How quaintly old-fashioned it looks, the advertising agency depicted in television’s Mad Men, circa 1963, when the men were men and the women were secretaries. But many of the gender conflicts common to the workplace since men and women started to work side by side still exist. And some new ones have been born.
Hardly anyone worries anymore about whether cubicle neighbors should date or whether men should hold the door for female coworkers. But the enduring differences in how men and women communicate still have ramifications that range from hurt feelings to missed promotions and fewer pay raises.
No news here: Men are supposedly blunter and more aggressive and appear self-confident even when they don’t know what they’re talking about. Women are more tentative in voicing their opinions and appear unsure of themselves even when they know very well what they’re talking about. As bosses, men tend to be more authoritarian and women more collaborative. Men don’t give much feedback; women want too much feedback. Men are thought not to ask enough questions; women are thought to ask too many questions. And so forth.
Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University, wrote a book in 1994 about the different ways that men and women communicate in the office. In the almost two decades since her Talking From 9 to 5 was published, Tannen hasn’t seen a lot of changes. If women don’t sound accommodating enough, “they’re seen as too aggressive or too pushy,” and if they come off as too accommodating, “they’re seen as too timid,” she said. “Women are also more inclined to say, ‘I’m sorry that happened,’ which is more likely to be seen as weak. They’re seen as lacking confidence—but that doesn’t mean they are actually lacking confidence.” In other words, women who are indirect aren’t necessarily insecure, but they may be perceived that way.
Despite the many advances—and the surge of female leaders in business and politics around the world—this misperception isn’t going away. A study in 2004 conducted by Melissa Thomas-Hunt of the University of Virginia and Katherine Phillips of Columbia Business School found that women are less likely to be viewed as experts than men are, even when they have the requisite knowledge. In an experiment, 143 undergraduate business students learned about Australian bushfires and then ranked 12 items in order of importance related to surviving one. Then they were randomly assigned to groups of three to five individuals, usually a mix of women and men, to share expertise.
“Men are being told they can’t just boss people around, but have to inspire people.”
Not only were women’s opinions more often disregarded than men’s, the researchers found, but women who had no particular bushfire know-how were viewed more favorably—by men and women alike—than women who knew more, because they tended to agree with the predominant view instead of challenge it. And women tended to evaluate themselves more harshly then men on equivalent performances. “It’s not actual expertise,” the researchers concluded, “but perceived expertise that conveys power and status.”
Communication per se isn’t the problem, according to Linda Carli, who lectures on psychology at Wellesley College and coauthored Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders. Women, she argues, carry a double burden—of proving their competence and also coming across as warm and caring. “But they can’t be too nice or too warm or too competent,” she said.
If so little is changing in workplace dynamics, what’s the answer? Give up and build the cubicle walls higher?
Nope. What’s crucial, experts say, is to bring these differences into the open—not to denigrate but to understand. “Raising awareness,” as Tannen put it, “is the most important thing.” Simply knowing that men tend—tend—to be more authoritative and brusque and that women tend to prefer collaboration and indirection can help both genders work together.
Consider an experiment conducted at Case Western Reserve University in 2008 on the willingness of men and women to forgive another person’s mistakes. Given a scenario in which someone acted wrongly, men generally judged the transgressor more harshly than women did. But when men were asked if they had ever misbehaved similarly, they suddenly became more forgiving. Women, in general, didn’t.
In the workplace, men are twice as likely as women to be rude and uncivil, and they respond more quickly and directly to coworkers’ rudeness, management professors Christine Porath and Christine Pearson concluded in their book, The Cost of Bad Behavior. “But that doesn’t mean women won’t get even,” Porath, who teaches at Georgetown, pointed out. “They tend to respond passive-aggressively, such as withholding needed information, spreading rumors, or the silent treatment. We learn these ways of coping very young on the playground and, sadly, they stick.” Women tend not to confront incivility head-on or to complain to a colleague or boss. Thus, the offender isn’t reprimanded or coached on a change in behavior, Porath said. “This reinforces the inequality.”
Men, indeed, may need to tone things down. But Eve Tahmincioglu, a columnist on careers for MSNBC.com, thinks that women also need to toughen up. “I’m sick of getting e-mails from women managers who take everything so personally,” said Tahmincioglu, the author of From the Sandbox to the Corner Office. “I think it’s keeping women from moving forward. Sometimes a [business] report just sucks, and a guy can take it.… Women stew about it, e-mail about it, tweet about it. They’ve got to get away from that.”
Unimportant, perhaps—even petty. But the way workers present themselves has all sorts of ramifications. Two of the biggest barriers for women in advancing their careers are failure to make their achievements known and to find people who could help their careers, according to a survey conducted last year by Catalyst, a nonprofit group that presses for workplace opportunities for women on three continents. “When women were most proactive in making their achievements visible,” the report states, “they advanced further, were more satisfied with their careers, and had greater compensation growth than women who were less focused on calling attention to their successes.”
Women also need to find sponsors, not just mentors, said Susan Nierenberg, Catalyst’s vice president of global marketing. The difference? A mentor is “someone who talks with you. A sponsor is someone who talks about you, someone who advocates for you. Women are mentored to death and not pro-moted. Men are mentored and sponsored—and promoted.”
Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer at Facebook, is the epitome of the highly successful businesswoman and mother. She has been speaking around the country about her concern that women in the workplace often “leave before they leave.” That is, they start to worry—long before there’s any need—about whether they can simultaneously raise a family and hold a high-powered job.
“Maybe it’s the last year of med school when they say, ‘I’ll take a slightly less interesting specialty because I’m going to want more balance one day,’ ” Sandberg said in a commencement address at Barnard College last spring. “Maybe it’s the fifth year in a law firm when they say, ‘I’m not even sure I should go for partner, because I know I’m going to want kids eventually.’ … And from that moment, they start quietly leaning back.” They don’t pursue promotions or agree to overseas transfers. Her “heartfelt message,” Sandberg said, is “do not lean back—lean in. Put your foot on the gas pedal and keep it there until the day you have made a decision.”
The good news, Wellesley’s Carli said, is that some of the dynamics of gender in the workplace may be changing at last. Women are becoming more competitive and assertive, she said, while “we’re increasingly seeing the importance of social skills and speaking to people in a pleasant voice as effective leadership. Men are being told they can’t just boss people around, but have to inspire people.” And research has shown, she said, that the presence of women at a high level in the workplace correlates with an organization’s financial success.
“Everything is moving in a positive direction,” Carli declared. “It’s just—if you look at the data, it’s incrementally slow.”
The writer pens the ShortCuts column for The New York Times and is the author of Better by Mistake. She’s at twitter.com/atugend.
This article appears in the March 13, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.