But what do we need to change? Are we looking through the wrong lens for a solution?
Through the media today, in blogs, emails, video clips and interviews, the general rhetoric will be based on calls for gender diversity. This rhetoric is underpinned by the widely-held assumption that there are profound differences between men and women: men are tough and females are tender, males are competitive and females are co-operative, males are stoic and females are emotional, males are mathematical and females are verbal (1). We assume that men and women differ significantly in terms of their abilities, personalities, attitudes, behaviours and preferences. Much activity and work on gender in business is based on this assumption.
Of course, this isn’t surprising. Men and women look different for a start. If they differ physiologically, there is logic in assuming they also differ psychologically. And our gender is also one of the simplest ways that we learn to categorise people, along with other typings such as age or race. It’s easy to create the viewpoint that men and women are different, and then use this to guide how we interpret how we work with, select, lead and develop both genders.
On the other hand, behavioural science has been testing this assumption for the last 10 years. Researchers have used a complex process looking across nearly 400 potential differences between men and women (2). They have concluded that there is significant evidence to support the notion that genders are far more similar psychologically than most people assume.
On International Women’s Day, this should challenge our thinking, even as we take action, galvanised by the hashtag of #BeBoldForChange. For example, research tells us that men and women are similar in terms of mathematical and numeric capability, leadership effectiveness and self-esteem (3). Does your organisation assume that these are capabilities where men excel over women, and where women need to learn from men?
Similarly, we assume that women are more likely to be less aggressive in relationships, have more tentative speech and better verbal skills than a man. Yet again research tells us that the difference between men and women is small or even trivial in these areas.
So how can we respond and #BeBoldForChange today?
1. The first question to ask is “What assumptions about gender underpin our approach to diversity in this organisation? Are they true? Who holds them? What evidence do I need to be able to challenge them? How can I do this?
2. Where there are some real differences, what is the source of these? What social signals do we use in our organisation that might reinforce different behaviours abilities and preferences e.g. do we reward women and men similarly for the same abilities? What behaviours do we value in the role models we use to portray successful leaders? What roles do we ask men and women to do in the business? Do we have hidden assumptions about men and women’s preferred jobs and interests?
3. Finally, walk the talk and #BeBoldForChange yourself. Tell people that men and women are far more similar than they are different in terms of their psychological ability. Challenge yourself, whether you are a man or woman, to develop your own self-view and those domains that you reserved for people of the other gender. When you do #BeBoldForChange you might just surprise yourself and those around you?
1 Zell, E., Krizan, Z., & Teeter, S. R. (2015). Evaluating gender similarities and differences using metasynthesis. American Psychologist, 70(1), 10-20.
2 Hyde, J. S. (2005). The gender similarities hypothesis. American Pyschologist, 60, 581-592.
3 Hyde, J. S. (2014). Gender similarities and difference. Annual Review of Psychology, 65, 373-98.