April 26, 2018 Practice Points

Understanding Gender Differences to Reduce Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

By Angela A. Turiano

While gender stereotypes can, at times, be off-putting, there is a value in their analysis. Certainly, sweeping statements of distinct gender behavior and preferences tend to be oversimplified, e.g., women are not sports fans, when in reality I am a huge New York Mets fan and my oldest brother would have a hard time naming even one major league baseball player. However, stereotypes exist for a reason. And by understanding the differences, generally speaking, between male and female behaviors, we can work to reduce unconscious bias that exists in the workplace. This was the theme of speaker Cara Hale Alter at the annual meeting of the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium. Alter is the author of The Credibility Code, and the founder and president of SpeechSkills, an award-winning San Francisco-based communication training company, whose clients include Facebook, Ebay, and Google. In a recent Law 360 article by Michele Gorman entitled How to Benefit from Gender Dynamics in Communications, the author discusses Alter’s presentation which focused on “gender-identified patterns and culture clashes caused by differences in style and language,” with an emphasis on common male vs. female approaches to communication.

The focus of Alter’s speech, the article states, was to obtain a better understanding of gender dynamics in communication in order to increase “collaboration, respect and productivity in the workplace.” Alter opined that it is critical to understand that there is not one style of communication and that “[b]eing aware of what works for some people and what doesn’t work for others can be helpful to you.” In the speech, she urged the audience to develop this type of awareness, or what she referred to as “communication customer service.”

Alter’s analysis is this regard, I believe, is spot on. In the present day, instances of blatant discrimination against woman are, thank goodness, far less prevalent. Rather, the discrimination that currently exists is more instinctive. In other words, rather than deliberately discriminate by, for example, specifically choosing only male associates to work on important matters, management, whether male or female, may have developed an unconscious bias that results in male associates working on these cases. Even though the bias might be unintended, the outcome is still the same. This unconscious bias, Alter asserts, is a result of women’s tendencies to behave and communicate in a different manner than men.

The differing behavior and communication styles in the workplace, as referenced in the Law360 article, can be summed up as follows:

  • Men tend to connect through competition, while women thrive in collaborative environments;
  • Men remember positive feedback received while women focus on the negatives of any given critique;
  • Men speak in absolute directives, while women often phrase requests in the form of a question, e.g. “Can you get that report to me by 5 p.m.?” rather than “I’ll expect that report by 5 p.m”;
  • In collaborative situations, women are more likely to share praise, thanks and regrets among the group, while men not only choose not to share such thoughts, but often receive such praise or other commentary without providing any reciprocal feedback.
  • Men seek immediate gratification that can be seen by others, e.g. mowing the lawn or changing a lightbulb, while women are more inclined to maintain order, e.g. making sure laundry is done, folded and put in drawers (Alter refers to this phenomenon as visible vs. invisible competence).

There is no question we should be leery of stereotypes and prejudging individual preferences and styles based on gender. However, Alter’s highlighted gender differences are credible and her suggestion to obtain a better understanding of these differences in order to improve workplace dynamics is quite astute. As referenced above, stereotypes exist for a reason. Indeed, speaking as a woman, there is no question that I thrive in collaborative environments, often preface a suggestion with a “maybe we can” or “it might be a good idea to,” and am not shy to voice praise for a colleague’s contribution or use the words “sorry” and “thank you” in over abundance.

However, of all the gender variants, I believe the one that most affects a woman’s professional development is visible vs. invisible competence. On a personal level, in my house, my contributions tend to be more invisible, such as doing the laundry, organizing our son’s drawers/closets, and cleaning out the produce drawers in the refrigerator, while my husband’s are more visible, like mowing the lawn, painting the bedroom and cleaning out our shed. While all of these chores add value and are necessary for the upkeep of our home, everyone can see a freshly cut lawn, newly painted room and fully organized shed, while not many will notice folded laundry, organized closets with outgrown clothing removed, or a vegetable drawer devoid of any debris. The same analogy can be made for visible vs. invisible contributions in the workplace. For example, one partner can mentor junior associates on a daily basis as issues arise, while another can edit alerts and articles drafted and researched by an associate. While both tasks have added value and contribute to the professional development of associates, the latter task is visible, i.e. the partner will gain recognition for his efforts by becoming a co-author of the written work, with his name, of course, listed first on the publication. Whereas a partner’s efforts to serve as a daily mentor may simply fall under the radar. Basically, men (again, generally speaking) are better at making their individual accomplishments, however big or small, known while women seem content to contribute silently—no matter how big or small their contribution. And by doing so, women often let promotion pass them by.

It is no wonder that, according to Catalyst, a group researching women and work, women constitute only about 5.2 percent of CEOs in S&P 500 companies. See Women CEOs of the S&P 500. New York: Catalyst, February 2, 2018. While women’s lag in leadership roles and gender pay gap are old stories, and ones unfortunately told too many times, they are stories that are important to keep telling—and keep telling until these lags and gaps no longer exist, or at least are significantly reduced. And I agree with Alter that one of the best ways to reduce unconscious bias in the workplace is to be aware of gender differences that affect behavior and recognize contributions made by all genders. I would also note that while the onus should not be on women to change their behavior, being aware of these differences gives women the advantage of identifying situations where they can change their silent contributions to known contributions. It is only in these ways that promotion and/or reward can be doled out in a more equitable fashion and we can finally begin to tell a new story.

Angela A. Turiano is with Bressler, Amery & Ross, PC, New York, NY.


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