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The sexes are saturated with, even defined by, many differences. Stereotypical, evolutionary, biological and social differences, to name a few.
It's no wonder a "gender gap" exists, especially when it comes to communication.
Closing the gap is possible, however, and certainly desirable as more women enter the workforce and move higher within the ranks of their companies.
The benefits of improved communication between men and women at work are numerous. These positive outcomes can include more effective teamwork, better sales results, more satisfied customers, higher job satisfaction, increased harmony and lower stress, and even reduced sexual harassment problems...all consistent with human resource goals.
How do we close the gap? How do we increase the effectiveness of our communication with the opposite sex?
Awareness and understanding
Similar to most diversity issues, the solution lies primarily in awareness and understanding. As a human resource professional, you inherit the position of silent mentor and role model.
Becoming familiar with the many differences between men and women, and understanding that these differences are desirable and arbitrary, not right or wrong, will diminish the majority of communication problems.
Recognizing how our own behavior and language styles differ, thereby triggering misperceptions and misunderstandings by the opposite sex, goes a long way toward improving communication.
Focusing on one specific problem area, this article explores how stereotypes affect our perceptions and judgements of the opposite sex.
Every one of us, to a certain extent, believe some of the old gender stereotypes. Especially if stereotypes are viewed as descriptions of general behavior tendencies. Regardless of the significant progress in diversity issues being made throughout the workforce, stereotypes of some sort will always exist.
The important thing to remember is that the simple presence of stereotypes is not the problem. The problem occurs when stereotypes are used, however subconsciously, to prejudge people's abilities and competence and develop unfair and incorrect expectations.
When that happens, effective communication, along with productive relationships, is jeopardized and thwarted.
When a staff member expresses frustration by crying in the office, do observers quietly doubt her competence on the job? When a TQM consultant interrupts his client several times during a phone call to discuss an upcoming project, is he automatically assumed to be quite rude and insensitive?
If a new training manager brought homemade cookies to the office, would others question her management and decision-making skills? If an outspoken, driven, aggressive sales director mentioned he had two children, would some people wonder, at some level, if he were a good and loving father?
Do this simple exercise!
The following simple yet meaningful exercise will help demonstrate the effect of seemingly innocent stereotypes on judgements of others. It will take only a few minutes, and there are no wrong answers.Very quickly, using your first impression, indicate beside each adjective below which sex the word best describes. Use M for Male, F for Female, and B for Both only if the word immediately brings to mind both men and women. Be honest and record your very first response!
Glancing over your responses, notice the number of M's, F's, and B's. Most people get a good mix of all three. Looking at the list of adjectives, is there any one word that could not describe either sex? If not, then all the M's and F's recorded indicate subconscious (and sometimes not so subconscious) stereotypical beliefs.
Keep in mind that simply believing that some of these descriptions are gender-based is not wrong, nor a "bad" thing to do. Stereotypes, after all, develop from observed behavioral generalities.
For example, probably close to 100% of those completing this exercise indicated Female for the descriptions of emotional and nurturing, and Male for the words aggressive and competitive.
Speaking in general terms, are women usually more emotional than men, at least from what others can see? Of course. Are men usually more outwardly competitive than women? Yes. Again, the stereotypes in of themselves are not the problem.
However, if stereotypes are used to form opinions about other elements of a person's capabilities or behavior, then problems arise. Doing so is not only unfair... it is judgmental and assumptive.
Could it be one person?
Reviewing the list again, could it be describing one person? Could that person be a man or a woman? Most people agree that, yes, the list could be describing a man or a woman.
Actually, the list is describing me, as viewed by my friends and business associates. Of course there were many more adjectives than included here (and of course, I selected mostly good ones to list in the exercise!).
The key point demonstrated by this exercise is this: just because a woman may be emotional, too sensitive in certain situations, nurturing, and a good cook, does not preclude her from also being decisive, competent, intelligent, and driven. And just because a man might be decisive, aggressive, logical, and independent does not mean that he is not also nurturing, sensitive, gentle in certain situations, and a good cook.
An employee may express emotion differently than her manager does, and that's fine. Her emotion does not necessarily translate to poor management abilities.
The sales director certainly seems like a focused, driven, aggressive man. But chances are that he turns those hard-charging sales qualities off when he goes home to be with his children.
Stereotypes are just that...stereotypes.
They are not necessarily good job performance indicators nor accurate descriptors of someone's complete personality. During communication, before responding to another's "stereotypical" behavior or comments, evaluating all the clues available offers several benefits.
Searching for more of the whole picture will enhance communication to be more objective, meaningful, and productive.
© 2000 Jane Sanders, Empowerment Enterprises
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