Why Men and Women Still Can’t Get Along at Work

The Fiscal Times

Millions of working people today are stuck, failing, or quitting their jobs not because they lack ability or ambition – “but because they haven’t figured out how to work effectively with the opposite gender.”

If that sounds like exaggeration or hyperbole, guess again. It’s from the recently published book, Work with Me: Blind Spots Between Men and Women in Business, by Barbara Annis and John Gray, PhD, two experts who have been addressing workplace gender issues for decades and have drawn on thousands of interviews with male and female executives at more than 60 Fortune 500 companies.   

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Annis and Gray – she’s chair of the Women’s Leadership Board at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government; he trains executive coaches and wrote the bestselling Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus – also say:  

Women are not as content in today’s workplace as men are. From the boardroom to the conference room to the call center, women feel … dismissed for their ideas and excluded from events and opportunities for advancement. Women often sense they have to work harder than men do just to prove themselves, and they feel doubted for their competence and commitment.

Men, on the other hand, are generally comfortable with the rules of engagement in today’s corporate culture. They’re not aware of how their behavior affects women, nor do they feel they’re acting intentionally against women. They just assume women are prepared to engage in work as men typically do – whether the work involves prioritizing issues, solving problems, participating on teams, leading others, or making decisions.

Among the questions raised by this: Aren’t these problems so “yesterday”? Why do conflicts between the genders continue to plague the workplace when men and women have long been working together and ought to be more evolved by now – and focused on the work at hand, not who does it?   

Simple: “Men and women operate differently,” says Nicole Williams, a career expert at LinkedIn. “They have different experiences and opinions – which I don’t think is a bad thing.”

Williams argues that “what is negative is that there are different expectations and rules for conduct. Double standards are still prevalent and both men and women are pushing against them.” Those double standards, of course, include pay: A Census Bureau report in September found that in 2011, women earned 77 cents for every $1 men earned, although that figure has been disputed, as it's based in part on educational differences and pay totals were not measured apples to apples. Still, a gap remains, and as younger women in the workforce push back against it that gap may close.    

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Nicole Williams, a working mother, believes that one of the most contentious issues between men and women at work is childcare. “Double standards are rampant and expectations around flexibility, who is responsible for what, and what it means to be a working parent looks different for men and women.” She notes it’s something men and women deal with “both at work and at home.”

To create more productive relationships, “men and women need to stop trying to make each other into identical, interchangeable, unitard-wearing clones from some dubious science fiction film,” says executive coach Michele Woodward, who advises clients in the Washington, D.C., metro area.

Instead, it’s high time to “start appreciating both genders for what they bring to the table. Some women think more like the ‘typical’ man and some men think more like the ‘typical’ woman – but conflict comes when we square off and fight to win our position, or demonize an alternative perspective rather than listening to see where the other person might be right.”

The recent elevation of Mary Barra of GM to the CEO position brought the issue of gender and leadership to the forefront once again. “Whenever a woman takes over the CEO position of a large company in a primarily male dominated industry, it’s going to make news,” says Williams of LinkedIn. “I remember how this came up when Carly Fiorina became CEO of Hewlett Packard and also with Meg Whitman. By and large, it’s a significant event in that women and men get to experience women in a demanding and commanding position.”

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As for why the genders still face conflict in 2013 after decades of working side by side: “Research shows that each gender tends to prioritize different things. Until we can accept differing priorities and come to some agreement on mutual priorities, we will continue to have conflict,” says Woodward.

Strong leadership is required to deal with these conflicts: “A leader can visibly seek out diverging positions and facilitate a safe environment for discussion and debate,” she says. “He or she can welcome input from women and men on the team. Also, if a leader has only one gender among her advisers, she has to change that pretty quickly so she can benefit from the richness that both points of view bring to the table.”

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