Gender-alisation

To say I was put off by the pink butterfly that adorned the course outline for the training I attended this morning is something of an understatement, especially as the course in question was focusing on gender awareness and its impact on teams. The trainer was also using the strapline ‘developing female leaders’ which quite frankly led me to question whether I should be there at all. Thankfully I quickly discovered I wasn’t the only male attendee.

The course leader, an American living in the UK who has recently written a book which essentially deals with career success for women working in ‘a man’s world, began the course by asking us all to generalise about what we thought our respective genders did well and what we thought it did badly. There was a tangible level of concern from both male and female participants (who incidentally came from across the University of Cambridge and weren’t just librarians) at being encouraged to generalise, but the purpose was – we were assured – to recognise the ‘grain of truth’ that sits behind the generalised stereotypes. So, as you’d expect, we soon had a list in front of us of declaring that women were more empathic, caring and sociable and men were more decisive, competitive and single-minded. However, as we were a pretty switched-on and PC bunch, we all felt duty-bound to heavily-couch these generalisations and made it clear that we felt that both men and women could be all these things and that it was more about personality surely?  A particular bete-noir of mine was raised by another male attendee: the oft-quoted stereotype that men can’t multi-task. He, like me, believed this was utter nonsense. I’m quite sure I couldn’t do my job if I wasn’t able to multi-task and resent this generalisation. The course leader conceded that yes, men and women have far more in common with each other than they have differences (and that some men can indeed multi-task) but was more interested in the extant differences.

A table was now presented of male and female stereotypical attributes that she postulated derived from the way we were brought up, played sports and behaved at school:

MEN                                   WOMEN
Hierarchy-oriented    Flat structure-oriented
Clear leader                    Happier with even standing (power dead-even rule)
Goal-focused                  Relationship-focused
Accept conflict             Avoid conflict
Single-minded               Multi-tasking

I looked through this list and saw that I could quite happily tick on both columns on some line: yes hierarchy-oriented, a clear leader, goal-focused, accepting of conflict and, on occasion, single-minded, BUT I am also relationship-focused,  avoid conflict if its not necessary (especially if its going to waste my time unduly!) and, as I’ve already said, could represent my country at the multi-tasking Olympics.  This made me question the vailidity of these generalisations again. While on the subject of how I became hierarchy-oriented and all the other male attributes I’d say that it has much more to do with age and experience as a manager and leader than family dynamics during childhood or how I played sports at school!  If my experience of school football was directly relevant then I’d have zero-confidence and be ticking  the female atributes only and I’m not. So where does that leave us? And what does this say about me and the other male attendees most of whom also identified this crossover. Well the course leader believed that we men had learnt to adapt as we had all worked with women over a period of time and moreover that the best managers pick and choose from either the male or female column dependent on the situation. Although I could understand her argument I wasn’t convinced by it. What of nature/nurture? Might I be a good multi-tasker because of my genes?

We were encouraged to continue to generalise and to feel comfortable doing so (something I don’t think we achieved as a group for the duration of the session) as the course leader presented in some detail further examples of differences between men and women. Firstly, that women apologised and thanked more than men in order to get work done and that conversely men more often only apologise if they are clearly in the wrong, or thank someone if they have gone out of their way. Once again I felt like I was a bit of a thorn in the course leader’s side as I volunteered that I thanked and apologised all the time in my day-to-day work and that if I didn’t I would have a very unhappy, unproductive, if not mutinous team. However, once again I was asked just to accept that I could see ‘a grain of truth’ in the stereotype, which I kind of could, but by this time in the training I had kind of decided it was easier to agree with the thesis being forwarded rather than appear to continually thwart it!

What next? Communication in meetings: Men are more likely to repeat and dominate with their ideas, while women are more likely to wait for a turn that never comes; Men make more declarative statements, while women  ask more questions. Although we could  all see some truth in this, I couldn’t agree that it is always thus and felt that personality was again more relevant than gender. Next up was Self-Promotion. Now here I finally felt some resonance, especially with the table she presented:

MEN                                                                      WOMEN
‘Talks up’ self                                                     ‘Talks down’ self
Wait for someone to challenge them      Wait for someone to “raise” them
Use ‘I’ talk                                                           Use ‘we’ talk
Use declarative statements                        Use questions and hedges
Seek recognition                                             Wait for recognition
Point out what they think they know     Point out what they don’t know

I felt that the above was generally true, with the proviso that I use the ‘female traits’ where and when appropriate. This section of the event led on to some discussion around the lack of advancement of women as leaders and the idea that women do not promote or value themselves enough when it comes to going for a promotion/a higher-paid job etc. I have to say that this has been my experience and that many women I have managed have needed considerable encouragement to recognise their worth and ability, and have generally underestimated what they can offer. Furthermore, in librarianship in particular, given the number of women in the profession, there is an imblance when it comes to the ratio of men in senior positions. There is just no arguing with that.

After taking it in turn to nominate areas of discussion that had sparked with us (I chose greater recognition of a specific point, not mentioned anywhere above, that when women are being told a list of positives and negatives about themselves then they are more likely to discount the positives and concentrate on the negatives – apparently evidenced through lots of research) the course was over.  It is actually a two-part course, but I’m understandably loathe to relinquish my holiday in Southwold to attend the sequel.

So what did I learn? Well to be honest, very little, other than the fact that I didn’t much like talking in generalised terms or to make assertions based on supposed gender traits. I may manage a team of all women but I feel that I am experienced enough as a manager to lead them using male- or female- designated traits and moreover to regard them as team members first and female employees second. I’ve always worked with more women than men and probably always will and have no misgivings about this. Occasionally when birthday cake is being dished out and there is cooing over presents I can actively feel the testosterone being leached out of me, but having said that there  is at least one women on my team who doesn’t go in for that either.

In conclusion, concerns about ‘gender-alisation’ aside, I know one thing for sure: I’d much rather not go to a course branded with pink butterflies all over the shop, and I suspect that goes for as many female attendees as it does male!

Andy

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