It's time to treat women in the workplace like women in the workplace

A new post in the Harvard Business Review has a really good framing of the way to think about the differences between genders in business.

We have, for a long time, endeavoured to treat women in the office like one of the guys. That’s the way to erase the gender gap and give women a level footing at work.

Except — that hasn’t worked.

We’ve been trying it for a long time, and women are still underrepresented in the management ranks.

So what if we tried recognising the differences?

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox writes that women should be managed (and promoted) with their different approaches to the workplace in mind — but that should come from a place of understanding and respect rather than judgment.

Basically, treat women in the office like they are from a different culture:

By the way, I’m not arguing that gender differences are innate. Innateness doesn’t matter for the purposes of this discussion. After all, businesses don’t debate whether the differences between Chinese and American employees are innate. They know that to work with and for the Chinese requires learning their language and culture. Working across genders is similar. Companies and managers, as well as teachers and educators, will need to learn the real and imagined differences between genders — and adapt to them if they want to work with and for both men and women. They urgently need to become “gender bilingual” if they want to tap into today’s talent pool.

That means recognising that women have a tendency to bring more empathy and cooperation to a workplace, generally with a less aggressive style (although not always!).

As Cox notes in her piece, those are qualities usually prized in school, but less so in the workplace. So we have women getting ahead of men when it comes to racking up degrees, but falling behind them in the workplace.

Perhaps it’s time to look at why we prize these qualities in some places in our society and not others, and think about how to make things more equal both in school (for fidgety, aggressive boys) and at work (for quiet, collaborative women).

There’s plenty of research out there that shows that 1) women have different communication and working styles than men, and 2) that doesn’t make them less successful at leading, investing, or managing. It just makes them different.

And it’s time to celebrate that difference.

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