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Understanding Gender Differences at Work

Understanding Gender Differences at Work

By Kathleen Brady

NEWSFLASH: men and women are NOT the same. They are no better or worse than each other. Just different. And, “different from” is NOT the same thing as “less than.”

In fact, science tells us that male and female brains are different. Studies indicate that men’s brains are 10% larger than women’s brains. But before you accept that as evidence of male superiority, the same science suggests that men only use half their brains at a time. Women have a larger corpus callosum — the area at the base of the brain containing nerve endings, which connects both sides, allowing women to incorporate an emotional assessment with stated facts in a way men do not.

Of course the most obvious scientific difference is childbearing. The very notion of “female authority” is shaped by the concept of motherhood. This does not bode well for women in a world where leadership models are based on masculine traits of warriors and athletes.

This science of “sex” influences the cultural norms established for each gender. Think about it: the lives of women were largely controlled by men as recently as 50 years ago. Long barred from access to education or denied the right to vote, women had been socialized over the course of history to believe someone else was responsible for their fate. It is hard to imagine today that as recently as 1965 there were no female Supreme Court Justices or national news anchors or heads of Fortune 500 companies. Women were not allowed to run marathons; married women could not get a loan without her husbands’ permission and elementary school teachers had to leave their jobs if they became pregnant. Until recently, women devoted much of their time to unpaid labor and as a result were unaccustomed to thinking about the dollar value of their work.

Men, on the other hand, have been conditioned to believe that their worth was based on the accumulation of goods, status and power. They learned how to evaluate their worth in the marketplace in a way women have not. Women learned to think about income in terms of “needs” rather than “worth.”

The legacy of that history is significant. Women learned to wait to be asked: whether it was for a date or to marry or to be invited to the pitch meeting. Women were socialized to believe that hard work is enough to get noticed and are more comfortable waiting to be invited to participate or offered something instead of expressing an interest in an opportunity, publicizing their accomplishments or asking for what they want. These differences cause women to appear less competent and self-assured then men in the workplace.

These contrasts can be detected in women:

·       Hesitating to ask. Because women don’t ask for comparable things, they receive less and are satisfied with less. Keep in mind, accepting less implies you have less value. I had a client complain that in a recent office renovation, a male colleague got nicer furniture than she did. When she asked him how he got a fancy desk instead of the modular furniture she received, he said, “I asked for it!”  It never occurred to her to ask for more.

·       Using disclaimers when introducing ideas. Do you start your sentences with “This may not be right…” or “Maybe I am missing something…?” Learn to state your ideas in the strongest possible terms. If someone disagrees, they will let you know! Expect to be challenged and be prepared to defend your position, but why make it easy for anyone to tell you that you are wrong?

·       Presenting instructions as questions. At a recent seminar a participant complained that male members of her staff did not treat her with the same level of respect they showed her male counterparts. She acknowledged that she posed statements as questions but feared she would be labeled “the B word” if she came across as too demanding. “Can you come to my office for a meeting at 3:00?” is NOT the same as “Come to my office at 3:00.” The first sentence appears weak and a staff member may believe the meeting is optional. Keep in mind: tone plays a huge role in helping the listener hear the statement as commanding and powerful rather than as rude and obnoxious.

·       Using double subjects. “I think you need to get me that report by 2:00,” is much less powerful and authoritative than, “You need to get me that report by 2:00.”  Think about who needs to take action and make that person the subject of your sentence.

·       Tagging questions onto statements. When a woman says to a colleague, “That was a very productive meeting; wasn’t it?” most people know the intent is to connect with the listener and invite the person to share an opinion. However, it can also appear as if the speaker is unsure and needs external confirmation. Try, “That was a very productive meeting.” Period. Or, if you don’t want to offer your opinion first, simply ask, “What did you think of the meeting?”

The differences are subtle, but competence is inferred by the way we speak. Women (and men) who employ such speech patterns need to consider the effectiveness of their presentation. Men (and women) must also cleanse the filters through which we hear each other. The reality is professionals who learn how to embrace both masculine and feminine characteristics into their professional persona are likely to be the most successful.

About the Author

Kathleen Brady, CPC is an iPEC-certified career management coach with more than 25 years of experience helping people identify and realize their professional career goals. In GET A JOB! 10 Steps to Career Success (Inkwater Press, 2013) Brady shares her secrets for navigating the job search process from start to finish as well as practical exercises for job seekers at every level. GET A JOB! is available at,, and other online retailers. For more information, visit