Be wary of stereotyping women’s skills in the workplace

Women, so the wisdom goes, are better at expressing themselves, nurturing others and communicating in a professional environment. But attributing competencies to gender can be problematic.

Australia is one of many countries with a women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) problem. The latest figures expose an embarrassing gap where women make up only 16% of people working in the field. The reasons are many – a visit to your average kids’ clothing store or toy aisle reveals a lot, while generations of teachers and parents are guilty of propagating debunked but persistent stereotypes such as boys being better at maths and girls being better at humanities.

Those very same girls who were pressured by societal norms to steer clear of STEM at school grow up to encounter a different set of stereotypes at work, often presented in a positive light: male and female skillsets.

“Women are better at nurturing others.”

“Women are better at relationships than men.”

“Women are better networkers and communicators.”

The problem with attributing a particular skillset to women is that it pushes people (just like at school) towards certain jobs and careers. The danger is that women will aspire to reach only for top jobs which require these skills – such as Head of HR and Head of PR – rather than aspiring to be CEOs, CFOs and CTOs. 

There are two schools of thought when it comes to gender differences at work. The first is that gender – male, female, trans, or however people identify – is absolutely irrelevant to doing your job. The other argument, however, is that women are different to men, with a unique set of strengths that could turn out to be your team’s competitive advantage – but it’s important to separate the evidence from the stereotypes.

Argument 1: Gender is irrelevant

With the exception of some physical tasks where male strength is an advantage, a person’s gender should never be a factor when considering the right person for a task or role. To put it bluntly, subscribers to this argument believe that what someone has (or doesn’t have) under their office attire will not make one iota of difference to their ability to do their job.

Instead, candidates should be judged on their skills and competencies, experience, cultural fit, and more – in short, the attributes that hiring managers look for in an ideal candidate are equally likely to be found in men and women.

A glance around any workplace will reveal plenty of exceptions to gender-based skills stereotypes. Empathetic men and confident women abound, suggesting that attributes are the product of an individual’s professional and personal background, not their gender. 

Argument 2: Gender matters

Gender-based attributes are often presented – and accepted – without evidence to back them up. Be wary of HR and recruitment bloggers who blithely list male or female advantages in specific areas without reference to research.

There are, however, some key studies that have found evidence for the following advantages.

Carol Kinsey Goman’s research into the science of body language at work found that women display more “warm” communication styles, such as empathy, likeability and caring, while men display “authoritative” communication traits including power, credibility and status. Goman found that women have an advantage when it comes to reading body language and picking up nonverbal communication cues. 

Korn Ferry’s Emotional and Social Competency Inventory Study (2016) found that women:

  • are 86% more likely than men to be emotionally self-aware

  • are 45% more likely than men to be seen as demonstrating empathy consistently

  • outperform men in coaching, mentoring, influence, inspirational leadership, conflict management, organisational awareness, adaptability and teamwork.

  • have a slightly higher (9% more) positive outlook than men.

Also by Korn Ferry, the CEO Pipeline Project (2017) found that women are more than twice as likely to have high scores on the following six competencies then their male equivalents:

  • engaging and inspiring

  • developing talent

  • building effective teams

  • directing work

  • courage

  • managing ambiguity.

A Canadian study by Caliper titled The Qualities That Distinguish Women Leaders found that women leaders:

  • are more persuasive than their male counterparts

  • are better from learning from adversity and carrying on

  • have an inclusive, team-building leadership style when problem-solving and decision-making.

In summary, evidence does exist to support the idea that women have the advantage across a range of areas – and, by implication, a disadvantage in attributes where men dominate. But highlighting and celebrating these differences can be seen as an exercise in labelling and propagating existing gender stereotypes which – as we learnt from the gender gap in STEM – only serve to make the talent pipeline poorer.

Talk to Six Degrees Executive to learn more about gender diversity and talent.