It is unlikely any of us will see workplaces that are completely free of gender bias in the foreseeable future. No matter how well-intentioned an organization may be, there are inescapable gender roles and expectations that are established by our society from the time we are born. We believe, however, that career opportunities for all employees (both women and men) can be drastically improved if everyone – managers, entry-level employees, women, and men – became more attuned to gender communication.
Whether you are a woman or a man, you have undoubtedly felt the presence of gender stereotypes. Often, women are presumed to be “communal,” that is, warm, caring, and gentle. Men, in contrast, are expected to be competitive and authoritative. When men let their “more gentle side” show, they risk being the recipient of a derogatory, gender-biased joke. Likewise, women who defy the communal stereotype can be labeled as “cold,” “cruel,” “mean,” “unlikeable,” or far worse words that need not be repeated here. These biases develop early in life, and are played out on playgrounds across the country.
Fast-forward twenty years from a preschool playground and, unfortunately, you will not find significantly different stereotypes. Women seeking to advance in traditionally male fields face negative and agentic biases. Men face a host of gender biases as well. Our book, Breaking Through Bias, does not specifically address biases that men face but we firmly believe that awareness and adoption of attuned gender communication – by both women and men – is critical to achieving a more gender-neutral workplace. We have also found that the most successful leaders – and their organizations – understand gender biases and find value in employees that can exhibit both communal and agentic characteristics.
We have elaborated previously on the “Goldilocks Dilemma.” Women in the workplace face a unique dilemma: should they maintain the traditionally female, communal role, with the consequences of negative bias, or present a stronger, more authoritative persona, with the consequences of agentic bias.
Because of these biases, women who are nice, pleasant, and supportive are unlikely to be seen as leaders and find it difficult to advance in their careers. They are presumed to be less competent, inferior mentors and managers, and less worthy of advancement.
In contrast, women, who act with strength and authority frequently face an agentic bias, where they are seen as aggressive, abrasive, and bossy, so they are presumed to be socially insensitive, unpleasant, and unlikable. Although a man can be passed over for promotion if he has an overly aggressive personality, agentic bias is most likely to work to the detriment of the woman and the overall organization. As one article recently observed, this double bind – what we call the Goldilocks Dilemma – is faced by Hillary Clinton.
Attuned Gender Communication
Using attuned gender communication allows women and men to improve their potential for career advancement. Studies have found that an employee is more likely to be promoted if she can exhibit communal and agentic characteristics in the right measure at the right times, what we call attuned gender communication. And, perhaps just as importantly, women and men can both benefit from a better understanding of attuned gender communication. Such employees have superior communication skills, improved efficiency and relationships, and they stand an increased chance of advancement.
In a recent study, researchers tracked 132 female and male MBA graduates over an eight-year period. Some of the women in this group were highly self-aware and comfortable behaving communally, agentically, or employing both simultaneously, depending on the impression they wanted to make. Those women with the ability to consciously manage their style received 1.5 times as many promotions as purely agentic men, 1.5 times as many promotions as communal women, 2 times as many promotions as communal men, and 3 times as many promotions as agentic women.
The most successful women understood that their behavior directly affected the impressions other people had of them, they were highly sensitive to the reactions others had to them, they were aware of the effect of their verbal and nonverbal behavior, and they were willing to change their presentation style if the reactions they were getting and the impressions they were making were not the ones they wanted. Given the male-dominated business world these graduates entered, these women understood that career success was directly tied to how others perceived them: their presence, attitudes, posture, body movements, facial expressions, dress, voice patterns, responses, and reactions. They were found to be those best positioned to excel.
The most diverse and successful workplaces, however, should value attuned gender communication from all employees. Men and not just women can benefit when they are conscious of the impressions they communicate to others. While many factors influence when, why, and how an employee will manage her or his communications, two factors are key to doing it successfully. The first is a high degree of self-awareness: awareness of your feelings, reactions, and attitudes, your verbal and nonverbal behavior and the image – impression, sense, feeling – you present about your abilities, credibility, and potential. The second is the capacity to change how you present yourself, including changing your presence, manner, and confidence.
We firmly believe that an organization benefits in many other tangible ways when attuned gender communication is adopted by its employees. Effective leaders understand that employees can better achieve the organization’s goals using attuned gender communication. Organizations that communicate well will operate more effectively, and organizations that retain and promote quality employees, rather than losing them only to have to train new employees, are more efficient. As Crain’s Chicago Business recently noted after surveying more than 1,000 working women, “Two of five women left their jobs in the past five years because they didn’t see career growth or advancement opportunities at their current workplace. That’s a terrible churn rate and, as anyone who runs a business knows, an expensive one.”
Whether you are a woman or a man, attuned gender communication combines agentic and communal behaviors to be seen as competent and confident, while not cold or unpleasantly aggressive. Attuned gender communication does not require a woman to mute her forcefulness or downplay her ambition or competitive instinct. It does, however, require her to recognize that the forceful agentic self-assertion that might work for a man is not going to work for her. Likewise, men who can adopt attuned gender communication and balance their competitive inclinations with an appreciation for communal behavior will find that their relationships among colleagues will improve, as will the success of the organizations for which they work.