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Baggage Part Two: Gender Differences

Last week I wrote about bringing our personal baggage into the work place. Headline: we drag our “issues” into every part of our lives…including work. I want to focus today on some of the gender differences that are common. Disclaimer: yes, I will speak in broad brush strokes and yes, there are exceptions to all these characterizations. I’m speaking of the norm here.

I look forward to the day when the lines between male and female work behaviors blur and everyone is assessed in similar terms. You know, that day when a brash and aggressive male is chastised and told to shape up and a woman is rewarded for being hard nosed and driven. (Hey, I can dream!) Sadly, that day is not here yet and until that levels out men and women will select behaviors that are reinforced in the environment. How does this overlay with the crap that we all bring into the work place…and what are the gender differences?

Here are a few common actions and beliefs that women leaders exhibit.

  • No matter how successful she is a woman will rarely toot her own horn or lord it over others. It’s not polite, it might make someone else feel “less than”, competition is within yourself rather than with others.
  • To disagree with (especially) a boss or peer a woman will preface her remarks with positive statements. “Your idea is great and I agree with this aspect but I think of it this way.” “I don’t mean to step on anyone’s toes but…” “Clearly you are the expert but did you ever think about it this way?”
  • Women leaders sit back and observe first and then calculate when it is best to interject. It’s important to read the room and the mood, to know what the power dynamics are and to wait until all the usual suspects (sic. men) take a breath.
  • A woman believes success is a collective effort. Goals are achieved because she reinforced shared aims and team work. She will congratulate individual contributions within the context of the group win. And she does all this publicly and frequently. “We” is used way more than “me”.
  • If she doesn’t like a colleague a woman will choose avoidance or minimal yet civil contact. She will not get up in his/her face. She will not publicly embarrass the person. But she will speak privately to trusted confidantes about her dislike.

The psychological back story to these types of behavior are classic female socialization. Girls are told to remain humble, be aware of others’ feelings, defer to the emotions and needs of others, if you don’t have something nice to say don’t say anything, speak your mind but do it without hurting anyone, everyone has value so don’t single yourself out from the pack, you may be special but don’t make a big deal out of it. Even with the cultural and parenting changes that have occurred these habits and ideas are still very engrained. Litmus test: After a male colleague has said something ridiculous in a meeting that no one buys and a woman says “that is pure bullshit” what is everyone thinking? Bravo, she said what was on my mind AND omg, I can’t believe she just did that! But if it was a man telling another man that he was full of shit it would be seen as a typical boys-will-be-boys and unremarkable event. The man’s behavior wouldn’t warrant any hallway buzz but the whole building would know in 10 minutes what the woman said.

And here are a few common male behaviors.

  • A man will do and say many things to make it clear to others that he is a success. He needs to make his position in the pecking order clear. He reminds others of his pedigree, his intelligence, his awards…in comparison to less valued credentials.
  • Men speak up often, early and forcefully. This is related to the point above. Content is important to add to a conversation but once that is completed establishing a dominant or persistent position is the goal.
  • When managing others a man will focus primarily on performance results. He will work to respond to the whole person (aspirations, concerns, development needs) but will struggle to synthesize personal issues with outcomes. Results rule.
  • Disagreement and debate is a comfort zone. If there are points of conflict in a discussion a man jumps in without picking his words or tone or thinking about the impact of his remarks on others.
  • If a man doesn’t respect a colleague that person ceases to exist. S/he becomes a non-entity. However, if that person still garners respect from others a man will be publicly and privately hostile in hopes of demonstrating how worthless this person is.

Again, male socialization. Be strong, learn how to fight, win…always, prove you are the best, don’t give unworthy opponents the time of day, assert your ideas and independence, don’t let others push you around, keep your eye on the prize. While women are encouraged to focus on the “softer” side of human dynamics men are trained to drive for results. Of course these are stated in extremes and both men and women care about and demonstrate a mix of these behaviors but that early learning is powerful.

Many of these stereotypes are reinforced in our childhood experiences in our families. Even with enlightened new age parents who broke down many of these gender barriers (that would be me!) successful women still talk about not wanting to be rude or pushy or bitchy or self centered. And men are assigned coaches to develop their people skills. Layer on top of that a difficult childhood where a girl experienced conflict all around her and as an adult has a complicated response to conflict. Or a boy with an absent father who craves male affirmation. Or a successful leader who is the first one in his/her family to achieve such success and is now an outsider in the family.

Again I say, we all shlep this baggage with us to the office and we are looking to heal our wounds or conquer old fears or prove something to our families. And our bosses and co-workers are the lucky recipients of this on-the-job-therapy. So know your stuff and deal with it…preferably outside the office. If you are that woman who is so successful but you don’t carry yourself as if you are…go to a therapist and unearth this shit so you can live out of a confident space. And if you are that man who keeps receiving feedback about being aggressive to the point of hostile, stop defending yourself. You’ve turned into a bully and you need help.

I’m not saying anything here that you don’t already know about yourself. I’m just calling it out as self-defeating behaviors that will impede your success. Deal with your baggage before you hit a wall and hurt yourself.

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