and skills than popular opinion would have us believe. We do see gender differences in various settings, including the workplace – but those differences are not rooted in fixed gender traits. Rather, they stem from organizational structures, company practices, and patterns of interaction that position men and women differently, creating systematically different experiences for them. When facing dissimilar circumstances, people respond differently – not because of their gender but because of their situations.

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Emphasizing gender differences runs the risk of making them seem natural and inevitable. As anecdotes that align with stereotypes are told and retold, without addressing why and when stereotypical behaviours appear, gender differences are exaggerated and take on a determinative quality. Well-meaning but largely ineffectual interventions then focus on “fixing” women or accommodating them rather than on changing the circumstances that gave rise to different behaviours in the first place.

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Take the common belief that women are more committed to family than men are... In a study of Harvard Business School graduates, nearly everyone, regardless of gender, placed a higher value on their families than on their work… What does differ is the treatment mothers and fathers receive when they start a family. Women (but not men) are seen as needing support, whereas men are more likely to get the message that they need to “man up” and not voice stress and fatigue. … Mothers are often expected, indeed encouraged, to ratchet back at work. They are rerouted into less taxing roles and given less “demanding” (read: lower-status, less career-enhancing) clients.

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To sum up, men’s and women’s desires and challenges about work/family balance are remarkably similar… Seriously investigating the context that gives rise to differential patterns in the way men and women experience the workplace – and intervening accordingly – can help companies chart a path to gender parity.

The push for gender equality in workplaces is hindered by a common misconception: that men and women possess fundamentally different traits. While there are assumed differences, scientific evidence suggests otherwise. Variances in workplace experiences arise not from inherent gender traits but from organizational structures and societal expectations. Focusing on these assumed differences risks cementing them as natural, diverting attention from addressing the circumstances shaping distinct behaviors. An exploration of the context driving differential workplace experiences, rather than emphasizing gender disparities, is crucial for achieving true gender parity.
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